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Budget passes, tempers flare at County Council meeting

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EMS department head has heated exchange with councilman

By Chris Sardelli

Leaning sideways on the podium and looking Councilman Jack Estridge straight in the eye, Clay Catoe loudly and irritably explained his feelings about reallocating his current staff of paramedics Monday night, June 24. 

“Jack, I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you again, if you put it in writing, I’ll do it, but I prefer to keep them where they are,” Catoe forcefully said during Lancaster County Council’s meeting. 

The heated exchange between Estridge and Catoe, who serves as director of Lancaster County Emergency Medical Services, came as council was ironing out the details of its proposed 2013-14 fiscal budget. 

Specifically, Catoe was responding to Estridge’s queries about why two new medics were needed in the upcoming budget. The planned budget included $110,318 for the salaries and fringe benefits of the two positions. 

Estridge had just asked about the possibility of placing trained medics, who are already employed but working in office positions, into the field, though Catoe reiterated the need to add more medics to help balance service in all areas of the county. 

“If you want a quality EMS service, we need to keep them there,” Catoe said. 

Not backing down, Estridge read outloud the statistics of response times, numbers of calls and employees at EMS departments in surrounding counties. 

Immediately interjecting, Catoe asked Estridge where he found those numbers.

“You know everything you read on the computer isn’t true, right?” Catoe asked. 

The comment caught Estridge off guard, as he paused and stared at Catoe and then turned to look at his fellow council members. 

As a tense silence hung in the air, Councilman Larry Honeycutt jumped into the fray. 

“I don’t think we’re up here to tell this gentleman how to run his department,” Honeycutt said. “They do a really good job and we should tell them instead of telling him how to do his job.”

Estridge shook his head.

“Well, that’s your opinion,” Estridge said.

“That is my opinion,” Honeycutt quickly said, “and I’ll stick to it.”

Turning back to Catoe, Honeycutt thanked him.

“Mr. Catoe, I think you’re doing a great job. EMS in Lancaster saved my mother’s life,” Honeycutt said. “I’ll support you as long as I sit in this chair.”

Before sitting down, Catoe added one last forceful comment.

“As long as I’m allowed to keep this job, I’ll stand up for all the people in the county,” he said.

‘An insult’

The debates between council members didn’t stop there Monday night. 

Councilwoman Charlene McGriff, a member of the county finance committee, said she supported several new additions, including increased millage and new positions for EMS and the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office.

“We need to learn how to compromise. I’m tired of kicking the ball down the road,” McGriff said. “We’re so afraid we won’t get reelected, that we won’t pass a budget. I was put here to make the best decision for my district.”

The budget additions did not sit well with Councilman Bob Bundy.

“The disappointment I have is the new budget has taken off some taxes and added new ones,” Bundy said. 

Bundy took exception with the millage increases, as well as with a proposed 2 percent salary increase for county employees. 

“I appreciate what the employees do, but for the 2 percent, if we drop it to 1.5 percent, it drops the budget by $100,000,” Bundy said. 

He also wondered if a request from Sheriff Barry Faile to add four deputies was too much and suggested adding only two new deputies, citing a cost savings of at least $64,000. 

Other ways to cut costs, Bundy said, included holding off on a transportation planner, for a savings of $70,000, and trimming costs for an Indian Land convenience site by $200,000. 

“What we’re seeing as we look at things, we can trim,” Bundy said. 

McGriff took offense to the suggestions.

“All those savings sound wonderful, but a 2 percent increase to employees who are already at the bottom and you take .5 percent away. It’s an insult,” McGriff said. “How does it sound to the employees who need the money?”

Bundy later compared the additions to council buying a fancy car it can’t afford right now. 

“It would be nice if we could, but county employees are also county taxpayers,” he said. “I don’t mean this as an insult to county employees.”

McGriff once again called the suggestion “an insult.”

“If we don’t give it to them now, when do we give it to them?” she asked. “They want that 2 percent. The folks at the county don’t make what the folks at the university do.”

After much more discussion, McGriff eventually apologized to Bundy.

“I apologize to Bob. I get a little emotional, but I still love you,” she said. “It’s just that I know what it means to be at the bottom of the ladder.”

Despite the arguments, council eventually approved final reading of the budget. The vote was 4-3, with Councilmen Estridge, Bundy and Steve Harper dissenting. 

Budget numbers 

The estimated budget for the 2013-14 general fund is $38,692,633, which includes the new medics and deputies.

Along with the new additions, council also decided to implement a tool allowed under state law called “look back millage,” said County Administrator Steve Willis.

“The state law changed a few years ago in regards to tax millage. It used to be a county had an allowable amount it could raise millage to, and if they didn’t raise to the limit, they lost that millage,” Willis said. “Now we can look at the amount we could’ve raised millage to during the last three years and can raise it by that amount.”

Willis said the county at some point in the last three years could have raised its millage by 1.5 mills, so the finance committee decided to make use of that millage. The general fund millage has now increased since second reading of the budget, from 74.15 mills to 75.65 mills.

As a result, residents will see an even greater tax hike than what was projected. 

For an average Lancaster County family, this equates to an increase of $12.60 in taxes on a $100,000 home and a $6.60 tax increase on a car or cars with a total of $30,000, for a total increase of $19.20 in property taxes.

The budget features an overall millage of 93.6 mills, which also includes 4.3 mills for the capital improvement fund, 6.4 mills for county debt, 3.95 for University of South Carolina Lancaster and 3.3 mills for courthouse fire and security millage. 

There will also be an increase in the county road fee from $25 to $30. 

A proposed increase in plan review fees when building a new home, from 10 percent of the cost of a building permit to 50 percent, which was approved at second reading, was removed before final reading and is not included in the budget. 

The new budget also includes:

– A funding increase of $400,000 for a 2 percent across-the-board salary increase for county employees. The increase will help offset a $137,000 total increase in health care and worker’s compensation insurance plans, and will bring employees closer to an average market salary for their positions. The salary adjustment includes a $900 floor, where employees making less than $45,000 will see a greater than 2 percent raise, with adjustments capped at $80,000.

– Ten new positions at the sheriff’s office, including four deputies (a cost of $210,846 for salaries, fringe benefits and equipment), as well as four records clerks, one investigator (formerly grant funded) and one custodian

– $36,000 to fund a career ladder for detention center employees 

– Two medics and an increase in $340,000 in overtime costs for EMS

– Operational costs, including overtime, equipment and gear, for 10 new paid firefighters whose base salaries are funded by a federal grant

– Two new building inspectors, one plan reviewer, one transportation planner, one zoning clerk and one road maintenance coordinator

– $32,500 to fund salary and fringe benefits for a probate court clerk needed to fulfill the requirements of a unfunded state mandate. Under the mandate, the clerk must review probate records from the last decade and notify the S.C. Law Enforcement Division of any people adjudicated as unfit to possess a firearm. 

– A $145,000 increase in vehicle fuel costs

– $94,500 to fund salaries and base operational costs for the Lancaster County Economic Development Corp. Willis said the county previously only covered salaries. The LCEDC will continue funding marketing and client visit costs through the private sector, he said. 

– A one-time cost of $400,000 for site development for a recycling center in the Panhandle. Willis said negotiations to lease that property are still ongoing, but he estimates the county will eventually pay $800 per month to lease the land, paid out of the solid waste fund. 

– A one-time cost of $100,000 to rewrite the county’s comprehensive plan, which has not been rewritten since it was created in the late 1990s. Willis said this will lay the foundation for an eventual rewrite of the Unified Development Ordinance. 

 

 Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416