Time for county to update budget process

info@islandpacket.comNovember 27, 2013 

Beaufort County has finally found a way to restore library hours by about 10 hours per week at most of its branches starting in early 2014 -- a welcome change to many library patrons. Branches in Beaufort, Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island are expected to be open 50 hours a week sometime early in the new year. The St. Helena Island and Lobeco branches will remain at 40 hours per week.

But we're troubled by how the county thought it had the money to restore hours, only to later discover it did not. It possibly points to disorderly parts of the budgeting process, which does not engender confidence in County Council's handling of public funds.

Consider: In 2011, library hours were reduced from 68 to 40 per week as part of countywide budget cuts. Then last summer, County Council chairman Paul Sommerville and Vice Chairman Stu Rodman, who oversees the county's Finance Committee, said $4 million had been included in the budget to restore the hours at all branches except the Lobeco library. The belief there would be money to do so was fueled, in part, because the Beaufort County library system received $166,000 more in the 2014 budget -- money some members incorrectly believed would be used to extend hours -- even though a letter from the library board chairwoman Patsy Hand to Sommerville stated otherwise.

In short: Council members were not clear on what they voted on and approved.

It turned out the $4 million was only enough to maintain existing hours, not to increase them.

Fast forward to today. Hours are scheduled to be restored, but not until the second half of the fiscal year because the county lacks the money to do so sooner. County leaders are reworking the budget now so that extended hours can be funded through the last six months of the fiscal year.

We applaud county efforts to find money for extended hours.

But the county must take new precautions to ensure such confusion does not happen again. Perhaps they should start the budgeting process earlier. Or maybe new protocols should be put in place so that council members are clear on what they're voting on.

Steve Baer, a former council member who resigned in July, has said budget drafts change frequently without a clear understanding of which line items have changed. He and council member Jerry Stewart have both expressed concerns that multiple budget drafts are sometimes under consideration at the same time.

It's time for such practices to end. Otherwise, more confusion could occur as the county begins preparing its new budget in coming months. And that would erode a commodity as precious as public dollars: the public's trust in its elected leaders.

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