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BAMBERG - Bamberg County Council approved a $25 million spending plan despite some council members’ concerns about pay.

"I'm satisfied with the budget and where it's at,” Councilman the Rev. Isaiah Odom said last week.

Councilman Larry Haynes said, "We went through a lot of things to try to see what we could cut."

Council gave final, third-reading approval to the budget during last week’s special meeting. The budget calls for a general fund of about $8 million, along with separate accounts set up for special revenue ($6.6 million), enterprise ($1.5 million), debt service ($362,825) and capital projects ($8.6 million).

Council Chairman Trent Kinard and council members Haynes, Evert Comer Jr., Joe Guess Jr. and Odom voted to adopt the budget. Council members Clint Carter and Vice Chairperson Sharon Hammond voted against it.

Hammond said she submitted questions to County Administrator Joey Preston the month before, but he only responded the afternoon before the budget vote. She said her questions were not all answered.

"I'm not able to look at this budget and see where we are to say that these are the changes we need to make. We didn't sit down and do a line-by-line item on the budget," she said.

Kinard said, "The point is this: How many council members called Joey or sat down with him and asked him these questions?"

Hammond said she sent the administrator a letter, but Kinard said the easiest method would have been to meet with Preston face-to-face to get budget questions answered.

"No, I need to look at it first. That's how you do it. ... If I would have got the information that I asked for, I would have understood it. You don't have to do nothing but follow the numbers," she said.

Preston said he could not legally answer some of Hammond's questions because they dealt with employees and their salaries.

Hammond said, "No, we used to get the budget where it would break down per person and not per group, the whole group."

She also expressed concerns that, "over the last couple of years, the same employees are getting raises."

"Some folks get raises every year. It's not fair," she said.

Preston said, "The only time anyone gets a raise now is if it's budgeted to do that. ... I hear what you're saying, but if there's someone that you think is not being treated equitably, let me know who that is."

"OK, that's fair," Hammond said.

Carter drew applause when he said, "I think what Ms. Hammond is referencing is a merit raise. When we vote for a no cost-of-living raise and then we have two individuals, as she said, in three years got $15,000 worth of raises, that's what we're talking about.

"We voted for no cost-of-living raise, and then administration comes up and gives individuals raises like that. And really the business isn't any better than it was three or four years before that. ... And it needs to come out to where if anybody gets a raise and then if it's voted on that no raises go on, then the salaries should reflect that and not reflect an increase."

Carter said, "I feel like the budget, we're way top heavy on salaries. Not all, but some. Some are very underpaid."

County resident Bobbi Bunch asked each council person if they presented the administrator with anything that needed to be cut in certain departments.

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"Within the last couple of weeks we've discussed some items that we considered," Comer said. He told Bunch that there were no line items in the final budget that he was worried or concerned about.

County Controller Gina Smith has said the county would see a bigger general fund budget, with increasing health insurance and retirement contribution costs totaling $120,400 more than in the previous year.

The county budget, however, should reduce taxes by nine mills.

Smith has said that the total millage for FY 2018-19 was 255.1. The millage for FY 2019-20 is estimated to be at 245.4, with the main difference being that the one-time road maintenance levy of 9.5 mills being taken away.

The millage decrease means owners of houses valued at $100,000 will see a decrease of $38.40 in their property tax bills, County Auditor Margaret Meyer said Friday.

The spending plan does not include a cost-of-living increase for employees. The average employee with family coverage, however, will not have to pay $1,500 more per year in health insurance costs because the county is absorbing 100 percent of the increases in health insurance costs from prior years.

Guess said, "I wasn't sure that that was the right thing to do. But, in any event, I expressed myself on that.”

He also noted that the amount the county is providing for fire departments when "some of them have bank accounts in the tens of thousands of dollars" also concerned him even as their services are appreciated.

Kinard said, "I promise you we worked on this budget this year. …

“We cut in operating expenses. Through the help of Gina ... we cut $284,650 out of that. Out of the non-contractual operating expenses, we cut $322,265. In capital, we cut $25,950. And then the general fund, $60,785 is the increase. Folks, that's pretty good."

Kinard said the while this year's budget increased, the increase represents money that the county expects to come in through grants.

Bunch said, "Just please consider what we can do. If we can't do it this year, we've got to work on more committees and more things along during the year to see what we can cut back and do things along and along."

Guess said, "Well, we did make some cuts this year. There's going to come a point and time also when you realize what those cuts mean."

Smith has said cuts were made to every single department across the board.

Increased retirement contributions are poised to impact the county's budget to the tune of $72,400.

Landfill/solid waste services are managed under the enterprise fund. Its operating expenses are leaping by $32,380 over FY 2018-19 because the county is expecting an increase in the contracts for hauling waste to the Three Rivers Solid Waste Authority.

In the area of debt service, the fund's total budget decreased by $5,690 from $368,515 in FY 2018-19 to $362,825 in FY 2019-20 in part because the county has been paying down its “mini” general obligation bonds, with one bond already paid in full.

The county is also paying off a $1.5 million general obligation bond for its now-defunct hospital. That will not be paid off until 2028.

In referencing the budget, John Gleaton said, "Y'all shifting funds and money and trying to make it look like we're not doing anything.”

He said the county's high taxes are the real problem.

"We as citizens try to support the county, we try to help the county. I've been in here since '69, and I don't see anything improving in Bamberg County. People all the time talking about leaving and getting out the county.

"Maybe y'all got family that wants to tie down and stay here. My family doesn't. My family is largely out of the county. I don't foresee them coming back to the county. And this is the problem we dealing with, and y'all don't seem to worry about what the taxes are," he said.

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Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter at @DionneTandD.

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