Originally created 12/08/96

Aiken contingency fund may get new rules



AIKEN - Aiken County has $80,000 just waiting to be spent.

But Aiken County Council can't decide how to use its contingency fund, which is designed for emergencies but rarely used that way.

To avoid the annual battle over the discretionary fund this year, Chairman Ronnie Young strongly suggested in July the council develop guidelines on how the fund can be spent.

Nearly six months after the suggestion, no guidelines have been established and $15,000 in requests have piled up.

Only one request - $875 for gravel at Mount Anna Baptist Church in Aiken - has been granted. The church also received $450 for gravel in the previous year.

In the past, council members - with few questions asked - have used the money for popular projects in their districts, such as helping a volunteer fire department buy more equipment or refurbishing a church cemetery.

In fiscal year 1995-96, the council spent its entire $80,000 contingency fund. Council members said at the time none of the disbursements was illegal and most helped people in need but admitted few were emergencies.

Two months ago, Councilman Jim Baggott, who is heading a committee studying the fund, suggested in a work session that the council cap expenditures to $4,000 per council district and limit disbursements to $1,000 for incorporated nonprofit groups.

However, Mr. Baggott did not offer it in a formal, written proposal, so council members suggested the committee take comments from other council members and come back with a formal version.

"A cap per district would make for a more-even disbursement of funding," he said Thursday.

So far, the North Augusta Republican said he hasn't received any comments. He plans to offer a formal resolution mirroring his earlier proposal at council's Dec. 17 meeting.

"I haven't seen a word from anybody," Mr. Baggott said.

But several council members said Thursday that they would rather the policy remain the same and believe a cap would limit their ability to serve their districts effectively.

"Personally, I like the system we have better," Councilwoman LaWana McKenzie said. "One year, there are certain needs in certain areas. The next year, they're different ones that need. I like to leave the door open."

Some council members - mostly from urban areas - have complained that a small number of districts use most of the contingency fund.

But Ms. McKenzie added Thursday that limiting the contingency fund on a per-district basis would make it difficult to fund countywide projects, such as Crimestoppers.

Councilman Eddie Butler said he doesn't care what council does with the fund because it's not truly a contingency fund.

"It's a slush fund," he said. "I honestly believe it's not a true contingency fund ... We've been discussing changes for two-and-a-half years and we haven't changed it. I'm not sure we're going to agree to any now."

Mr. Butler added he doesn't have a problem with the way the fund works now if $80,000 out of the county's $43 million budget is all it takes to appease some council members who want to fund small projects in their districts.

Whatever happens, council members said they don't want to return to the days when council members divided up the fund among themselves, with each deciding how to spend the money independently in his district.

Last year, some council members pushed to return to individual allocations, but the matter was defeated.

The council ended the practice of dividing the fund among individual members after allegations of abuse, including purchasing shirts for a church softball team to compete in the state playoffs in the late 1980s.