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County may raise taxes to pay for new security

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By Jenny Hartley

Off-duty sheriff's deputies are providing security at the County Administration Building and Family Court Building on Catawba Street in the wake of two arsons at court buildings last week.

The deputies don't have a choice.

On Aug. 7, after the fire at 6th Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield's office, and three days after the burning of the Lancaster County Courthouse, Circuit Judge Brooks Goldsmith gave an order for the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office to provide security at county buildings until further notice.

The deputies are being paid overtime to provide security.

County Administrator Steve Willis doesn't have a cost figure for that now.

He does know it will cost more than $101,000 to make technological security upgrades to county buildings.

And he thought he had found a way to pay for it.

"I thought I had a potential answer last night," Willis said, referring to Monday's County Council meeting. "Obviously, I don't."

While some expenses from the fire, such as relocating offices and employees, will be covered by insurance, the extra security by the deputies won't, and he suggested raising taxes.

Willis proposed a 3.5-mill tax increase in the 2008-09 county budget, including 1.5 mills to pay for courthouse security and other expenses.

The 3.5-mill tax increase would amount to $14 in additional taxes for the owner of a $100,000 home.

Council debate

Councilman Bryan Vaughn suggested that Willis' proposal be changed, saying council should spend the 1.5 mills on extra sheriff's deputies. That ignited a debate between council members.

"Can a councilman come up with an idea out of thin air and it not be in writing?" Councilman Fred Thomas asked.

Council Chairman Rudy Carter said any council member can make a motion at any time, but said any motion proposed Monday would be moved to the Aug. 25 meeting for first reading.

Councilman Wesley Grier expressed concerns about having only discussed the proposal for five minutes.

Willis' tax increase proposal also included 1 mill for University of South Carolina at Lancaster and 1 mill for York Technical College's Kershaw campus to provide job training for laid-off Springs Global workers. Several council members advocated for those increases.

"It's absolutely a necessity right now," Carter said.

"Lancaster County has hundreds of untrained people for the jobs that are coming into the county," Councilman Jack Estridge said.

Thomas made a motion to table the proposal. It failed, with only Thomas and Grier voting to table it.

A vote to move the proposal – to raise taxes by 1.5 mills for the sheriff's office, 1 mill for USCL and 1 mill for York Tech's Kershaw campus – to the Aug. 25 meeting passed 4-3. Councilmen Wayne Kersey, Thomas and Grier voted against it.

Security changes

As for the security upgrades, Willis said he'll have to find another way to pay for them, either by amending the budget or going into the county's reserves.

"We've got to spend the money,' Willis said. "The judge is right – we had to do something."

The majority of technological upgrades, which he will not disclose, are finished.

Physical security improvements, such as changing locks, enhancing physical barriers and making changes to the probate judge and treasurer's office should be finished by the end of the week.

Once the security measures are in place, Goldsmith may consider lifting his order, Willis said.

"It's going to be tremendously expensive," Sheriff Johnny Cauthen said Tuesday about providing the security 24 hours a day. "But we're going to do what we have to do, regardless of cost."

Contact senior reporter Jenny Hartley at jhartley@thelancasternews.com or at (803) 283-1151