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Q&A: Aiken County Council members look ahead to 2019

January 2, 2019

Editor’s note: This article is the second in the Aiken Standard’s four-part series highlighting goals for local government councils in Aiken County. Aiken City Council was featured Jan. 1, Aiken County Council will be featured Jan. 2, North Augusta City Council will be featured Jan. 3, and the Aiken County Board of Education will be featured Jan. 4.

In 2018, Aiken County Council dealt with a variety of matters, including incentives for the redevelopment of the Aiken Mall and issues involving the keeping of chickens.

The panel also balanced the budget for fiscal year 2018-2019 without raising taxes and laid the groundwork for Capital Project Sales Tax IV, which local voters approved in November.

The Aiken Standard recently asked Aiken County Council members to look ahead to 2019 and answer several questions.

Their responses were as follows:

Chairman Gary Bunker

1. What are your top three goals for 2019?

First, Aiken County must continue to focus on economic growth initiatives. This can be addressed on multiple levels.

Property tax incentives should continue to be pursued to attract industrial growth and expansions.

The county zoning ordinance should be revised where necessary to eliminate non-value added rules that hinder manufacturing.

Cooperation should continue with DOE (U.S. Department of Energy) and contractors to attract new missions at the Savannah River Site, including the plutonium pit project.

And the county should work with the City of North Augusta, the Economic Development Partnership and other stakeholders to attract Fort Gordon related work, including cyber security spin-off business.

Second, Aiken County must demonstrate its ability to successfully manage capital projects.

While these include the ongoing Horse Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant improvements and the Langley Pond Dam replacement, these also include the ongoing Capital Project Sales Tax related work scope.

Rules and procedures must be worked out for the equitable and transparent award of resources to the county’s volunteer fire departments, and the agreements for project reimbursements with the municipalities must be worked out.

A master schedule for completing CPST III and starting CPST IV must be developed.

The design contract for the Whiskey Road project should be approved and issued as soon as possible.

And projects that can be quickly implemented and completed should be identified so we can hit the ground running.

Third, County Council must not lose its focus on public safety. This includes not only the Sheriff’s Office, EMS and the Detention Center, but also the volunteer fire departments.

Initiatives that support more efficient operations and the hiring and retention of qualified employees must be encouraged and implemented.

Another initiative will be the conceptual design of the proposed new Sheriff’s Office complex.

2. What is an issue you would like to see addressed in 2019?

With new leadership in the S.C. House Ways and Means Committee, I’d like to see an end to the impasse regarding the state’s Local Government Fund.

The statutory funding level for counties has been ignored for several years through annual budget provisos, and this has cost Aiken County millions of dollars in revenue.

The legislature should either fund it at the statutory formula, or revise it to a new formula that all sides can live with and plan to. I look forward to working with the Aiken County Legislative Delegation in resolving this long-standing issue.

3. What is the biggest challenge faced by County Council and/or Aiken County in 2019?

The single biggest challenge this year will be balancing the annual Aiken County General Fund budget without a property tax increase.

With the last increment of Winter Storm Pax reimbursements balancing the current year’s budget, next year’s budget starts $3.5 million in the hole without taking into consideration inflation, cost of living increases, or pressure on county employee benefits.

County Council and staff must think “outside the box” in seeking increased efficiencies, and the recent decision to self-fund part of the county medical insurance costs is a good start.

Vice Chairman Andrew Siders, District 7

1. What are your top three goals for 2019?

To pursue more small business and industry and to make it easier to do business in Aiken County.

To strengthen our EMS, fire and law enforcement services to make sure all areas of the county have access.

To deal with the trash issue we have in Aiken County. To explore ways to clean up litter and discourage littering in our beautiful county.

2. What is an issue you would like to see addressed in 2019?

Litter in our county is one of the biggest issues. It is also an economic development issue. I would like to see an emphasis on solving this lingering problem.

3. What is the biggest challenge faced by County Council and/or Aiken County in 2019?

Working within a limited budget is always the biggest challenge. We must strive to live within our means and work to continue to provide the services that the citizens of Aiken County expect and deserve.

