Members of Leadership North Augusta received some encouragement to step up and be leaders in these economically trying times.
During the group’s Government Day, its members heard from Aiken County’s Legislative Delegation, along with Aiken County Councilman Chuck Smith and North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones.
As delegation members explained what they do during the class’s visit to the State House, Sen. Shane Massey said, “Anybody can do this job when the money is pouring in … This is the time to be a leader.” He encouraged the class of future leaders not to back away “no matter how gloomy things get.”
Massey said, “This is the time to step forward.”
The state senator was part of the discussion of what’s on the horizon for this year’s legislative session. Those attending included Reps. J. Roland Smith, Don Smith, Jim Stewart, Tom Young and Sen. Massey.
Massey and Roland Smith both said the current economic shortfall at the state level should be viewed as an “opportunity to get some things done that normally might be on a back burner.”
Massey added, “It’s a chance to focus on what we need to do rather than what we want to do.”
North Augusta’s S.C. Rep. Don Smith introduced the discussion by explaining that Roland Smith, member of the Ways and Means Committee in the House, would detail how money gets allocated from the state to local government entities.
Roland Smith said there will be another cut in budgets this year. “I don’t see an upturn in state revenues yet,” he said, pointing out the Aid to Subdivisions is a latecomer to the legislature’s budget.
He listed a number of proposed money-saving measures:
* Reductions to the Aid to Subdivisions
* Reductions to the K-12 budget in the State Department of Education
* Reduction of credits required for graduation from 24 to 20
* Elimination of the Education Oversight Committee
* Transfer of EIA (Education Improvement Act) funds to EFA (Education Finance Act)
* Testing only NCLB (No Child Left Behind) tests
* Elimination of or cap on the extra salary for National Board Certification of teachers (Smith said starting July 1 there is a moratorium on nationally certified teachers for the coming year.)
* Five days off teachers’ contracts (currently in place for one year)
* Privatizing DMV services
The representative said the legislature has designated three furlough weeks for the House of Representatives. Rep. Don Smith said that in addition, each year the House has put forward a bill to cut the legislative session in half.
“And every year the Senate rejects the bill,” he added, noting the furloughs save $50,000 a week.
“We’re $530 million in the hole this year,” said Roland Smith. “Stimulus dollars are helping, but they won’t be there next year.”
Don Smith indicated that more than 50 percent of the state budget is tied up in education.
“If we avoid cuts to education, then we will see significant cuts in state agencies,” he said.
Chuck Smith asked why the legislature is not raiding the reserve fund rather than cutting money going to county governments.
“The reserve is pretty much exhausted,” said Massey, who added the state must keep 3 to 5 percent of the annual budget in reserve to maintain a good bond rating.
Massey said, “Education is the top priority.” He indicated that Medicaid and higher education are the next two items on the list of things the legislature is trying to protect.
Chuck Smith called the TERI plan ludicrous and suggested the legislature should eliminate the program that allows state employees to retire and hire back on at full salary. Roland Smith said the problem came when the courts struck down offering the plan to a specific group. “It was designed to keep special teachers in the classroom,” he said.
The Leadership North Augusta class members questioned the effect of exempting groceries from taxes and capping the car tax. “Those things should promote business,” Don Smith said. “If you take those things away, taxpayers will have to pay more.”
Aiken County government
Chuck Smith detailed some of the programs promoted by Aiken County government, including the 1-cent sales tax, the MOX program at the Savannah River Site and proposals for a new building.
He detailed that legislation originally promised the construction of a MOX facility on a particular timeline with a $100 million per year payment if the federal government didn’t meet the timeline.
“They went back and wrote it out of the legislation,” Smith said in explaining a lawsuit brought by Aiken County Council, which maintained the state would accept no more nuclear waste until MOX was funded.
“DOE wanted the case dismissed with prejudice,” he said, explaining that would mean the county could never bring the case back up. Instead, Smith said the case was suspended without prejudice, so that if the federal government started shipping plutonium into SRS again, Aiken County can come back with a lawsuit. The result was Congress funded the construction of MOX, he said.
Smith pointed out that reprocessed fuel should go to Yucca Mountain; however, that has been taken off the table by President Barack Obama, who has decided Yucca Mountain is no longer suitable, he said.
The current challenge to Aiken County Council, Smith said, is continuing to provide certain services. He said the county plays a huge role in how certain funds are distributed, particularly the 1-cent sales tax, which is in its second five-year cycle and will be up for a vote again this year.
“A total of $70 million of the 1-cent sales tax has been spent on roads alone,” Smith said.
North Augusta City government
Mayor Jones detailed the “unknown” side of North Augusta with a slide presentation of the City’s facilities and parks.
He suggested that North Augusta has enjoyed a continuity of leadership, noting that he has been on City Council for 24 years, that the former mayor had a similar record, former City Administrator Charles Martin was in place for 27 years and most of the directors in the City have been on the job in excess of 20 years.
“We spend more money on recreation than 90 percent of municipalities in South Carolina,” said Jones, who explained the total City budget for 2010 is $35 million – “$700,000 less than last year.”
He expressed pride in the fact that the City ended 2009 with a positive balance of $250,000. Jones said there had been a freeze on raises; however, because of the positive year-end balance, City Administrator Sam Bennett added the City was able to give each employee an extra week’s pay at Christmas.
Jones said the only capital debt the City has is part of the budget for the municipal center and for the water treatment plant.
Bennett said North Augusta has become one of the premier places to live.
“We have to focus on how to keep that up,” he said.
From there, the group went into a discussion of what North Augusta can do better. The consensus was a need to make North Augusta a better place to do business. Bennett said there are two things that need doing better:
* “We need a better focus on economic development,” he said. “We do a great job of regulating things.”
* “We need to make the path easier for businesses coming in,” Bennett said. “We need to make the development code easier, more friendly.”