Kershaw County Council wrangled its way through some amendments -- some of which passed while others failed -- to both the county’s proposed Fiscal Year 2020 budget and proposed millage for the same fiscal year. In addition, it dealt with the second reading of an ordinance that would impose a fee, starting July 1, to help jumpstart plans for professional fire services and a new fire district that could be set in place more than a year from now.
Second reading of an ordinance enacting the fire service fee came up first among these votes, with Councilman Ben Connell making the motion to enact $25 fees on land parcels and vehicles owned by residents in the county. Connell said he was for the new fee as much to help existing volunteer firefighters as well as moving toward adding professional firefighting services.
“We need to do better for our volunteer firefighters. We need to fund them a little bit better. We also need to transition to a partial full-time fire service to cover the increased number of calls that are happening with an increasing population throughout the county,” Connell said. “Our numbers, they’re just climbing and we’ve been subsidized for a long, long time by volunteers and it’s increasingly challenging to get them certified because it takes over 200 hours to get someone new to be even stand on a fire scene and help out.”
Councilman David Snodgrass, who voted against a separate ordinance two weeks that would establish the new fire district on July 1, 2020, did vote for the new fee. He noted that even volunteer firefighters do more than just fight fires.
“I hope we all understand that firemen in this day ... it’s not just putting fires out -- these are first responders, these are individuals that are tasked with far more putting the ‘wet stuff on the hot stuff,’” Shodgrass said, adding, however, that he still had questions and reservations about the fee ahead of the vote. “Is there any mechanism within our county structure that we could put some type of rebate system in place so that when you look at a taxpayer that maybe does have 15, 17 parcels of property, there’s a mechanism in place in which they’re not taxed as much?”
County Administrator Vic Carpenter said that he and county staff have looked into that possibility, but that, in the meantime, the state constitution requires that everyone be taxes equally.
A point that Snodgrass and Councilman Jimmy Jones had brought up two weeks earlier was the fact that residents in unincorporated areas of the county around Camden who pay for Camden Fire Department protection could also be charged millage for the new county fire district. Also, there were questions of how the incorporated towns of Bethune and Elgin, which have no fire services of their own, could pay for continued fire protection from the county.
Later during Tuesday’s meeting, Carpenter said he had talked to the towns of Elgin and Bethune and urged them to seek their own town attorneys’ advice. He said he would be meeting with Elgin Town Council during a special work session in June to explain the proposal in more detail. Carpenter has mentioned previously that he has also been speaking with the city of Camden and others about how to deal with county residents receiving Camden Fire Department protection who would be included in the proposed tax district. Carpenter said he would likely bring the fire district ordinance back to council later this summer.
As he did during council’s previous meeting two weeks earlier, Councilman Jimmy Jones said he was opposed to setting the new fee. He had Assistant County Administrator Danny Templar put up a slide from council’s goals set two years ago. It included a statement regarding an advisory referendum about a new fire district and the fees to pay for it.
“Let me start off by saying I am voting against us imposing large fees on property and cars for fire service. I have always been against it without an advisory referendum as county council stated in the Kershaw County goals for Fiscal Year 2017-2018,” Jones said. “If you’ll look, it’s right there… ‘Establish an ad hoc committee that is charged with engaging in a comprehensive study of county fire services and returning to the county council with recommendations for a possible advisory referendum for consideration and vote by the citizens of Kershaw County.’ A fee is a tax in disguise, but it is sometimes worse than a tax because, as Mr. Carpenter has said, fees are regressive which means they hurt the people who cannot afford it.
“An advisory referendum is best; just ask the question in the 2020 election. We won’t have to do a petition, we won’t have to get 15 percent (of registered voters’) signatures on there if we do this and say, ‘Are you willing to pay more in taxes or new fees for better fire service in the fire protection district.”
Jones then had Templar put up one of the slides Carpenter used two weeks ago in a presentation about the proposed new fire district that showed how many -- and when -- professional full-time firefighters would be hired and facilities built. Jones claimed that Cassatt would not see much benefit prior to 2023. He said new fees might not benefit those on Lake Wateree, in Liberty Hill or Westville at all.
“I am for better fire service, but I want the citizens to be informed and the citizens to vote as council promised in 2017 so the decision will be their choice whether or not to pay more taxes and new fees for increased fire service. I say let the citizens have a voice. It’s been said up here that, ‘It’s an emergency, we gotta do it, we gotta move now.’ There is no emergency in 2019 on something that has been around for many years and the council stated in 2017 to have and advisory referendum on,” Jones declared.
He then acknowledged the presence of several firefighters at the meeting, and claimed that the “days of volunteer firefighters are gone” and that other counties are going through the same situation. Because of that, Jones said, there was no reason council couldn’t wait and allow citizens to voice their choice, and that council had “rushed to judgment” on this and other issues.
