PICKENS COUNTY — Taking a “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’” approach, members of council and department heads across the county came together to address county employees and the public in the first State of the County address.
The event, held Tuesday afternoon in the Liberty Civic Auditorium, was designed to give people an idea of where we are and where we’re going, county wide, in the upcoming years.
The consensus from every department head that spoke seemed to be “so far, so good.”
“We have successfully tackled of challenges that have brought other governments to the brink of bankruptcy,” said County Administrator Gerald Wilson. “We did this together while providing more services to those in need — and we did all of this while recovering from an economic downturn. Because of difficult choices and timely solutions, in many ways Pickens County has emerged as a leader in the state of South Carolina.”
Wilson said that while some counties had seen their bonds reduced to “junk bond status,” Pickens County has consistently retained an AAA rating.
“Yes, we still have some serious challenges, but the state of the county is strong — and getting stronger,” he said.
The county must be cautious of the hidden danger that comes with success, Wilson said — complacency.
County Finance Director Ralph Guarino said his department had been working on the budget for the past few months and that it would be presented to Council in April.
Although the budget would not include a tax raise, Guarino said the process was made more difficult by a few things that had to be addressed including the expected raise in required payments to the state retirement system and $13 million more in requests than in revenue.
“Well right now the state (retirement) fund is under-funded by about $24 billion,” said Guarino. “That’s billion — with a ‘B’ — not an ‘M’.”
Guarino said county employees could expect a hike from an 8.66 percent contribution to a capped 9 percent starting in July. In all, the increase in required payments to the state fund would cost the county an extra $375,000 in the coming year.
Seven positions are being eliminated in the new budget although Guarino said that the positions were vacant and no active positions were being taken away.
“If you have a job now, you’ll have your job next year — we’re not eliminating any filled positions.”
As if to attest to that, the County also got a chance to meet Scott Smith who recently filled the newly created Director of Emergency Services position.
“In 2016 alone, the division of emergency services (EMS, emergency management, rescue, fire) responded to over 20,000 calls for service within the borders of our county,” said Smith said. “We know that number will rise as we continue to grow.”
Smith said he looked forward to the continued cooperation between the departments.
In a surprise announcement, Sheriff Rick Clark said residents of the county could expect to soon see body cameras in use.
“You won’t believe this,” joked Clark. “The state mandated us something and sent us money!”
Clark said the County had invested over $100,000 in state money for the cameras and the deputies were “getting used to them.”
“This is a great thing for us and what we’re already seeing is the suspects act better and we act better,” said Clark. “And if the suspects aren’t acting so nice, well, we have that on camera.”
In addition to the body cams, the PCSO also unveiled their use of force simulator — a device to train officers how to properly respond in high stress situations.
“This is state of the art training for us,” he said.
County Council Chairman Roy Costner said he hoped the State of the County address becomes an annual event.
“There’s some really great things happening here,” he said. “But solid communication is key. We all need to continue to work together to keep our county going in the right direction.”
Reach Kasie Strickland at 864-855-0355.