Lexington, SC (Paul Kirby) – Lexington County Council Chairman Scott Whetstone says that sometimes the leaders of Lexington County have to make tough decisions, “There’s only so much money to go around and we either have to decide to make some tough decisions reallocating funding or raise taxes,” Whetstone said. “No one wants to raise taxes. We have to decide what is the most important to our citizens and put paying for those items first.”
Whetstone’s comments came after he said council made one of those tough decisions during a budget workshop this week. They decided in a split vote (5/4) to change the way Lexington County helps fund the Riverbanks Zoo and Botanical Gardens. In the past, the zoo was funded by Lexington County as a millage agency. This meant they received their funding based on the millage they were assigned and received money based on property values in Lexington County. The zoo also receives funding for payments on bond debt from Lexington County, something that wouldn’t change in the future. Now the vote during the workshop would switch the zoo’s general funding from millage funding to a contribution agency. This means the county would drop the funding based on property values and instead make contributions to the zoo annually.
Whetstone said the change was needed to shift more money to the General Fund for core county service. Those include things like EMS, the fire service, public works, animal control, and the Sheriff’s Department, all agencies challenged by the county’s growth. “We had to make a tough decision,” Whetstone reiterated, “These are things we desperately need and that’s the bottom line.”
To put the figures into perspective, Lexington County sent $1.2 million to the zoo in their last budget. The contribution funding would send $500,000 to the zoo next year. Whetstone says the savings would return to the General Fund to help balance the budget and fund those core services. He said over its 40-year history, Lexington County has helped the zoo tremendously. Whetstone recognizes what a great attraction it is, but over the years, he says the zoo has funding sources of its own. Gate receipts, private donations, the Riverbanks Zoo Society, they all contribute a great deal of funding to the zoo according to Whetstone. “Right now, we have to focus on essential services, things people have to have every day,” he said. Whetstone said that public works and public safety are really the top priorities for the council today.
Councilman Todd Cullum has a different perspective. He was one of four councilmembers voting against the change. Cullum says at this point in the budget process, it’s too early to tell if there will be a need for tax increase or not. He said each year Lexington County’s administrator presents the council with a balanced budget. The administrator then gives the council a list of items department heads asked for that got cut from his recommended budget. These are items department heads and other elected officials felt were important enough to appeal directly to the council to get. This is often referred to as the “Reconsideration List.” Usually, Cullum said, some of those items are returned to the budget. “We’ve already agreed during our process to dip into our fund balance for about $1,969,000.00 to fund capital projects on that list. This would include items like EMS units, a roof on the Red Bank Crossing annex, some employment changes, four quick response vehicles for EMS, an operating room for spay and neutering at animal services, and a generator for the coroner’s office.” Above that, council is considering another $557,000.00 in other reconsiderations that would have to be paid for somehow. Another reconsideration that the sheriff has asked for is holiday pay for deputies. That holiday pay would also cover public safety employees like firefighters and paramedics too. Cullum says the total cost of this extra pay alone is $1,415,000.00 and is recurring, something that must be paid year-after-year. “To say in May that we will or won’t see a tax increase this year, you just can’t say that with 100% certainty now,” Cullum said.
Cullum also disagrees with what he understands the savings from the zoo’s cuts would be spent for. “The zoo’s funding cut would primarily be used to create a new program in public works that is being designed to add to the county’s resources that maintain dirt roads. This isn’t for fire trucks or ambulances,” Cullum said.
“I wish that the council would just give our staff some time to reconcile all the changes and see how that will affect the numbers before we talk about whether we will or won’t have a tax increase.”
Both councilmembers agree that the zoo is important. It’s the #1 tourist attraction in the state. It’s also is the #7 ranked zoo in the nation. According to a study by the University of South Carolina, the zoo has added $148,000,000 to the local economy every year, according to Cullum. The question the council is struggling with is how much of that benefits Lexington County and how high on the priority list the zoo should be? Whetstone said right now, we just need other things more and even small cuts make a difference. He said for most of the council, repairing roads, buying ambulances, staffing fire trucks, and ensuring the safety of our streets are the most important things.
Cullum says from his point of view, the council ought to just pause and see what happens closer to the last reading of the budget. There’s still a second reading, a public hearing, and then a third reading before the budget is an ordinance. “If we get to the end of the process and fully funding the zoo requires another .30 cents or some other minute amount added to an already small tax increase, wouldn’t that be worth it for what we are getting from the zoo?” Cullum asked.
The administration of the zoo and the Zoo Society members were quick to make their views known. They’ve said that this massive cut could cause them to lay off staff or make other drastic changes. Councilman Cullum said they’ve even mentioned doing away with free admission days or making Lexington County students pay for their zoo admissions on field trips. The zoo is also preparing their upcoming budget and they’re considering all contingency plans if Lexington County council follows through with the proposed 65% cut.
There is a public hearing on Lexington County’s budget that’s set for the evening of May the 28th at the county’s Administration Building. During that meeting, citizens will have the opportunity to voice their opinions on what is the most important to them in the budget.