While elected leaders in one of South Carolina's poorest counties averted a government shutdown this week, a top official warns a budget shortfall will require major cuts to keep the county from going bankrupt.
Whether Williamsburg County employees will be laid off or forced to take time off without pay has not been decided, but they should expect a cut of some kind, said county supervisor Tiffany Wright, who took office six months ago promising a major clean up.
In an emergency meeting Tuesday — a day after the new fiscal year started — County Council voted to keep government running by using the same numbers from last year.
The problem is that those numbers keep the county operating in a deficit, Wright said. And the budget gap, which council members dispute, could get worse depending on the outcome of a federal investigation into unpaid work.
"I won’t let us go deeper in the hole. I’ll have to take action now. That’s going to cause some heartaches on our departments, severely," Wright said after the meeting in a stream on the county's Facebook page.
"Someone’s going to have to take the loss on this one," she said, adding that it's her responsibility "to make sure at the end of the day we don’t bankrupt this entire county and shut down for real."
Wright did not respond to phone or email messages Wednesday from The Post and Courier.
It's unclear how big of a budget hole exists for the state's sixth-largest county by square miles, where fewer than 31,000 people live and the median household income is $31,000, compared to $49,000 statewide, according to 2018 Census estimates.
On Facebook, Wright said she informed council in March the county was already more than $600,000 in the red.
Last week, the council rejected a budget that raised about $900,000 by adding a $40 one-time fee on every vehicle.
"I do not support any increased fees or taxes on the citizens of Williamsburg County. I have not and I will not," Samuel Floyd, a councilman for eight years, told The Post and Courier.
"You can call it a fee. It’s a tax to the citizens. It’s an undue burden for which they receive no additional benefit in one of the most socioeconomic challenged counties in the state," he said.
The budget might not have been balanced even with the $40 fee. Wright noted council didn't consider the rising cost of expenses including employees' benefits and workers compensation insurance.
"Electric bills and things like that go up, right?" she asked Facebook viewers.
Council never voted on several other proposals that would have cut expenses by up to $2 million by furloughing some employees every pay period.
Floyd, who lives outside the county seat of Kingstree, and other council members question whether a deficit exists at all. He had no opinion on how Wright should fill the gap if it does exist.
"Where the increased spending has gone to, I’m not sure," he said, noting previous audits found no problems. "If we are operating in the red, it absolutely comes as a surprise."
Wright said an audit of the fiscal year that ended in 2018, which should've been done by January, will hopefully be completed later this month.
State law requires counties and municipalities to have clean audits to receive their share of state aid and court fines and fees. The state treasurer's office said Wednesday the county's been given an extension for its 2018 audit, so no money has been withheld.
Any budget hole could be worsened by a federal investigation into the county not paying employees for their hours worked.
Wright announced over Facebook last Friday the county has agreed, if the complaint is proven true, to reimburse two years' worth of missed pay to current and former employees in order to avoid federal fees and legal costs.
How much, if anything, may be owed is not yet known. Questioned by viewers watching the live stream, Wright declined to specify which department is under investigation.
Even while insisting the audit may find nothing, Wright suggested she believes the county will be found at fault, saying she's thankful federal regulatory agencies are "only requiring us to reach back two years for the repayment option."
"These things had been going on, yet again, for decades," Wright said.