Editor’s Note: The following column was submitted by Nerve Citizen Reporter Alberta Wasden. An accountant, Wasden first became involved with The Nerve’s Citizen Reporter program after she was slapped with a $10,000 bill for filing a state Freedom of Information Act request with the town of Swansea, where she runs a consulting business, for basic information such as meeting minutes and financial statements.
Once again, I’m amazed at the lack of foresight by Swansea Mayor Ray Spires and most members of Town Council. A new budget is being presented to the public; and once again, “Santa Claus” Mayor Spires has concocted a deficit budget hidden by omissions and unreal numbers.
Stating his usual urgency to “get this budget passed,” Santa Mayor Spires has wrapped up and slid a last-minute budget package under the town’s Christmas tree. Councilman Jerald Sanders has complained for months about the necessity of starting work on the 2013 budget. When interviewed Councilman Sanders stated: “I have asked Mayor Spires repeatedly to be given actual facts and figures, and I still don’t have them. How am I to make decisions on a budget when I am being kept in the dark? Now at the last minute Mayor Spires is putting pressure on the council to pass a budget that includes a sewer rate increase he has known about for months and salary increases. I cannot vote for a budget I know is not correct and is going further in the red each year.”
Santa Mayor Spires should have known about a looming sewer rate increase, as he serves on the Lexington County Municipal Joint Water Sewer Commission. But he and his council “elves” – Linda Butler, David Martin and Woodrow Davis – are going to give the citizens of Swansea other Christmas “gifts” as well, including a trash-pickup rate increase, and a new grease-trap ordinance for local churches and businesses. Swansea’s local churches and businesses with kitchens could be paying thousands of dollars for the new mandatory grease traps.
Santa Mayor Spires has stated repeatedly in council meetings that each new change is to improve the living conditions of the citizens of Swansea and will attract new industry to Swansea. Sadly to say, though, when this “present” is opened, there is only increasing debt and the bleak outline of the crumbling downtown of Swansea. But the people of Swansea do have a nearly $300,000 fountain. It also serves Santa Mayor Spires as a place to put his $8,000-or-more Christmas tree with decorations. True, this present of debt was not in the budget, and it did surprise even the council elves. Asked about the expensive Christmas tree, Councilman Sanders – continuing to be the voice of the “ghost” of deficit budgets past – commented, “The money would have been better spent fixing up the rusted and run-down playground equipment at the rented park the town already uses, or, better still, put on purchasing a real town park with parking.”
The “ghost” of Swansea’s 2011 present audit shows the town swimming in red ink and facing $1 million in debt in the General and Administrative Fund for 2012. In addition, nearly $5 million is earmarked in loans for new water/sewer lines and refinanced debt. Not apparently wanting to ruin the cheer of the season, Santa Mayor Spires and three council elves have decided to ignore the advice of their Grinch auditor and his warning that the town is on the edge of not being able to meet its financial obligations.
So what does Santa Mayor Spires and his three elves have in their sleigh to make this a better budget for 2013? They are going to give raises to everyone working for the town and yes, that includes the Santa mayor and council elves. They are putting in the town employees’ stockings this Christmas salary increases ranging from 2.4 percent to 3.5 percent. There is no argument an increase is definitely needed for the overworked and underpaid Swansea police force. Police Chief Cliff Hayes is trying to provide full coverage to citizens and businesses without paying overtime while trying to deal with cutbacks and mandated employee furloughs. Still, one would think it would be obvious to Santa Mayor Spires with his supposedly looking-to-attract-businesses-to-the-area spending policy, that coverage and protection by a police force likely would attract businesses more than a pretty fountain locally nicknamed “Ray’s Folly.”
Santa Mayor Spires and his merry band of three council elves are bestowing salary increases to employees already making more than $35,000 in salary and benefits a year for things like cutting grass, hauling away trash and picking up an occasional stray animal. The employee taking money for water/sewer bills receives an annual salary of $30,000 plus benefits. Rick Bryan, the utility manager of the Swansea Water Department, pointed out in the budget meeting that Santa Mayor Spires’ 2 percent increase does not keep up with retirement and medical increases in 2013. He is correct: The increase will be almost 3.4 percent, according to the budget. The smallest proposed pay hikes are 2.4 percent for street maintenance workers and police officers.
Unfortunately, the citizens of Swansea will not have the advantage of a 2.4 percent or 3.4 percent pay increase to help offset increases in their sewer rates to help pay for the city of Cayce’s new wastewater treatment plant. The town of Swansea runs over 100,060 gallons of water daily through the city’s old treatment plant at a present cost of approximately $92,847 as of August or September this year. Bryan proposed several options to reduce the impact of another water/sewer rate increase on the citizens and businesses to make up the $131,428 needed in 2013. His adopted option by the mayor and council uses the approximately $25,000 left from the $380,000 HUD grant and $75,000 set aside in the Lexington County Municipal Joint Water Sewer Commission for other water department needs. This still is not enough to pay for the onetime charge of more than $152,000 to help offset Cayce’s cost of building the new facility. Approximately $52,000 is left to be financed, which would be added to the $6 million debt already in Santa Mayor Spires’ budget sleigh. Ho! Ho! Ho!
Christmas this year likely will be bleak for more than a few families in the Swansea area. According to Emily Allen from the Literacy Center, 86 percent of the Swansea area’s children live in poverty. A few dollars increase in a bill can mean no food to eat, and fixed-income families are trying to budget their dollars to stay warm this season and eat. The budget for the town of Swansea should be pinched as tight as possible. The mayor and council members have said several times that if a passed budget isn’t correct, it can be fixed. But the budget is not fixed; money is not watched over; and the pocket this money comes out of is your pocket. The mayor and council need to hear your opinion and to be held accountable to the public for every penny. Every member of the council should be able to tell any person living in the Swansea area exactly where each dollar is spent. Santa Mayor Spires and his three council elves are ready to load his sleigh with this budget. Let them know this is one gift you want to return early, and you want them to bring you a budget you can afford to keep. Remind them you are watching, and you know when they have been bad or good – so be good for goodness sake.