Oconee Won’t Return Surplus to Taxpayers

January 25, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveAs of June 30, 2009, Oconee County in South Carolina had roughly $14.14 million in cash, $29.55 million in investments and $5.77 million in CDs, for a total of nearly $49.5 million. After subtracting for debt service, accounts payable, outstanding purchase orders and a few other various commitments, a balance of almost $29 million remained.

District One County Councilman Paul Corbeil claims that of that balance about $18 million will be needed to make payments for the last six months of the fiscal year. Yet, in 2008 about $14 million was collected in taxes from July to December.

However, Corbeil may have a point. Because of a “computer glitch,” tax notices which were to be mailed on Oct. 1 will probably not go out until the end of November, if then.

Corbeil also claims that about $9 million will be needed for capital projects during the next couple of months, although no one seems to know what capital projects are coming due or if any are even scheduled. Nevertheless, Corbeil believes the $29 million balance is quite reasonable.

When the Oconee County School District learned that the County was sitting on a pile of money, the district asked to borrow $4.5 million at 1 percent to see them through the rest of the year, with a promise to repay the money by April 15, 2010. Without hesitation, the loan was made. So, now the County Council is in the business of lending money.

So, where did all this money come from? Well, that is easy. It came from the taxpayers, of course.

According to the South Carolina Budget and Control Board, Oconee County taxpayers pay nearly two-thirds more than the state average in local property taxes. (The state average is $263 per person while the average in Oconee County is $438 per person.)

In addition, the people of Oconee County were overtaxed during the 2007 and 2008 time frame when Duke Power paid several million in back taxes which was not taken into account with a millage reduction for that year, according to County Treasurer Greg Nowell.

At the County Council meeting on November 17, a handful of residents complained to the council during the public comment session. In general, the group wanted the money to be refunded to the taxpayers.

During the extended public comment session county resident George Cleveland added more fuel to the fire when he admonished the council for keeping the taxpayers money. Another person asked if the council would be willing to lend him $1 million at 1 percent interest, being facetious, of course.

Giving the money back to taxpayers could be done. Those who paid the most would get the most back, including Duke Power and other industries.

But with the looming requirement for capital projects such as as new detention center, the courthouse modifications, a new library and other important projects, it would appear taxes would almost have to be increased, which in turn would nullify any refund.

With federal spending out of control and states making deeper cuts, it is rewarding to know that Oconee County is “solidly in the black.”

But the people of the county, the average taxpayer who has been out of work for the past year or so, looks at that pile of cash as money they could use, especially at this time of the year.

The five members of the council are all good men and want to do the right thing for the people of the county. To do uphold their civic responsibilities, they must have factual information upon which they can make accountable decisions. That’s why it is so important to have transparency at all levels of government.
Hopefully, in the near future all governmental accounts will be online and available to everyone at no expense.

Ed Rumsey is a retired Air Force pilot with a small business on Historic Ram Cat Alley in Seneca.