By Betsy Finklea
The Dillon County Council held a called meeting last week to have a workshop and pass the final reading of the 2020-2021 budget.
The workshop was held during the first part of the meeting. County Administrator Clay Young said they had asked the mayor of Lake View and the Town Administrator of Latta to come and give their input on the fire fee that is being added to the citizens of both of those municipalities.
Lake View Mayor Matthew Elvington basically said that he had no input, and there was nothing they could do either way. He said the town had been presented an agreement by the county, and he was sure that they could come to some type of agreement. He said he was available to answer questions.
Latta Town Administrator Jarett Taylor said he received a call about three and a half weeks ago. He said it was about a four to five minute conversation with Young stating that they were considering adding a fire fee to the Town of Latta. Taylor said he heard nothing more about it until a couple of weeks later when he received an agreement in his inbox, returned an email to Young, and received a call from a representative of the county asking his thoughts. He said he began receiving phone calls from is council members because it had made its way to the street.
Taylor said first of all, he would have liked to have sat down in a little different manner and would have had more time to reasonably discuss it with everyone. He said he felt a little bit under the gun because they have already passed two readings of the budget and are getting ready to pass a third reading of the budget after this workshop.
Taylor said he felt like in some ways he would like to come to an agreement, but he doesn’t feel that the way the council is going about it at this current moment in time is fair to the citizens of Latta. He said Latta does things uniquely for Dillon County that others do not.
Taylor said that Latta found itself in similar financial trouble six years ago. He said at that time the county fire volunteers and the town volunteers were the same people. Both the town and the county were getting the same paperwork, and both were paying workers compensation, etc. He said at that time they asked they entered into an agreement with the county for the county to take over the fire service in Latta because it would cost the county nothing extra than what they had already been paying. In return, the town provided the building, maintenance of the building, insurance on the building, and electricity, which they have done faithfully.
Latta also services the industries at the I-95 181 exit with a sewer line. This line has been down since the 1980s. While we receive different monies from the county, none has ever been designated for maintenance on that particular line, and we have never asked for it.
Taylor said in the six years that he has been on council, they have spent in excess of $70,000-$80,000 in maintenance on pump stations and other issues with that line. He said the Holiday Inn Express was also problematic. He said there was an issue there that the county was supposed to handle and didn’t.
Taylor said he thought the taxpayers of Latta do a service for the county and incur costs for the county.
Taylor said between property taxes, accommodation taxes, and hospitality taxes, the county takes in a great deal of money for some of the things the Town of Latta does for the county.
The other issue that many people have is the way the council has set forth doing this. He said someone who owns a half-million dollar house or an industry is paying the same fire fee as someone who owns a singlewide mobile home, who may be struggling to pay for food, water, and medicine. He said this is what they were asked to accept within three weeks.
Taylor said he didn’t think this was fair to the citizens of Latta, fair to the citizens of Lake View, or fair to the citizens of Dillon County. He said he feels it was hastily brought up. Taylor said he thinks this should have been seriously considered because people are having a hard time right now. He said people are having problems with jobs, people having problems in Latta paying their sewer bills, and that’s just in Latta. He said one of the first things the council in Latta did was take pay cuts. “We’re public servants,” he said. Taylor said he hasn’t heard anyone on the county council mention that they take pay cuts. He said he has heard them mention that they were going to add taxes to the citizens of the county and fire taxes to the citizens of the county.
Taylor said there has to be a point and a time where the county goes out and gets the money they can get and do the things they can do without taxing anybody. He said he was available to answer any questions that the council may have.
Latta mayor, Nancy Brigman, said that she wanted to echo some of the things Taylor had said. She said she remembered when the Town of Latta Fire Department answered the fire calls in Oak Grove, and when the county would not buy Oak Grove a fire truck, the Town of Latta went to Columbia and got them one. She said they have helped Oak Grove all along.
