Convoys cross Iraq in high-risk missions

More than 2,200 Air Force personnel have undergone Army training to do convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan because the Army's ranks are stretched thin. Senior Airman David Marchuk, based in Illinois, puts air in his tractor-trailer's tire before rolling out o

Residents face higher property tax bills and reduced services as Charleston County grapples with ongoing cuts in state funding and a fall-off in local revenue due to the recession.

Ominously, after three years of budget cutting, county officials warn that the budget picture will be even worse next year, and the year after that.

"We're kind of in a trough, and it looks like things might get worse before they get better," Budget Director Mack Gile said.

At a budget presentation Tuesday evening, it sounded like the county already is doing the governmental equivalent of looking under sofa cushions for change. At one point, council members were told how one department restricted the use of a color copier and spent less on postage to save money.

"We think we're nearing the end of what we can do," Gile said.

The budget proposal, which the County Council Finance Committee recommended for adoption on a 5-3 vote, calls for increasing property tax bills, reducing services and telling county employees -- whose health insurance premiums were increased by $100 a month in the last budget -- that they will go without raises for another year and possibly several more years.

There would, however, be no mandatory furloughs, layoffs or pay cuts.

The proposal still must be approved by the full council.

Several members of the council urged the administration to go through the budget again and look for fund balances that could be spent in order to avoid raising tax bills.

"Any department or fund that has more than two months of revenue in its fund (balance), I would like those to be identified," Councilman Joe McKeown said. "If we're looking at raising taxes on the people who are out there struggling, at least we need to look at this."

Other council members worried about ongoing but largely unspecified cuts in county services. In most cases, those cuts amount to services getting performed less frequently, from paving rural roads to spraying for mosquitoes.

"Take roads and drainage," said Councilman Curtis Inabinett. "We're going to have to do some things in some areas. It seems to me it would make sense to grow the fund balances."

County spending has been declining since the summer of 2008, when the economy went sour. Deep cuts in state funding for local governments have amplified the declines in local revenue, even as federal spending props up the state budget.

From sales taxes to parking garage receipts, from property taxes to deed stamps, the county has seen revenues fall.

The county's general-fund budget, which pays for most day-to-day operations, peaked at $172.2 million for 2007-2008. The budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 is $167 million.

While revenues have dropped, the county has faced increasing expenses from the expansion of the jail and the consolidation of emergency dispatching.

"We can go around saying we don't want to raise this and we don't want to raise that, but facts are facts and I think we need to listen sometimes to what the professionals are saying," said Councilman Henry Darby.

The property tax increases proposed in the county's budget are not large, but they come at a time when water and electric utilities are raising rates, health and property insurance rates are going nowhere but up, and the state government is increasing fees and fines.

The administration's proposed budget calls for raising the property tax rate that's used to pay off county debt by eight-tenths of a mill, which is 80 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value.

The owner of a $100,000 home, which would be tax-assessed at $4,000, would pay an additional $3.20. Those with more valuable properties, and those with properties that are not owner-occupied homes, would pay more.

In addition, the county proposes cutting the local option sales tax credit, which would further raise tax bills.

Instead of using all the money collected from the extra penny of local sales tax for property tax relief, the county would keep 10 percent of the money.

That's another $7 increase in the property tax bill for the person with a $100,000 home -- more for those with more valuable properties.

Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said he hears from constituents all the time who would rather pay another $10 or $20 a year than see services cut.

Pryor and Council Vice Chairman Elliott Summey called for a vote to recommend the spending plan Tuesday, and were joined by council members Victor Rawl, Darby and Inabinett in the 5-3 vote.

Council members McKeown, Dickie Schweers and Colleen Condon voted no, and Councilman Paul Thurmond was absent.