Let's deal with figures, not feelings, on budget

info@islandpacket.comAugust 11, 2013 

Put some elected officials in a pot, toss in some tax dollars and you'll end up with a political stew.

That seems to be the case with funding for the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office in Beaufort County.

Solicitor Duffie Stone apparently stirred things up with a July 26 letter to Beaufort County Council members telling them about moves he was making "due to budgetary restraints." Stone had asked the county to give his office $1.4 million for the fiscal year that started July 1, but instead got just over $1 million. Last fiscal year, he received $800,000 and got an additional $152,000 late in the year.

Some members of the council's Finance Committee said the letter struck them as politically motivated, coming right before they were to consider giving Stone an additional $125,000.

Stone says absolutely not; he didn't know the council was considering the supplemental funding. The letter to Beaufort County Council members was one of four he sent to counties in his five-county circuit. Only Jasper County didn't get one; that county gave Stone the money he asked for this year.

On Wednesday, the Finance Committee voted 3-2 not to give the $125,000 to Stone's office, but said it would revisit the issue later this year.

For those of us on the outside, a few things don't make much sense:

  • The full council gave preliminary approval for the extra $125,000 on June 24, the day the council gave final approval to the county's $99 million operating budget. If it made sense then to give Stone the money, why not now? Nothing -- other than a letter some of them didn't like -- has come up since then.

  • If the council knew it had additional money to spread around, why didn't it include it in the annual budget, rather than tacking it on later?

  • On Wednesday, the Finance Committee did approve giving an additional $400,000 to Beaufort Memorial Hospital, the University of South Carolina Beaufort, the Technical College of the Lowcountry and the Hilton Head Island Recreation Center. Perhaps there's a good reason, but it doesn't seem a sound way to run a business or a county government, especially when other folks have to make hiring decisions based on what you do.

    The county's budget process this year was rife with confusion, not just for those watching, but also for council members. Pinning down exactly how much money was going to which department and for what use proved far more difficult than it should have been. The budget was a constantly moving target up until -- and apparently even after -- the final vote.

    Stone's funding issues are due in part to state and federal grants ending this year. That took away about $466,000. Grants are great, and they've paid for some productive initiatives, but they do run out, and it's not a good idea to count on them for ongoing operations.

    Council members Wednesday also expressed concerns about their obligation in years ahead due to committing another $125,000 to the Solicitor's Office. They indicated a state law requires them to fund the Solicitor's Office at the same level as the prior year.

    But the law doesn't require that. An annual budget proviso states that if a solicitor gets less money than the year before, he is to notify the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the chairman of the House and Ways and Means Committee. The county risks getting less money from the state as a result of cutting the solicitor's funding. Lawmakers don't want local governments substituting local funding with state money intended to supplement operations.

    Nothing in Stone's tenure as solicitor suggests that he's trying to put one over on County Council. Stone has been very methodical and purposeful in how he's run the largest circuit geographically in the state. He's put in place better caseload management, targeted prosecution and other strategies that have resulted in big reductions in backlogged cases. His career criminal team has helped reduce the population at the once over-crowded county Detention Center. We've long since stopped talking about needing to build a new jail.

    To put his Beaufort County allocation in perspective, consider this: The county has budgeted $21 million this fiscal year for Sheriff's Office operations and $5.5 million for the Detention Center. That's more than $26 million to arrest people and house them. Is $1 million-plus too much to ask to prosecute them?

    We're confident if County Council asks Stone to explain -- again -- what he will do with the money the county gives him, he can do so and in detail.

    County Council should address facts and figures and quantifiable needs, not perceived political slights. It also needs to get a better handle on the budgeting process.

    And Stone should weigh more carefully the timing and content of future letters, no matter what his motivation.

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