Kathy Rawls, District 1

1. What are your top three goals for 2019?

Awarding of the contract for and the completion of the Monetta Oak Grove Magistrate’s office.

Continue to push for paving of dirt roads on (Capital Project) Sales Tax III.

Continued improvements at the Aiken County Animal Shelter, including the enclosure of the rear wing.

2. What is an issue you would like to see addressed in 2019?

[County Council should] work for more efficiency in county government by making cuts where possible and addressing salary deficiencies without a tax increase.

3. What is the biggest challenge faced by County Council and/or Aiken County in 2019?

Passing a budget without a tax increase

Camille Furgiuele, District 2

1. What are your top three goals for 2019?

First off I want to sincerely thank the voters of District 2 for placing their confidence in me with their votes in November. I look forward to serving another four years on the Aiken County Council.

My goals for 2019 are to move forward with the Whiskey Road project, to continue to bring the services to the citizens of Aiken County, while holding the taxes at the level they have been for the past eight or nine years, and to begin to implement those projects that were approved in the Capital Project Sales Tax IV referendum.

The Whiskey Road project will move forward with the design and engineering for the stormwater management on the 9-mile corridor.

We hope to sign a contract with an engineering firm before the end of this year and expect that they will complete the plans within 18 months.

In the meantime, we will be looking into getting the easements necessary to take the stormwater from Whiskey Road, consulting with the different utility companies to determine what, if any, utilities need to be relocated in order to complete the project and submitting applications for the funding of the entire project.

It is my hope to work hard with my fellow council members to bring in a balanced budget as of July 1, 2019 with no tax increase. This will test all of our abilities to bring the much-needed services to Aiken County while not increasing taxes.

After a hard fought campaign to promote the passage of the Capital Project Sales Tax IV referendum, it is now our responsibility to move forward with those projects that were listed on the referendum.

This will involve prioritizing which projects will begin as the revenue starts coming in during the second half of 2019. We have many projects to complete in the next seven years and working with the administration, the Council has to make good on the promises we made to the electorate.

2. What is an issue you would like to see addressed in 2019?

An issue that I would like to see addressed in 2019 is the continuation of making the salaries for the county employees competitive with the surrounding jurisdictions in order to eliminate the high rate of turnover. Trying to accomplish this, while holding down taxes, is an ongoing challenge for all of us.

3. What is the biggest challenge faced by County Council and/or Aiken County in 2019?

One of the biggest challenges faced by Aiken County in 2019 is to ensure a safe and healthy environment for our children and all of our citizens. The entire country is dealing with the opioid epidemic and we need to do all we can to make certain that this is addressed with commitment and determination.

Danny Feagin, District 3

1. What are your top three goals for 2019?

As always, my most important goal is to work with the County Council team to maintain the safety and security of the citizens of Aiken County.

I look forward to the continuation of the cleanup of abandoned and dilapidated houses. These houses degrade the health of our communities, depreciate property value and attract drug users.

Another goal of mine and a critical issue and challenge for Aiken County in 2019 is addressing the significant increase in drug activities and the enormous influx of homeless people that have moved to the Aiken County Horse Creek Area. Crimes such as stealing and burglary have escalated because of the drug activity in this area.

Also, my goal is to continue to support public safety and emergency services personnel to ensure manpower, equipment and services are available so that they can address the increase in drugs and crime. We depend on these services in a crisis.

Looking ahead to 2019, I see a great opportunity to work with my fellow citizens and council members to enhance the safety and security of our communities. I look forward to the future.

2. What is an issue you would like to see addressed in 2019?

I would like to see the significant increase in drug activities and the enormous influx of homeless people that have moved to the Aiken County Horse Creek area addressed.

3. What is the biggest challenge faced by County Council and/or Aiken County in 2019?

Making sure that we keep our spending under control so that we don’t put a heavier tax burden on the citizens of Aiken County.