County Councilman T.F. “Buzzy” Finklea, Jr., said he feels that not giving the town enough time and rushing into things was not right. He asked what the county was going to do if the town decided tomorrow to put all of the county fire trucks on the street and the town serves them an eviction notice and tells them to move. He said the county owns the fire department buildings in the other areas of the county, but in Latta, the town owns the building. There was a working agreement, and everything was going well he thought. He said maybe if they had been notified 90 days ago, they could have worked out something, but there wasn’t enough notice. The agreement was signed in 2016 by Clay Young.
Councilman Archie Scott asked about the agreement. Brigman said if Councilman A. Scott didn’t know all about it, she thought it was a little hasty for the council to act.
Chairman Stevie Grice said he knew they were raising some things, but they had also made cuts throughout their budget. Young said not every department, but most departments, had made cuts.
Councilman James “Hoghead” Campbell said that there was nowhere in the contract that says they can’t charge the citizens of Latta a fire fee.
Taylor said they could ask their attorney, but it was his understanding there was a 60-day notice of termination required and nowhere is it written in the contract that there would be a fee exchanged. He said they could terminate with 60 days notice and go into another contract.
Campbell asked if the budget was passed with the fire fee included how long would it be before the citizens would pay the tax.
Young said the tax notices are done in September, and they go out toward the middle of October. The first penalty goes on January 15th. People pay when they get their tax notice is due.
Councilman Archie Scott said he didn’t see anywhere in this contract where it exempts anyone from the tax.
Via telephone, County Attorney Alan Berry said there was nowhere in the contract that states there would or wouldn’t be a fee. He said they were trying to establish a fee going forward with the new contract. He did say there was a 60-day notice in the current contract.
Taylor asked if the town were to agree to terminate the contract and enter into a new contract, wasn’t there still a 60-day notice. Berry said this was correct. Taylor said that would have given his council time. He said he has talked with various council members, and one told him that this had been discussed for four months. He said here they were on the day of the last reading talking about it, and this was just a formality. He said if they wanted to be gentlemen about it, they would have been notified at the beginning of the summer. He said here we are sitting here on September 1 on the last reading of the budget.
Finklea said he wished they would delay the fire fee issue for six months and give the town council of Latta time to sit down and discuss it and see what kind of rent they want. He said then we could sit down and negotiate it, but coming down to the last minute with something like this, no one knows what to do. Dillon County Fire Station Two doesn’t know if they have a place for a fire department. “This is a kind of a crazy way of doing business, in my opinion,” said Finklea. “We’re getting the reputation that when we have a contract it doesn’t mean anything. We found out what happened with the schools. It cost us about $100,000 for lawyers and we went to court and lost and had to pay the schools. I think we could work out something. I just hate to see it end in something like this.”
There was further discussion about the issue.
Grice then asked for a motion to amend the budget from the second reading to the third reading. The motion was made by A. Scott. This motion passed.
Grice then asked for a motion to approve the third reading of the budget. The motion was made by Campbell to approve the budget and seconded by Councilman Harold Moody. Then Grice asked if there was further discussion.
Finklea said that he would not be voting for the budget. He said he could not do it with the council adding a fire fee for the citizens of Latta. He said he did not think it was fair. He said there were a lot of good things in the budget, and he would like to see it pass, but he wouldn’t be voting for it.
Councilman Gerome “Gee” McLeod said he would not be voting for the budget because they were cuts to Fire Stations 5 and 6, and they already had deficits in equipment and personnel. He said he felt they should look at other areas to cut.
A. Scott said he would be voting to support the budget. He said he felt that everyone receiving fire service should pay a fee like the people in his district are paying a fee.
The vote was called. Councilman Archie Scott, Councilman Harold Moody, Chairman Stevie Grice, and Councilman James Campbell voted in favor of the budget. Councilman Buzzy Finklea, Councilman Gerome McLeod, and Councilman Jack Scott voted against the budget.
Note: We will have a more in-depth look at the budget in a future issue. You can view this meeting on The Dillon Herald’s channel on YouTube.
By Betsy Finklea