Beaufort County Councilman Steve Baer announced Monday that he will resign at the end of July.
Baer, who represents a Hilton Head Island district, has shown mounting frustration with county priorities and decision-making over the past six months, occasionally butting heads with administrators and fellow council members on budgeting practices, library hours and airports, among other issues.
"Of late, I have become increasingly frustrated with a system that has become less analytic and less transparent," he said. "I believe there is not much more I can help the council accomplish."
The announcement, which followed a 6-5 vote approving the $99.35 million 2013-14 county budget, stunned fellow council members. The budget takes effect July 1.
Councilman Rick Caporale said he was not prepared for the news and will be sorry to see Baer step down.
"I am flabbergasted," he said. "We certainly never discussed it, and if we had, I would have done everything in my power to discourage him."
Councilman William McBride, who has served more than 30 years on the council, said he can't recall a member suddenly resigning during open session.
"That was a big surprise for me. I know he was frustrated with much of the budget process," McBride said. "I didn't always agree with him, but he made a significant contribution to the effectiveness of County Council."
"But as it turns out, many times (his efforts) did not get a majority of support from County Council," McBride added.
Baer was first elected in 2006. His term was to end next year.
It was not immediately clear Monday night whether there would be a special election to replace Baer or the seat would remain vacant until fall 2014, when there will be a general election.
Baer's announcement capped unusually controversial budgeting deliberations -- and a budget that passed by the slimmest of margins. The budget calls for a tax increase for the first time in five years. As a result the owner of a $200,000 owner-occupied home will owe about $15 more in property taxes next year.
The budget, which Baer opposed, includes two new full-time ambulance crews, 2 percent employee raises and new courtroom security and technology upgrades. It also includes money for a group home in southern Beaufort County for developmentally disabled adults and a higher solid waste budget due to rising disposal fees.
Although the budget includes additional funding for library hours, a proposal Baer favored that would have added 10 hours a week at the Bluffton, Hilton Head, Beaufort and St. Helena Island branches failed 6-5 Monday. Baer also questioned the wisdom of the Project Robot endeavor, which helped entice EcoDual to open a manufacturing facility in Beaufort's Commerce Park.
Project Robot calls for the county to spend $850,000 to buy a device that will test truck engines after they have been refitted by EcoDual to run on natural gas rather than diesel fuel.
A half-dozen people spoke against the budget, mostly because of the tax increase.
Councilman Stu Rodman, who chairs the finance committee and led the county's budget process over the last two months, said he believes criticism of the budget is misplaced.
For one thing, Rodman said, the county never adjusted taxes upward over the last four years despite steep population increases. County spending also has decreased by about $6 million over the past five years.
"It's very clear to me that the county administration has done a very good job watching expenditures and cutting budgets wherever possible," Rodman said.
In other action Monday, the council:
- Approved the Beaufort County School District's $182.9 million budget, which adds teachers but does not include a tax increase.
- Authorized purchase of 34 acres in Burton that fall within the protected area around Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. The county is splitting the $206,000 purchase price with the air base. The county's portion of the cost is coming from the Rural and Critical Lands preservation program.
- Voted to adopt the Beaufort County Airport Master Plan, which specifies various improvements to the facility. The individual improvements will require county approval before construction can begin.