Deceptive Swansea Budget Passes First Reading

March 15, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveBy Alberta Wasden
Citizen Reporter

For the fifth year Swansea is on its the way to passing a budget the town’s mayor and council knows is filled with overstated income and understated expenses.

On March 7, the town council voted 3-2 to approve the 2011 budget, with Mayor Ray Spires and council members Linda Butler and Woodrow Davis giving their approval despite concerns regarding the veracity of the financial plan for the current year, which began Jan. 1.

By law, town officials must wait 15 days before a second reading can be heard and the budget can be approved.

While the town’s audit firm of Rish & Enzastiga said Swansea’s 2010 budget was as “close to being a real budget the town has ever produced,” it looks like 2011 is going to be another off-the-wall budget.

The past four audits have consistently pointed out that the mayor and town clerk have produced budgets overstating revenue, giving the town’s citizens a false sense of confidence that Swansea is bringing in enough revenue to cover its bills.

However, the deepening red ink shows a town drowning in debt.

This year two of the council members, Benjamin Simons and Jerald Sanders, have constantly complained about the mistakes and errors on the proposed budget, but to no avail.

Simons has repeatedly asked for complete financials and correctly figured budgets while Sanders has asked for minutes showing where Spires had been given permission to overspend the previous budgets, sending the town spiraling into an ever-growing pool of debt.

Neither councilman’s request has been fulfilled, but Spires isn’t concerned as he has Butler and Davis voting with him.

These same two council members often chide the other two for trying to hurt Spires’s feelings.

“It isn’t the mayor’s feelings that are hurt by the continuous overspending, it is the citizens of Swansea,” according to Sanders.

When asked to see copies of the bank statements, Simons was told by Town Clerk Lorraine Abells that he would have to wait until the salaries were removed.

Since the salaries are voted on by the council, Simons could not understand the difference.

“Why can’t I see the statements, and who does she think we are voting on when we vote on her salary?” he asked.

Abells’ salary and benefits make her the highest-paid town clerk in South Carolina for a town with a population of less than 1,000, according to Municipal Association of South Carolina data.

The Municipal Association of South Carolina also lists salaries for mayors, and a comparison shows Spires, who pulls down $18,000 annually, is the highest-paid mayor for a town the size of Swansea.

However, he is willing to take a pay cut, he has said. Some South Carolina mayors have refused salaries during the ongoing economic downturn, turning down thousands of dollars, while Spires is willing to take a cut of about $3,200, or about 18 percent.

Spires hasn’t said he’s willing to give up the use of a paid cell phone or the town’s newly purchased 2010 SUV and unlimited gas. He also hasn’t giving up money the town contributes toward his retirement.

Saying a one-day-a-month furlough for the town’s employees will cure the ailing budget, Spires is touting what he calls “a balanced budget.”

The mayor usually has the second and final reading take place following the public meeting. This makes it more difficult to consider suggestions or complaints from tow residents.

“What is new about that? This is the way they have always done it, they never change the budget, no matter what the people say,” resident Doris Simmons said.

“Mayor Spires has the votes and between the three of them (Spires, Butler and Davis) the budget is going to pass no matter how much further in debt we get and he is going to continue spending without bringing it before the public and the council,” Simmons added.

Sarah Forrester, another Swansea resident, is also angry about the growing debt.

“Only now are the citizens of Swansea beginning to realize how much debt, over $4.5 million, we are in,” she said. “We are looking at increases in all public services … and the mayor and most of the council has spent us into a hole we can’t climb out of without going up on everything.”

Forrester has started a petition asking Spires to resign as mayor.