Lexington, SC – (Paul Kirby) – The Lexington County Council passed a budget Tuesday for the 2020-2021 budget year and as promised, it focuses on what Lexington County Council Chair Scott Whetstone has called many times the, “core services of government.” This refocusing of priorities was something that he said he had planned to do once he was elected chair of the council toward the end of his first term in office. This budget will take effect July 1 and passed by a 7-2 vote margin.
Next fiscal year, the council is aiming to strengthening Lexington County’s Department of Public Safety and its Lexington County Sheriff’s Department. This is desperately needed to keep up with the growing demand for those services as more people relocate their families to Lexington County. To do so, they trimmed their funding to outside agencies and redistributed those funds to services like fire and EMS, as well as law enforcement. These are the services that help keep the county's citizens safe. Among those agencies, about $5.7 million more is headed their way. Council was able to pay for these increases in part by trimming the funds sent to outside agencies.
One agency whose funding was trimmed was the Riverbanks Zoo. During last year’s budget cycle, this came up and it created a furor that could be heard across the Midlands. Even though the Lexington County Council backed off those deep cuts in the zoo’s funding last year, it was made clear that some cuts to the money Riverbanks Zoo received from Lexington County were coming. Last budget year, the Riverbanks Zoo had $1.2 million from Lexington County for the zoo in it. In the coming year, they will receive $900,000. Other outside agencies who usually receive funding from the Lexington County will also have to deal with some funding cuts as well.
In 2020-2021, the Lexington County Fire Service is getting close to $3 million more than last year. That will take total funding on that essential service to $23,911,680. They have been seeing demand rise as first responders for EMS. This is hard on their equipment on a department that is often understaffed. The Lexington Ledger has written numerous stories in the past about the large amount of expensive fire equipment dispatched to fires when those come in. In almost all cases, working fires must have a response of a disproportionate amount of equipment to just get enough manpower on the scene to safely battle a fire. Although they have added manpower in recent years to bring some stations up to company strengths, many stations still have just two firefighters in them.
Law enforcement, the service that gets the lion’s share of your county property taxes after school funding is taken off the top,will receive a little over $2,270,000 more than they did last year taking their total budget to $51,561,039. In the past four or five years, people in Lexington County have been raising their voices about the lack of manpower and extended response times from the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department as demand grew for their services. Sheriff Koon has said for several years that it was getting more and more difficult to provide any proactive law enforcement as his department’s deputies rushed from call-to-call. This forced deputies backup units to come from further away which is hard on their patrol vehicles as well.
Lexington County EMS, a system that has at time had trouble meeting all the demands for their help, is getting an $464,444 increase in funding which will bring their budget to $17,594,225 next fiscal year. EMS Chief Brian Hood has taken a number of positive steps in past years like using the ProQA dispatch software to help them do more with less. Still, the demand for ambulances to respond to emergencies has grown and grown as the population of the county has.
The cuts to outside agencies allowed the county to free up an additional $307,254 to redistribute among their “In House”agencies that are receiving increases. In 2020, Lexington County funded the zoo at $1.2 million after a contentious budgeting session. The 2021 budget puts the zoo’s Lexington County funding at $900,000. Several other of these type agencies also went under the budget scalpel for some trimming too. The Nancy K. Perry Children’s Shelter was one. One council member said recently that these agencies are important but may have to rely on more donations from the people who feel passionate about them to run their operations. Some can also receive grant funding from various sources although all would argue they have already done all they can in that area.
In a 2019 interview with Chairman Whetstone, he said that everything these outside agencies do is important; however, the safety of the residents would be one of the council’s highest priorities. In that interview Whetstone said, “You can only stretch a dollar so far and then you’ve either got to raise revenue or cut something. Even though our growth has raised some additional revenue, that also increases the demand for services so we will need to make some tough decisions about how we spend and what is the most important needs we have.”