By Paul Gable
There appears to be a bottleneck at the top of the Horry County budget process that may not be serving the citizens in the best possible fashion.
Early every calendar year, the various county departments submit budget proposals for their respective departments to senior county staff.
Senior staff then prepares a draft budget that becomes the document discussed at county council’s spring budget retreat and traditionally gets first reading at that time.
After the basic document is prepared, the various department heads meet with the committee that oversees policy for that department and attempt to make a case for the budget they prepared early in the year.
But, the working budget document has already been prepared by senior staff before those meetings and senior staff owns and jealously guards that document. Getting changes into it, other than those council itself may dictate, is difficult to say the least.
This process led to the lawsuit that Horry County Treasurer Angie Jones filed against Horry County Government and Administrator Chris Eldridge last fall.
Even though Jones was elected in November 2016 and would take office at the beginning of the fiscal year which began July 1, 2017, she was not allowed to participate in last year’s budget process.
When Jones got into office, she determined there was a need for several more employees in her department. She went before the county’s Administration Committee late last summer requesting just one more employee to get her department through the year. That request denied leading Jones to file suit.
The county’s answer to Jones’ complaint in the lawsuit was to attack her personally and to claim she was mishandling her duties and department.
The lawsuit between Jones and the county is ongoing, but the county is now preparing for a new budget to begin July 1, 2018.
Jones appeared before the Administration Committee earlier this week. According to information presented at the meeting, county staff had budgeted a mere $20,000 additional in operating expenses for the Treasurer’s Office next year over the current year’s budget.
Jones presented some interesting numbers – this year the county generated approximately 755,000 tax notices of various types, a full 75% of which are paid by citizens at the various office locations throughout the county, a process that requires a clerk to handle each transaction at the office. And, the second drive-up position at the Treasurer’s Office in Conway does not work when the temperature falls below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Only 25% of taxpayers use the lockbox system for mailing in payments and few are willing to pay the fees associated with paying taxes by “e-checks”, which are basically drafts from the taxpayer’s bank account.
There is currently $90 million in delinquent taxes owed to Horry County, which the shortage of staff hinders attempts to collect the delinquencies.
In short, the Treasurer’s Office needs more than the $20,000 increase in operations recommended by senior county staff. In return, the county will receive far in excess of the approximately additional $100,000 Jones needs in her budget and the citizens will be better served.
The fog began to lift at the Administration Committee meeting this week. Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said maybe the reason for all the delinquent taxes was the office didn’t have enough people. Lazarus asked staff to immediately look at repairing the drive-up window problem and to find a way to eliminate charges on “e-checks”.
I believe Lazarus could have gone further by telling senior staff to ‘get off its high horse’ and start working in the interest of the citizens rather than jealously guarding their petty little empires.
But, maybe it’s a start.