Richland County Council struggled to hammer out a lean budget Thursday night in a marathon final-reading session.
Numerous funding decisions were left to be made after nearly five hours of discussions, including whether to raise property taxes to fund most county operations and how the county could possibly come up with an additional $600,000 to cover requested raises for firefighters.
Expecting hours of work left to do, the majority of council members voted just before 11:30 p.m. to recess the meeting and take up the general fund and fire department discussions on Monday, June 22 at 1 p.m.
Early in the meeting, council members approved a $199 million budget for Richland 1 schools and $137 million for Richland 2. Those budgets, the result of commercial property tax increases to the maximum allowed by state law, will cost business owners an additional $27 per $100,000 property value for the Richland 1 budget, and $60 per $100,000 for Richland 2.
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Residential taxpayers can expect tax increases of around $10 per $100,000 property value to help fund the library, Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens, Midlands Technical Community College and the Richland County Recreation Commission.
An additional tax increase is likely to help meet the demand for firefighter pay raises.
The City of Columbia had asked the county to come up with $1.2 million to go toward a joint effort to raise salaries in order to increase firefighter retention. In the past year, more than 50 firefighters have left the department in course of a year, officials said.
Starting pay for firefighters is currently about $29,000.
Even by raising the agency's tax rate to the maximum allowed by state law and by cutting by 46 percent operational costs paid by the county, the county still fell short $600,000 of the funds requested by the department and the city.
Many other agencies will feel the sting of a tight budget in the next year. The county faced a severe crunch forced in part by years of underfunding from the state's local government fund as well as costs that have outpaced revenue growth. The county has maxed out the amount it can withdraw from savings to help make up for the shortfall in state funding.
The budget for the upcoming financial year goes into effect July 1.