Richland Co.: Yes to Tax Hikes, No Personnel Cuts

July 14, 2015

Investigative Reports

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The NerveFor Richland County government, being located in the middle of dysfunction junction has its advantages.

On the one hand are two words: State House.

Need we say more?

On the other hand is the City of Columbia.

For those both in and outside the Capital City, two words also suffice for its most egregious sign of dysfunction – financial meltdown – although there are many other examples, both large and small.

Perhaps the most well known of those is former City Councilman E.W. Cromartie, who recently resigned as part of a plea agreement stemming from federal tax evasion charges.

By contrast, having avoided a major disaster in the past few years, Richland County has managed to rock along comparatively under the radar amid the state’s and city’s high-profile issues.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that all is roses with the county, though.

In an era of recessionary belt tightening, public schools across South Carolina have axed 1,400 teaching jobs this fiscal year; and state government as well as many local governments have laid off and furloughed employees en masse.

Richland County?

Not so much.

In fact, not at all, says Stephany Snowden, chief spokeswoman for the county.

Richland employs about 275 people whose salaries exceed $50,000, including Snowden, according to an online local government salary database.

Almost half of those workers are general administration employees who, on average, earn more than their colleagues in the county’s Sheriff’s Department and emergency services division, an analysis of the database by The Nerve shows.

In contrast to layoffs and furloughs, the county has increased property taxes for three consecutive years, including in the current budget calendar.

At the same time, the county has offered up handouts to a multinational corporation; agreed to help pay for a multimillion-dollar planetarium project at the South Carolina State Museum; and considered giving raises to a select group of Richland employees – the county treasurer and six other elected or appointed officials.

Meanwhile, the county-run jail continues to present funding challenges in the size of the inmate population and medical care for detainees.

Also, the county bus system faces a financial blowout because it is running on an interim funding plan that is scheduled to expire in 2011.

All this while the county’s general fund budget has grown from about $111.4 million in fiscal year 2006 to nearly $133.8 million this year, although the current figure is down $3.6 million from last year.

Still, overall it’s a jump of $22.4 million, or 20 percent, in five years.

In the form of tax breaks, Richland’s corporate welfare is on tap for Verizon, to subsidize a call center the communications giant is building.

The value of the county’s giveaways to the global company is unknown at this time. In December, Richland County Council approved a memorandum of understanding to provide the freebies to Verizon. But a fee-in-lieu-of-taxes ordinance to codify the incentives is still in the works.

The call center is under construction in northeast Richland County adjacent to the affluent Woodcreek Farms neighborhood, where such notables as Steve Spurrier live.

Once the facility is completed, Verizon is expected to transfer some 1,500 employees to it from a call center the company operates at a mall in Forest Acres, a city bordering Columbia, and subsequently vacate that site.

Many Woodcreek Farms residents are none too pleased with the impact the new call center could have on their property values and an increase in traffic it will bring to their community.

The residents also are unhappy with the way County Council handled the project. They accuse the county of working on it in secret and signing off on the call center without knowing such basics as where it would be located.

Tom Dougall, an attorney who operates a law office in Woodcreek Farms, criticizes Richland on those process grounds. “My only complaint is the lack of transparency,” Dougall says.

County Councilwoman Val Hutchinson, who represents that part of Richland, agrees. “I felt the same way,” she says.

Hutchinson says she could not make heads or tails of a site plan for the call center. “You could not tell that it was right next to Woodcreek development,” she says.

County Administrator Milton Pope and other parties had signed a confidentiality agreement on the project, contributing to a dearth of information about it, Hutchinson says. “We were told that we were voting on keeping the 1,500 jobs in Richland County.”

On March 11, The Nerve submitted a list of questions to Snowden related to the issues this article addresses.

Snowden supplied answers to most of the questions.

However, as of this report being posted – more than two weeks after the questions were presented – Snowden had failed to reply to a couple of the most important ones:

  • Whether the county raised taxes this year and, if so, by how much; and
  • Whether Richland has increased any of its fees in the past two fiscal years.

When Snowden, whose salary is a little more than $75,000, began working for the county several years ago, she was the only employee whose job is to handle media inquires. Now, she has two additional people working under her.

County Councilman Greg Pearce says it’s fair to question why, unlike many other local governments across the state, Richland has raised taxes but not laid off or furloughed any employees.

“Yes, we raised taxes,” Pearce says.

But he says it was a pittance of an increase this year. And Pearce says Richland is far more fiscally sound than numerous other local governments.

As evidence of the county’s financial condition, he says Richland has accrued sizeable reserves and that the county tapped them to the tune of about $2 million to help balance its budget this year. “And we’ll use some more next year.”

In addition, County Council has directed the Richland administration to draft a no-tax-increase budget for the coming year, Pearce says.

As for the Verizon project, he says, “It was a surprise to me that the folks at Woodcreek Farms were all upset about it.”

He says the call center represents a $40 million capital investment, and Verizon could have built it in Lexington County or Kershaw County and taken the 1,500 jobs along with the facility.

“We thought it was a good deal,” Pearce says of Richland’s incentives for Verizon.

The county’s taxpayers certainly hope so.

Reach Ward at (803) 779-5022, ext. 117, or eric@scpolicycouncil.com.