Berkeley County Council and School District pass 2017-2018 budgets
Berkeley County Council unanimously voted to pass an $81 million operating budget, as well as a $62 million County Water and Sanitation budget on Monday, June 26.
The approval of the operating budget comes without an increase in property taxes. As a result, Berkeley County continues to hold the lowest county government millage rate in the state, according to the South Carolina Association of Counties.
However, customers of Berkeley Water and Sanitation should expect to see a rise in prices, as the department’s budget calls for a 15 percent increase in water bills next year. For the average customer, this equates to approximately $4 per month. Daniel Island residents are customers of the Charleston Water System.
Unlike last year, when the budget saw 29 amendments before passing, this year’s approval came with only one amendment.
Berkeley County Councilman Josh Whitley, who serves as Finance Committee Chairman, attributed this success to consistent conversation between council members and the administration.
“I am pleased with passing a budget in this timely manner,” said Whitley. “This is a result of early communication, an all-day committee workshop we held early on with council and the administration listening to one another and compromising.”
The budget further demonstrates the County’s ongoing commitment to prioritize public safety, with the addition of seven new deputies to the sheriff’s office. Under Berkeley County Supervisor Bill Peagler, the office has seen a 25 percent increase in funding over the last three years.
The singular amendment came from Councilman Tommy Newell, whose motion to add $200,000 to the sheriff’s overtime budget was approved, giving Sheriff Duane Lewis a total of $1.3 million for overtime over the next year.
There is also a 70 percent increase for the County’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS). With the increase, a full-time EMS unit will be added to the system for the first time in 10 years, as well as three prime-time units and one additional supervisor per shift.
“[The increase] is astronomical,” said Whitley. “Unfortunately, that department has been neglected with not one additional ambulance station in over a decade, even as our County’s population has exploded. This will decrease response times tremendously and it was my number one priority in the budget.”
The plan outlines a heavy investment in modernizing EMS equipment as well as training. There is also a recommendation for the addition of four dispatchers at the 911 center.
Specific to Daniel Island, Whitley said that there will be an increase in manpower in mosquito abatement.
“My hope and expectation for mosquito abatement is that they use the additional manpower to increase early intervention abatement, i.e., killing larvae, so that we can decrease adulticiding which has environmental concerns,” added Whitley.
Effective in January 2018, the budget also includes a three percent county employee merit and Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA).
Whitley added that he is pleased with this year’s budget.
“I am very proud that we passed a budget that prioritized public safety, did not raise taxes and passed unanimously,” said Whitley. “That is not an easy task and I am proud of all involved.”
The Berkeley County School Board voted unanimously to approve a $278 million general fund budget on Tuesday, June 27.
Board member Mac McQuillin explained that a unanimous vote is not easy to come by.
“[It is] the only time this has occurred while I have served on the Board,” said McQuillin. “This is also the first time I have voted to approve a budget.”
For the first time since 2014, the passing of this budget, like the County budget, also came without an increase in taxes.
The budget includes an added $2.4 million in funds that will go towards opening Philip Simmons High School in the fall as well as an increase in employee pay with a district wide step increase of approximately $2.2 million, according to McQuillin.
“[The increase in employee pay] allows us to remain competitive with other districts in attracting and retaining good teachers,” said McQuillin.
Included in the plan is the addition of over 80 employees, 50 of which are teachers. Also regarding employees, the plan includes a one percent cost of living adjustment “across the board,” according to the district’s interim Chief Financial Officer Jacque Carlen.
Also notable, the Base Student Cost increased to $2425 for 2017-2018 from $2350. While it is a $75 increase, Carlen explained during the Public Budget Hearing that it is still well under the Budget and Control Board’s mandate of $2984, which would equate to $18.6 million in additional funding needed.
Significant decreases were also made to the budget in order for more funds to be allocated towards the classrooms and teachers, stated McQuillin.
“We restructured the District Office to eliminate more than $1,000,000 in administrative positions,” he said. “We are also streamlining our landscaping process and conducting an insurance assessment that will likely save another $1,500,000.”
Overall, McQuillin added that he was “very pleased with this year’s budget process.”