Chuck Smith, District 4

1. What are your top three goals for 2019?

My first goal is the safety and security of the citizens of Aiken County, specifically with regard to EMS and the Sheriff’s Office.

I want to make sure they are properly funded and able to provide the services our citizens expect.

My second goal is to hold the line on the budget for 2019, trying to make sure that we live within our checkbook and we have no tax increases.

My third goal is to help facilitate new growth objectives for both private and government opportunities in the county.

2. What is an issue you would like to see addressed in 2019?

The issue that I think needs to be addressed in 2019 is the proper disposition or redesign of the MOX facility with regard to support for new missions for SRS. Hopefully, the (plutonium) pit assembly mission will make it to Aiken County, and we’ll be able to hopefully use that facility as a replacement opportunity for MOX.

3. What is the biggest challenge faced by County Council and/or Aiken County in 2019?

The biggest challenge that I see is always money, having enough to support the services and the growth opportunities that we have in the county. That always is consistently one of the biggest topics of discussion.

Sandy Haskell, District 5

1. What are your top three goals for 2019?

I would like to see Council come up with a plan to increase county employees’ salaries. We have a dedicated group of employees that provide excellent services to the citizens of Aiken County and their pay needs to be competitive with comparable jobs in the private sector.

I will continue to work with the Economic Development Partnership and SRS (Savannah River Site) to do all that is possible to bring additional good jobs to the area and new missions to SRS.

I would like to continue to provide excellent constituent service to the citizens of District 5 and all of Aiken County.

2. What is an issue you would like to see addressed in 2019?

One issue that needs to be addressed in the next year is the possible removal of the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam by the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers as part of the widening of the port of Savannah.

A proposal is under consideration by the Corps to replace the dam with a rock weir that will enable an endangered fish to pass up the Savannah River past North Augusta.

Replacing the dam with the weir could negatively affect the current level of the river pool and could restrict the flow in heavy rainfall events causing excessive flooding in the area.

3. What is the biggest challenge faced by County Council and/or Aiken County in 2019?

The 2019-2020 Aiken County operating budget will present the most significant challenge as we begin the budget season with over a $3 million shortfall of non-recurring revenue that is in the current budget.

This, when coupled with the additional 2 percent increased assessment for the state retirement catch-up, could total close to $4 million.

While we anticipate some growth in the tax base, it is unknown how much of this potential deficit the growth will cover.

This will make it much more difficult to come up with a balanced budget without either cuts in services the county provides or a tax increase, which has not happened in almost 10 years.

Phil Napier, District 6

1. What are your top three goals for 2019?

To keep taxes at a minimum. To try to help improve emergency services. And to try to provide better benefits and pay for county employees.

2. What is an issue you would like to see addressed in 2019?

I would like to see something done to protect the taxpayers and property owners in regard to the regulation and the location of homeless shelters, soup kitchens and drug rehab centers. I think there is a need to assist these people, but the people who live in the immediate area should have a say-so also.

3. What is the biggest challenge faced by County Council and/or Aiken County in 2019?

To try to keep our budget within bounds so that we won’t have a tax increase.

Willar Hightower Jr., District 8

1. What are your top three goals for 2019?

My top three goals for 2019 are to (1) maintain my one-day responsiveness to all constituent requests; (2) be more strategic in using road paving dollars to maximize the number of roads paved and resurfaced in the county; (3) challenge the Council members to find ways to fund county employee raises.

2. What is an issue you would like to see addressed in 2019?

In order to do more work, we can focus on an area like procurement to benchmark and implement strategic sourcing practices so we can do more with the same dollars. (County Council should) challenge the county administrator to empower the employees to streamline their current processes by eliminating non-value-added process steps.

3. What is the biggest challenge faced by County Council and/or Aiken County in 2019?

It all comes down to money. How can we balance the county budget and meet the needs of our constituents without a tax increase? We have to do a better job of using a risk-based approach to prioritizing the needs of the county and building an annual budget to reduce those risks. However, it is easier said than done.

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