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Horry County backs up on cuts

Horry County Council members grappled Friday over whether to cut the pay of county workers by 1 percent or re-allocate money from the road maintenance and paving fund to bring the fiscal 2011 budget inline.

On the second day of the council's spring budget retreat, members disagreed on where to cut costs in the aftermath of a vote Thursday that approved the 1 percent pay cut on a first reading, an amount that would be an average of $400 per employee. The council also debated a change in revenue to the county fire fund that may call for several fire stations to be temporarily closed.

"We're paving more roads now than we ever have," said Councilman Harold Worley. "For the life of me, I can't vote to pave roads in my district or yours or any other on the backs of these employees who are struggling now. You're going to take another $400 from them? That ain't right. I can't do it."

Worley said he plans to introduce an amendment to the budget to reallocate hospitality fund money being used for road maintenance to get rid of a portion of the employee pay cuts. He also said he plans to amend the budget to fund The Coast Regional Transportation Authority, which received $500,000 in county funding last year and received no funding in the new preliminary budget.

Councilman Howard Barnard said he felt that county government had unnecessarily grown in the plentiful budget years during the county's building boom. He said now that the county budget was back at 2005 revenue levels, the county staff should be back at those levels as well. Barnard suggested that instead of cutting pay, the county should cut 25 positions through attrition and define the level of service it can and should provide for county residents.

"I argue that we are running a revenue based budget, not a needs-based budget. We have grown government during the fat times and now we're seeing the problems caused by that," he said.

Councilmen Marion Foxworth and Bob Grabowski challenged Barnard to define those levels and make suggestions of where to cut those employee positions. Infrastructure and Regulations Division Director Steve Gosnell said his division has already cut 20 to 30 percent of its employees by holding those positions vacant or un-funding them when they became open.

The Public Safety Division has grown even since last year because the growing population in the county and in the jail over the last decade called for more police and guard personnel.

"We grew public safety with that extra money. We were woefully behind. ... We were well below national averages for police officers per 1,000 people, and we are still below that average," said county Budget Director Westley Sawyer.

The staff was directed to both consider alternate ways to absorb the employee pay cut and to identify positions that could be eliminated by attrition that will be discussed at the budget workshop scheduled for May 20. Several council members, as well as Sawyer, said an employee pay cut could be worse next year if the council decides to use one-time money to stave off the decision.

The council also heard from Sawyer about the possible effects of a $1 million shortfall in fire service millage from the unincorporated portions of the county. With lower tax collection revenues and a need to keep a tight hold on expenditures for future budget woes, the county will likely reduce overtime for firefighters and provide minimum staffing levels on trucks. The move would likely also suspend equipment replacements for several older firetrucks and building replacements for several metal framed buildings such as the Juniper Bay and Bayboro stations. Sawyer said several stations might have to be temporarily closed.

Sawyer said a drop in the revenue from the recreation millage would likely mean fewer part-time and seasonal staff would be hired this year. The road fund also took some hits in the attempt to balance the 2011 budget, with $1.75 million transferred to the general fund to pay for other expenses and about $400,000 cut from private road construction.

Several council members targeted portions of the remaining fund to restore the employee pay cut or to fund the Coast RTA.