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From The Florence News Journal of September 28, 2011:

Citizens group protest possible hiring of Rusty Smith, call attention to discretionary funds

Brenda Harrison

The Florence County Citizens In Action held a press conference in the front of the Florence City Complex on Monday, Sept. 19, protesting the possible hiring of Florence County Council Chairman Rusty Smith as county administrator and calling attention to financial decisions made by council which they say are detrimental to the public.

“We are asking that the future administrator be chosen from the most qualified of the (over 60) applicants and are asking that the current county chairman Rusty Smith who is seeking the position not be chosen,” commented Licia Stone, secretary and spokeswoman for the group.

“If Mr. Smith is chosen, we feel that financial decisions that are detrimental to Florence County will continue.”

The decisions they refet to involve keeping and spending monies from individual discretionary funds which all together totalled over $3.2 million in April of this year.

“We were told there was not enough money to balance the county budget this year and for this reason, drastic cuts had to be made in Florence County,” Stone noted.

The cuts included possible layoffs in the sheriff’s office, a three percent cut to all departments, closing the manned garbage drop off centers on Tuesday and Thursdays, and not giving county employees a raise.

County employes have not received a cost-of-living raise in three years, nor a merit raise in eight years, Stone said. However, she continued, county council members received a 25 per cent two-part raise in January 2007/2008. The chairman’s two-part raise was 40 percent, she added.

“These were concealed pay raises that the Citizens In Action disclosed to the public on Aug. 24, 2007,” Stone said.

According to a June 1 newspaper article, Stone continued, a deficit of roughly $900,000 in accommodation taxes and waste management price increases, resulted in a lack of funds for employee raises, possible employee layoffs and cuts to public services.

With over three million dollars in the discretionary funds available at the time the budget was discussed, council members could have tapped these funds to balance the budget, she said.

“This money could have balanced the budget, eliminated the loss of deputies, eliminated cost cuts of all departments, given employees pay raises, and kept the manned garbage drop off centers open on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

What are these discretionary funds?, she asked.

“The councilmen don’t like the term ‘discretionary funds’, but that is exactly what they are. Over a million dollars is allocated to them each year and they spend it at their discretion. These funds are allocated from the general fund and are not budgeted, audited, and no interest is earned. Unspent funds are rolled over year after year and often the largest sums are spent at election time.”

Annually, each councilman receives about $50,000 for his paving fund, $35,000 for his infrastructure fund, $19,800 for his in-kind fund and a little more than $42,000 for his utility fund. For all nine councilmen this amounts to about $1,323,000, Stone noted.

“This annual allocation is $423,000 more than the $900,000 in lost state accommodation tax collections,” she said.

In order to gain a broader view of how the councilmen spend their discretionary funds, The Citizens In Action, under the Freedom Of Information Act, requested and received copies of one councilman’s discretionary expenditures for 2008, 2009, 2010 and the first four months of 2011.

“Because it is expensive and time consuming to get the details of these expenditure records, we have begun with one councilman,” Stone explained.

As an example, Stone listed some of the expenditures for Councilman Mitchell Kirby. These included $14,200 to purchase seven used vehicles – four for the Town of Timmonsville and three for the Timmonsville Rescue Squad; over $25,000 for replacing lift station pumps; repairs to a baseball facility; reimbursement to the Town of Timmonsville for payments to Rural Development; $33,000 to apply MBC stone to the roads inside Byrd Cemetery; repairs to the former Timmonsville high football stadium; computer and printer for the Town of Timmonsville; and $18,000 to the Town of Timmonsville for sewer system assistance.

“We have only shown how one councilman chose to spend a portion of his discretionary funds, but we hope that it proves that every penny spent of the discretionary funds, whether wisely or unwisely, is a joint system of jurisdiction between nine councilmen. It is a joint effort because each decision, whether wise or unwise is unanimous. In this way, each councilman has individual and complete control over a large portion of public money,” Stone continued.

“It is important to remember that the allocations always receive unanimous approval. There is little if any discussion and often, the item voted upon is added to the agenda on the day of the council meeting,” Stone continued.

“In a totally undemocratic procedure, in which the vote is guaranteed to be unanimous, each councilman alone can make the decision as to how millions are spent. How the large sums are spent also impacts each councilman’s reelection efforts,” she noted. “This flawed procedure has been in effect for years under the leadership of council chairman Rusty Smith, who has now applied for the position of county administrator,” she concluded.

The Florence County Citizens in Action is a local government watchdog group.