EDITORIAL: What if we did have a tax increase
One of the most frustrating jobs ever must be putting together Laurens County’s budget.
You take one step forward, and two steps back. Six years ago, you had a $9 million surplus. Then, the full effect of the 2008 recession hit. The SC General Assembly began using the Local Government Fund to balance the state budget, and $1 million a year - the shortage by the state - started coming right off the top of that $9 million surplus.
The ship started to get righted. You took $1 million a year away from the Greenville County School District, money generated by industries in the Fountain Inn area. Since they are the richest school district in the state, they didn’t miss it - everything was kind of stabilized, until ...
The state decided local governments had to help in bailing out years of questionable investments in the state pension plan. Now the county (not just Laurens County, all counties, and cities, and school district) is obligated for annual payments toward the pension rescue plan. More money out of reserves.
Now, with FY18’s growth and FY19 coming, the ship seems a little more stabilized - the county’s general fund budget is balanced without a property tax increase. The first budget idea was to raise taxes 2.1% - that’s the national rate of inflation. That didn’t go over too well, so there were negotiations and, finally, the budget passed July 24. No tax increase - one small fee increase.
County employees are receiving a 2.1% pay increase, to match the national rate of inflation. Just a side note: if you did not receive a 2.1% increase in your pay for this coming year, you are falling behind.
The fact that we will not be paying more taxes is a good thing. The City of Clinton passed along a small tax increase; District 56 schools did not raise property taxes. Nobody wants to pay taxes, until your house is burning down. You have to wonder, what if the county had passed along a tax increase.
Well - if they had done so, they could have set up a small Human Achievement Fund, giving grants to human service agencies (mental health, special needs, blind, deaf, youth empowerment, college scholarships, fighting cancer). We have to invest in fire trucks and such, but our people also are an investment - an investment that is neglected because we can’t part with a little money. Our proposal is modest - $50,000; five grants of $10,000 each, no agency receives the money two years in a row.
If the county had raised taxes just a little, it could have a marketing effort, a tourism promotions bureau, expanded blueways and trails, retail business recruitment. We all like to talk about “What if we had an Olive Garden. Or a Cabella’s.” But what are we really doing to make the county attractive to these businesses? And, what happens when they move in here and the mom-and-pops suffer? Are we contributing anything to “small business survival”?
Upstate Alliance Executive Director John Lummus gave the Laurens County Council on July 24 a good roadmap to diversifying our industrial base. Don’t chase the Samsungs and BMWs of the world - do attract the mid-level businesses whose effects ripple through the economy (buying houses, eating in restaurants, local banking). The FY 19 Laurens County Budget provides no additional money to the agency charged with this task. Existing industries are paying more and more in the fees that assist in funding our development office and, to a lesser extend, county government. Yet, the money going toward attracting and retaining industries remains stagnant.
We might not even need more industry in Laurens County. Our 4% unemployment rate means a significant portion of our population already is in industry - that leaves the service segment struggling to find people who will work. Our schools are helping - are we helping our schools?
So, what’s next? Our tax increase did not match the 2.1% rate of inflation. Next year’s rate of inflation will be about 3.5% - we won’t match that either. As the national economy starts humming along - or comes to a halt because of tariffs - are we going to be dragged along? Look to the decision-makers - it’s their call.