Later, however, Councilman Sammie Tucker Jr. -- using the same slide -- pointed out that the goals statement only talked about a “possible” referendum rather than promising that one would be created.
Connell also disagreed with Jones’ assessment, first confirming with Carpenter that the new fee would actually benefit volunteer firefighters by increasing the money earned through their points system by 30 percent.
“This would have to be the slowest ‘rush to judgment’ I’ve ever seen, because we’ve been looking at this for over three years,” Connell said. “We’ve got new systems that actually let us look at data that we’ve had for around 14 months. I think it’s been a very deliberative approach, and the volunteers are crucial. I don’t think volunteers are going to go away. We need them and their leadership; the new system will not work without them. They know these areas, they know the fire stations.”
Connell also disagreed with Jones regarding the fees, saying they are lower, per capita, than what is currently being paid within the Lugoff or Camden fire districts.
Councilman Tom Gardner pointed out the information about the fees came from existing firefighters, and both he and Snodgrass said Cassatt would actually receive professional firefighters this year as well as a new fire station in 2021 under the proposed plan.
Carpenter acknowledged something Jones said later was correct: the need for a new tax district is to set millage at a rate sufficient to fund professional fire services during the course of at least the next five years due to the constraints Act 388 places on the current district. However, Carpenter pointed out that while the new district would not initially be constrained by Act 388, it would be in the future.
Jones claimed this all meant council and the county don’t “know what we’re doing.”
In the end, Jones was the only person to vote against instituting the new fee on a 6-1 vote.
Council then turned its attention to the FY 2020 budget. Tucker motioned to amend the budget by allocating $549,000, including $50,000 for scholarships, to Central Carolina Technical College (CCTC). He said the county is currently funding less than 10 percent of CCTC’s operations while other counties with technical colleges are allocating annual funds at much higher levels for their operations.
Jones said he liked the idea, and even offered an alternative that would add an additional $4,000 to Tucker’s amount. Howver, instead of using millage, Jones suggested some of the funds be taken from the General Fund and a portion of fee in lieu of tax revenue along with $50,000 he said Carpenter should be able to find elsewhere in the budget.
Councilman Al Bozard, on the other hand, said he didn’t like either idea because he wanted to make sure that the county was getting its money’s worth from CCTC before committing more funds. He said he graduated from Sumter Technical School, CCTC’s precursor, and worked at various technical colleges, including one in York County, and that he did not remember them having to seek funding from their counties.
Snodgrass, however, later pointed out that York Technical College now receives a large annual contribution from that county. Several of the councilmen, including Snodgrass, spoke of success stories from CCTC. Snodgrass mentioned one student who just graduated as a registered nurse from the college and is already working at KershawHealth.
“Every vibrant community in this state -- every vibrant county, every vibrant city in this state -- has a vibrant technical college system to go along with it,” Snodgrass said. “I believe that technical schools, trade schools, in South Carolina are the backbone to our economic development machine here in this state.”
Gardner told Bozard that “times have changed,” especially in light of what he said was a doubling of CCTC’s enrollment in Kershaw County during the last five years.
Tucker compared how much Kershaw County has spent on CCTC in terms of annual contributions to those by other counties, asking “Are we not better than this?”
He said he recently attended a Lugoff-Elgin High School awards ceremony where administrators recognize those students with at least 12 dual-enrollment credits at CCTC. Tucker said he heard one of the students already had 34 dual-enrollment credits.
Jones’ amendment to Tucker’s amendment to seek non-millage funding sources failed, 2-5.
On the next vote, for Tucker’s amendment, Bozard originally cast the lone “no” vote, but then asked for a re-vote so he could make it unanimous, which Burns allowed.
When it came to the actual FY 2020 millage ordinance, Tucker made a motion for a 2.33-mill line item for CCTC -- which Carpenter said would be equivalent to an additional $9 of tax for every $100,000 value of a home -- to fund the additional allocation passed in the budget ordinance. Instead of establishing a separate line item as he originally requested, the millage will be added to the general fund millage category. However, Burns suggested it might be possible to list the millage separately on tax bills for transparency’s sake so residents would know where their money is being used. The vote was 6-1 to pass, with Jones casting the lone “no” vote.
In other budget-related business, council voted down motions to reestablish a $49,000 district fund that would be split evenly at $7,000 per council member for small projects, and to increase the county’s contribution for FY 2020 to the United Way by $10,000.
Council did unanimously pass second reading of an ordinance updating language in the county’s public utilities ordinance to bring into compliance with state regulations.
(The C-I will provide more coverage of Kershaw County Council’s meeting in Tuesday’s edition.)