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Shortfall might prompt layoffs in York County

York County faces a shortfall of up to $8 million in the coming year's budget, and leaders have until the end of May to decide how they'll adapt.

Nothing has been placed on the chopping block yet, County Manager Jim Baker said, but some possibilities include laying off county employees and cutting funding to public programs and services.

Baker said some departments in the county are safer than others against cuts to funding in fiscal year 2011, which begins in July. The county's priorities, he said, are public safety, such as police and fire prevention, and general services, such as convenience centers where people unload their trash and recyclables.

He stressed the county has no plans to raise taxes.

"But," Baker said, "we're in a situation where nothing is safe, frankly."

In an e-mail last week, Baker asked department heads to calculate how much money they spend on everything from cell phones and employee uniforms to bottled water.

He asked whether they had compared their departmental budget and staffing to other counties in South Carolina or elsewhere, and asked hypothetically how they would be affected if a 5 percent cut were applied to their funding from the county.

State funding is down roughly 36 percent from what the county received in 2008, and state budget cuts account for about $1 million of the county's losses for the 2011 fiscal year.

Baker said the county budget also suffers from slow growth. Lack of construction in the county has stunted the amount of fees the county receives from building permits and inspections, and interest rates on property taxes - which bring in money to the county - have bottomed at almost zero.

The pinch was similar last year, with about a $6 million gap to fill. County leaders froze wages, which meant employees wouldn't receive raises for a year. Programs lost money, and the county couldn't put aside money that year to cover retirees' health insurance. The reserve fund was tapped.

"What complicates things this year," Baker said, "is that it has become clearer and clearer, it's going to take us a while to pull out of this hole."

County positions likely cut

If county leaders decide to lay off employees in the next fiscal year, they'll start first with departments where the demand for county services has been low, Baker said.

Business booms in the tax assessor's office, where more people appeal their assessments in tough economic times, he said. The county also needs to keep staffing strong in departments that handle complaints about neighbors keeping their properties in good shape, he said, as well as animal control complaints because people have a tougher time taking care of their pets.

But departments that handle contracts and fees for construction, for example, are not as loaded with work.

Baker said he doesn't think hiring freezes make sense. Each time a position becomes vacant, however, department heads have to justify why they should be able to refill the spot with a new employee.

Delaying the hiring process for open positions - a process called attrition - saved the county about $250,000 this year. Leaders likely will employ it again in the next fiscal year, Baker said.

Salaries make up about 54 percent of the county's budget.

York County Council Chairman Buddy Motz said personnel cuts will be a must and might also include reductions in benefits, such as insurance coverage, and payroll. He agreed that attrition also is important to balance the budget.

"We understand departments want to grow," Motz said. "But this year's not a good year to add an employee. Payroll and benefits are the highest costs, so that's one of the first areas we want to look at."

Library braces for worst

Beyond basic services local governments are legally bound to provide, Motz said, cuts are likely for public programs in the county.

That's bad news to library director Colleen Carney, who says she's preparing for the worst.

The York County Library has suffered several mid-year state cuts and relies on county funds to keep moving along, Carney said.

For now the library, like the county, holds positions open as long as it can before hiring new employees. But when people flock to free public libraries to save money, the library is strained by trying to serve more people with fewer resources.

Baker didn't doubt that the library should prepare for potential cuts. But he also said it's not low priority.

"If we didn't think the library was important, we wouldn't have funded it in previous years," he said. "Is it the same level as law enforcement and public safety? No. But for that matter neither are some of our administrative services, such as recycling and trash."

Motz added: "Libraries are less essential than jails. You have to prioritize what you're going to maintain first."

The county also is looking at cutting funds from York County Forever Commission, an agency designed to protect one acre of land for every acre developed in the county.

Last year, given the tight budget, Baker recommended not putting additional money into the fund, although the county had established a standard to set aside $1 million each year to the commission. He said the county might look at that same option this year, because York County Forever has about $3 million remaining to acquire property.

"York County Forever is very important to me and to others," Motz said, "but it's something we're not going to be able to fund."

Public safety a priority

Road repairs, law enforcement, animal control and the county jail could see increases in funding that are mandated by state and federal governments.

It's not likely that funding for the jail, especially, would be cut, Motz said, adding that the 18 volunteer fire departments in the county also aren't in danger.

Sheriff Bruce Bryant said deputies are answering more calls now than ever due to population growth, but the Sheriff's Office hasn't added officers in the last year and has no plans to add deputies soon.

Still, Bryant said his biggest priority is rapid response.

Bryant said he's also pushing in the coming year for a DNA lab for investigators, about a $500,000 venture.

He didn't want to comment prematurely on what he would scale back if the county cut his budget.