Grappling with Berkeley's growth, county staff recommends balanced budget for FY2019-2020

As one of the fastest-growing counties in South Carolina, Berkeley County is experiencing the effects of its rapidly increasing population—and the budget is one area feeling the heaviest impact.

However, county staff said they’ve prepared a nearly $91 million general fund budget, without a tax increase, for fiscal year 2019-2020. The total is about $20 million higher than three years ago, according to county stats.

Property tax is funding nearly half of the proposed budget’s projected revenue total—about $47 million. That number is about $12 million more than fiscal year 2016. But $47 million remains “a conservative” projection, county staff told council at its May 28 meeting, especially since the county is in a reassessment year.

“We are in unprecedented territory as far as territory and growth,” said Angela Pinson, the county’s human resources director. “Berkeley County is probably the fastest growing county. …We tried to be very conservative on the revenue.”

That means the county’s mill rate, the way property tax is calculated, could be changing. Currently, the value of a mill is about $1.3 million, the county said. Just two years ago it was about $800,000.

The county conducts a reassessment every five years, per state law, to determine real estate value. Essentially, the process determines any changes in market value of property over a certain period of time, the county said. To help manage and calculate property tax, the county also plans to purchase new software this coming year—funded by the proposed budget—to replace its current software program from the ‘80s.

County Council passed second reading of the budget earlier this month, with members praising county staff for cutting costs and realizing savings, without use of the fund balance, too—in order to keep taxpayers from contributing more.

“We have an unbelievably strong budget,” said Josh Whitley, County Council vice chair. “For once, we are going to have a budget by July 1.”

The current fiscal year for the county ends June 30. Whitley was referring to last fiscal year, 2018-2019, when the council, under Supervisor Bill Peagler, passed the budget two months into the new fiscal year, though the administration had recommended the budget earlier than normal. So members could extend their review of line items, the council at the time kept passing continuing resolutions before giving the budget a third and final reading.

County staff said early in the budget process, the budget maintained a $15 million deficit. According to Finance Director Allen Milburn, “many hours of untold labor” allowed staff to re-work figures, eliminate unnecessary positions and use savings to offer council a “good product.”

“Every single line item has gotten a look,” said Les Blankenship, deputy county supervisor of operations. “It’s not just cost cutting; it’s reorganization of (departments).”

The budget even recommends the addition of four new county departments and 24 positions, based on requests from current department heads and staff. New departments include Grants, Tourism and Radio Shop, along with Animal Control Division, to be created by moving four current employees from Animal Services to the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office.

Radio Shop will house all the county’s communication expenses; and for the first time ever, the county budget will annually fund $1.5 million for maintenance for the public safety radio system, the county said.

New positions in the budget include eight additional sheriff’s office employees; two new roles at Cypress Gardens; a deputy coroner; an additional solicitor for drug court; a tourism director; a grants administrator overseeing Community Development Block Grants; and under Economic Development Department, a manager of existing industry and business retention. Initially, new positions requested totaled 64, with a nearly $87 million price tag.

“With our population growing, we’ve got to grow these departments (in) personnel; those are the things that’s going to be recurring every year,” said Councilman Jack Schurlknight.

About 70 percent of next year’s proposed budget expenditures are personnel costs for wages and salaries, according to the county. And each year going forward is only going to present more budget issues for the county as they grapple with growth—Milburn pointing to state mandates, roughly $7.6 million next year alone, as one major challenge.

“We need to be more strategic with our initiatives—more strategic with our budget plans, so these are going to be challenges that we’re going to have to face in the years to come,” he said.

Councilman Kevin Cox agreed.

“You can only cut so much going forward,” he said, pointing to his business license fee proposal as an additional revenue generator for the county.

Cox started a discussion with the council at its May 28 meeting, but no vote occurred. The fee chatter is still in its earliest stages and would pertain to businesses that operate in the county’s unincorporated parts. The county currently imposes no such fee, though one exists in various municipalities within the county including Goose Creek, Hanahan, Moncks Corner and Summerville.

But before the council considers final approval of the 2019-2020 budget—it requires three readings to pass—county staff said it’s planning to further review various requested line items, particularly ones in the special revenue fund.

Some of those items include 28 new vehicles for Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office and four new ambulances, since public safety is a top concern with added residents and visitors flocking to the area. According to the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, about 36 people move to the Charleston region daily.

“Berkeley County has become so valuable. More people are moving to Berkeley County than Charleston and Dorchester combined,” Pinson said.

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