Originally created 06/30/03

Budget cuts mean job loss for workers



AIKEN - The budget crisis that has crippled South Carolina's government is rippling across the basic services its people depend on most, from fewer public schoolteachers to fewer state troopers patrolling remote highways to fewer officers guarding more state prison inmates.

It also means that Nettie Jones, who has staffed the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources office in Edgefield for 29 years, is out of a job and not sure what she'll do next.

Two former instructors at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia, whose jobs also fell under the fiscal ax in May, have been luckier. Investigator Angela Smith, 29, and forensics expert Chris Foster, 41, quickly found posts at the Aiken County Sheriff's Office.

"They gave us two weeks - two weeks and you've got no job," said Mr. Foster, who says he took a substantial pay cut to move his wife and himself to Aiken and run the sheriff's office forensics lab. "It puts you in the scramble mode. I had no idea where I was going to go and where I'd wind up. It's bad, you know? It's bad."

From steeper property taxes to support budget-ravaged school districts to a $25 surcharge on traffic tickets, increased college tuition and possibly more boating deaths on rivers and lakes because of fewer DNR officers, the state's financial fiasco is starting to strike South Carolinians in the pocketbook - and in more tragic ways.

Despite the decision by the state's Republican-controlled Legislature to shoot down every sales and cigarette tax increase proposed for next year, people will still take some kind of hit - in reduced services, higher fees or bigger tax bites at the local government level.

And the painfully deep state cuts might continue next year. That's because the flow of fees and taxes into South Carolina coffers is about $50 million behind schedule this year, said the state's senior economist, Bill Gillespie. At that pace, South Carolina might not hit its $5.48 billion revenue target for next year - despite the modest expectation that the state's take will increase only 1.4 percent over this year's projection.

Also, the $5.2 billion budget just approved by the Legislature relies on $322 million in one-time money that will have to be replaced in July 2004 - a temporary fix that represents about 6 percent of expenditures.

About $255 million of that single-shot money came from a federal emergency tax-relief fund provided for deficit-strapped states - widely described by state legislators as "manna from heaven."

Legislators gave $64.6 million of that manna to South Carolina's 85 public school districts and $90 million to shore up the state's sagging Medicaid system. In addition, an increased federal reimbursement rate for Medicaid will bring in an extra $121 million.

The extra federal money hasn't prevented school districts from pink-slipping teachers, increasing the number of pupils in classrooms and jacking up property taxes. Statewide, about 1,600 teachers have lost their jobs, said Jim Foster, a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Education. He expects the total to climb to more than 2,000 by the beginning of the school year in August.

While schools might be the most visible manifestation of the state's fiscal woes, the impact is widespread. Cuts to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources forced the agency to close 17 offices around the state, axing longtime employees, including Mrs. Jones.

In addition, the department has lost 175 employees through retirement or attrition, including 63 officers who enforce the state's game, fishing and boating laws. That might be one of the reasons the state already has 16 boating fatalities in the first six months of this year, two more than the total for 2002, said DNR spokesman Mike Willis.

Consolidation also is the buzzword at the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, which has 110 fewer slots for state troopers than it did in 1995 and has concentrated its forces on busy travel corridors such as Interstate 85 near Greenville.

In Aiken County, Investigator Smith knows the true cost of South Carolina's budget crisis. She's still shaking off the sudden shock of more than a month ago.

"I had no idea," said Investigator Smith, 29, who had only 15 days between jobs. "I feel fortunate. It seems like it turned out for the best. But I was in shock."

AT A GLANCE

Unlike Georgia, South Carolina legislators approved no tax increases for next year. To shore up public schools and Medicaid with $300 million, legislators stripped money from other agencies and relied heavily on one-time money, making the following moves:

  • Tacked a $25 surcharge on traffic tickets; estimated total, $24.5 million
  • Went from a five-year driver's license to a 10-year permit at double the fee - $24 instead of $12; estimated total, $5.4 million a year for the next five years
  • Scraped together interest from various state accounts, including the tobacco settlement trust fund; estimated one-time total, $42.7 million
  • Plugged $255 in one-time federal emergency tax-relief money into Medicaid and public schools
  • Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1394 or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.