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BAMBERG – Bamberg County Administrator Joey Preston says the county is developing a budget proposal with no tax increase.

"We are having a Finance Committee meeting next week and a balanced budget with no tax increase will be presented,” Administrator Joey Preston said Tuesday.

Bamberg County Council discussed the budget on Monday, giving first-reading approval, by title only, to the county’s 2019-20 spending plan.

A tentative budget has generally included proposed figures for the county's general fund, along with separate accounts set up for special revenue, enterprise, debt service and capital projects.

But Councilman Clint Carter complained Monday that details weren’t available for the first of three required readings.

"I haven't seen any figures as to what the budget is going to look like," Carter said.

Voting in favor of the budget were council members Evert Comer Jr., Larry Haynes, the Rev. Isaiah Odom, Trent Kinard, Joe Guess Jr. and Councilwoman Sharon Hammond. Carter was opposed.

"We don't have any numbers," Carter said.

Kinard, the council chairman, said that the figures will be developed and that's why the reading was by title only.

County Controller Gina Smith on Tuesday said, "We are still in the process of making cuts to the budget requests. Most departments were conservative in their requests this year, as they understand the financial situation."

County residents have continued to come to council meetings expressing concerns over high taxes. Monday night was no different, with Susan Carter and Dean Fralix being among those who spoke.

"We're letting you know that we can't afford to pay any more taxes. We are taxed out," Carter said.

Fralix said, "Everything in this world goes in cycles. ... The way this cycle's going is dropping off the cliff."

Dave Clayton asked what the total indebtedness of the county is.

Smith said Tuesday that figure totaled $14,048,792 as of June 30, 2017, noting that that figure will be updated once she has the audit for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2018.

In other matters, council heard from Denmark resident Deanna Berry, a member of Denmark Citizens for Safe Water.

Berry said she recently met with Sixth District Congressman Jim Clyburn and state Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, regarding Denmark's water infrastructure.

The system received an unsatisfactory rating from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. The water quality was rated satisfactory.

Berry said Clyburn told her the City of Denmark needs to own the 40-year-old water tank between Bamberg and Denmark to receive grants to improve its water system.

The county currently owns the tower.

"That tank has had deficiencies since 2007. Nobody wants to take ownership, or find out who's responsible for maintaining the tower. But the tower provides pressure to the citizens in Denmark. We need that tower," Berry said.

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Kinard said the county has maintained the tower, including repairing leaking cracks. He said the county’s tried to give the water tank to the City of Denmark three times and “they don't want it."

The county has been working with the Lower Savannah Council of Governments to seek assistance with improving the tower, Preston said.

"The County Council knows that there's going to have to be upgrades to that tank. That's got to happen. It's got to happen sooner than later. We've been working with COG. In the past 60 days now, Denmark has reached out and they said they're interested in maybe taking ownership of the tank. ...

"But like your experience in dealing with municipal entities, we’ve got to make sure it's done right. Denmark doesn't have a good reputation when it comes to water tanks and towers. ... I'm not sure exactly why the tank has to be turned over in order to get the grant, but all that's going to come together in the next 30 to 45 days or so. So we're right on with you," Preston said.

Berry said while she understands that the aging water tank is not the sole reason for Denmark's water woes, "it is a key piece to us getting the funding that we need to completely redo the entire infrastructure. I support a regional water system. So I'm not sure exactly the details of why a regional water system isn't in such a small area."

Kinard said a study on the development of a regional water system was conducted years back, "but I think Denmark is the one that held that up, if you remember."

Also during the meeting, Kay Maxwell, vice president of marketing at SouthernCarolina Alliance, updated council on economic development efforts.

"We recently did a new video on the CrossRhodes spec building. ... We're sending that to our site consultants as well as other allies we've worked with to try to promote that building," she said.

Maxwell noted a $40 billion food processing company has looked at the possibility of locating at a Bamberg site.

"It's just so important that we get everything positive and get our acts together and that we're ready because we've got a lot at stake here for the future of our county," she said.

SCA has secured an ad agency which will be assisting with a new internal marketing campaign for Bamberg and Allendale counties, Maxwell said.

In the area of business development, council gave first reading approval by title only to an ordinance authorizing a fee-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement between the county and Project Pegasus, along with special source revenue credits.

"It's a very important project that could bring 132 jobs to Bamberg County," and $2.1 million in capital investment, Maxwell said. The company is a manufacturer and distributor of home fashions and accessories and sports memorabilia.

In other matters, Preston updated council on USDA Rural Development's Community Connect Grant Program which the county has been participating in to expand broadband access to underserved rural areas. The county is partnering with Orangeburg Broadband to build the system.

"We've already received a commitment from the state of South Carolina for the match portion of the first round, which is close to half a million dollars. ... That allows us go into phase two of the project quicker now. ... You're talking about close to $15 million that we could get from the feds to reinvest back into Bamberg County," he said.

The administrator also reported that county is moving forward with work at the site of the former Bamberg County Hospital, which closed in 2012.

The facility is now being transformed into a county law enforcement and health and human services complex. Voters approved the project as part of the second round of the 1 percent capital projects sales tax.

"We had to go in and do an assessment of the building at the old hospital. That was done. We came in under budget on that and we're in under budget on removal (of mold and asbestos) by $150,000, which means we'll have more money to put into the building to convert it," Preston said.

"As part of the law enforcement center, there's also the new emergency operations center that becomes a part of that," Preston said. The county will be seeking state funds to help with funding for those plans once they are done.

He also reported that state lawmakers agreed to keep Denmark Technical College open for at least one more year.

The county will be transferring funds, which will come from 1 mill added to the 2019 budget, to the college this month. The roughly $26,000 can only be used for the physical plant and property.

In other business, County Treasurer Alice Johnson reported the county's total income in April was $1,815,183, with expenditures of $751,166, for a positive balance of $1,064,017.

County Finance Director T.M. Thomas reported the general fund generated $7,085,304 in year-to-date revenue as of the end of April. Expenditures stood at almost $5,853,041, leaving a positive balance of $1,232,263. He said all departments continue to operate within their budgets.

Also during the meeting, council approved the appointment of Nancy Foster to serve as a private sector representative to the Lower Savannah Workforce Development Board and presented the Employee of the Quarter Award to Bill Johnson, county director of operations.

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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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