County Council considers employee raises; debates tax hike

achristnovich@beaufortgazette.comMay 7, 2012 

  • The Jasper County Council did not make a decision Monday on whether to leave its partnership with Beaufort County in the Lowcountry Economic Alliance to attract industry to the region.

    Councilman Marty Sauls said the council discussed the decision with the mayors of Ridgeland and Hardeeville for about an hour in closed session.

    "We are unified in our direction," he said, but would not elaborate. "A lot will be determined" after the alliance's May 18 meeting, he said.

    Jasper County officials have expressed interest in joining the Southern Carolina Alliance because of the slow pace of forming the Lowcountry Economic Alliance with Beaufort County.

Beaufort County Council members seem to agree they want to increase county workers' pay and grow the emergency reserve fund, but they disagreed Monday on whether a tax increase would be needed to reach those goals.

"I don't think anyone really looks forward to increasing taxes, but sometimes we have to make tough decisions," Councilman Bill McBride said.

McBride's comment followed the unveiling of the first draft of next fiscal year's budget. It allows for a 1 percent cost-of-living raise for employees without raising property taxes or dipping into reserves.

But the council has set a goal of giving employees a 2 percent raise and discussed Monday whether it should raise taxes to pay for it.

Council Chairman Weston Newton favored cutting spending instead.

"We could trim half of the capital equipment costs and reach the 2 percent," Newton said. "I'm in favor of trying to get to the 2 percent, but I'm not in favor of a tax increase."

The county's workforce has gone four years without a raise, in addition to a week-long furlough imposed last year. The county has 945 full-time workers, according to employee services director Suzanne Gregory. The average salary is about $40,670 -- a 2 percent increase would add about $800 to the average annual pay.

Councilman Brian Flewelling said the county's finances are less strained this year than last year, and raising taxes isn't necessary.

"I don't think there are any huge capital expenditures or any really important expenditures that we're going to throw out of the school bus," Flewelling said. "I think we'll be substantially OK."

Monday marked the first public reading of the 2012-13 proposed budget; two more are required before it can take effect July 1. The council gave preliminary approval Monday in a 9-1 vote, with Laura Von Harten dissenting. (Council Vice Chairman Paul Sommerville was absent.)

"I can't imagine all the division heads are thrilled about this budget," Von Harten said. "I think there are some things where the level of service is decreasing in the county."

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