Lexington, SC (Paul Kirby) The Lexington County Council passed a budget Monday afternoon for 2017/2018 that has a minimal tax increase to help increase public safety services, public works, and provide for employee raises. The increase will amount to about $1.66 per $100,000 of value on an owner-occupied home. The budget passed by a margin of 6 to 3.
According to Councilman Scott Whetstone (Dist. 1), this budget will significantly increase personnel for the sheriff’s department, the fire service, EMS, and public works. Whetstone said that although he knows no one wants to pay even a little more in taxes, he campaigned heavily on his support for public safety and this budget is evidence that he has taken those commitments to heart.
All of these departments have said repeatedly that they are struggling to keep up with the demand for emergency services. Sheriff Koon has restructured his department, cut expensive programs like the aviation division, and is working with the solicitor and the courts to cut the population of the jail, a major expense, when possible.
The calls for EMS services are increasing every year. There have already been schedule changes implemented that put the most ambulances and personnel on the street when the call volumes are the highest. EMS also implemented the ProQAsystem in 2016 that prioritizes calls. Non-emergency calls are now put into a queue, and those callers may have to wait longer periods of time for service from basic life support trucks and crews.
The fire service has always been understaffed, especially since the volunteer ranks have decreased over the years. Most trucks only have two crew members and it often takes a large number of stations to get enough manpower on scene to fight any working fire. Mandatory overtime call backs were implemented some time ago, and the overtime for the fire service just to keep the minimum number of firefighters on the street has already severally taxed that department’s budget in the last year.
Beside what Whetstone described as “significant” increases in personnel for all the aforementioned public safety agencies, all county employees will get a boost in pay, something they haven’t gotten in several years. Whetstone said that it was not based on a percentage of their salary; rather it is an across the board increase for every employee.
It is important to remember that the county council only has control over a relatively small portion of your property tax bill. Each school district is run by autonomous school boards that have the power to raise millage a certain amount to operate the schools in the county. The Lexington County Council has no control or say so over those budgets as they have repeatedly tried to explain to taxpayers. They are by far the largest consumers of your property tax dollars.
According to Lexington District One officials, the school district that covers the center of the county, they will have a tax increasein the coming year, but theirs will only be on businesses. The increase will be approximately 11.9 mils and will translate to an increase of just over $100 per every $100,000 in value on business property. That money will be needed to finance the increased number of teachers and support staff the district needs to handle the explosive growth it is experiencing.
District One has also said that it will present a bond referendum to the voters in 2018. A bond referendum seeks the approval of the voters to borrow money on the commercial bond market. That money is most often used to build new schools and remodel older ones.
According to the district, its student population is growing by an estimated 500 students per year, roughly the capacity of a new elementary school, and they are already in need of several new schools now. The newest is planned for the Beechcreek Road area west of the town of Lexington and should be built sometime in the near future. They have also committed to rebuild or do major renovations of schools in the Gilbert and the Pelion areas if the bond borrowing is approved. This includes major teardowns and rebuilds at several existing facilities.
Besides the schools, other agencies that could raise taxes also get pieces of your tax money. These included special purpose tax districts, the zoo, the two recreation and aging commissions in the county, and others. Once again, many of these have boards and commissions that set their tax millage without having to seek the approval of county council.
As the growth of Lexington County continues, elected officials will continue to struggle to provide even the most basic services for its expanding population. Because SC State Act 388 restricts how much they can raise property taxes on owner occupied homes, it often shifts the tax burden onto businesses who say they are being treated unfairly. Business owners have said time and again, enough is enough.
This being said, politicians will continue searching for alternative ways to finance what services the government feels it must provide. As the growth continues, we could fall further and further behind.
To see a copy of the Lexington County 2017/2018 budget as proposed, go to their website at http://www.lex-co.sc.gov/departments/DeptAH/Finance%20Docs/FY17-18%20Budget/Recommended%20Recap%20-%20Revised.pdf.