In a 4-3 vote, Charleston County Council voted Tuesday to raise $6 million in new taxes after a majority of its members agreed that employee layoffs or furloughs were not the way to balance the budget.
For the owner of a $250,000 home, the new budget would mean paying $25.50 more a year in property taxes, for a total tax levy of $316.
Councilmen Curtis Inabinett, Victor Rawl, Teddie Pryor and Elliott Summey voted for the tax hike. Colleen Condon, Dickie Schweers and Joe McKeown voted against it.
Henry Darby and Paul Thurmond were at the meeting but left before the vote occurred.
The new budget requires three votes for approval. A second vote is scheduled for June 1 along with a public hearing. The third and final vote is planned for June 15.
McKeown suggested tabling the budget vote until June 1. "I can't think of a worse thing to do in an economy like this than asking the people who are struggling out there to give up more money," he said.
Summey said the council had not approved a tax hike in more than a decade, and this year's budget is $18 million less than last year's. The county has cut 60 employees through attrition. Workers are receiving no cost-of-living or merit raises, but the annual cost of health insurance has risen $1,400, he said.
"We can't balance this budget on the backs of our employees," Summey said.
Schweers said people already are strapped financially. "This county has never seen an economy this bad. Everything is going up. The taxpayers can only stand so much. There's no way I can support a tax increase in this economy," he said.
The vote Tuesday was for first reading of the fiscal year 2010-2011 budget, which begins July 1. The general-fund budget is $167 million, which is down for the third year in a row. Property tax bills would rise due to a tax increase for debt service and the county's plan to keep 10 percent of the local option sales tax money that previously went for property tax credits.
The county currently has top bond ratings from major agencies, and those ratings work like credit scores do for an individual. Good credit means lower interest rates when borrowing money, and the county has some borrowing to do related to major road projects, greenbelt funds and the expansion of the county jail.
Summey said because of the changes in the new budget, the county would save $10 million in finance costs for $200 million borrowed for road projects and capital improvements.
Rawl said the county would lose expertise if it furloughed or laid off employees to balance the budget. "It's absolutely necessary," he said of the higher taxes.