Agencies scramble to find funds as budget nears OK

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AIKEN --- The $488 million in budget cuts proposed by South Carolina lawmakers have many state-funded agencies gasping at the enormity of the reductions and scrambling to find ways to save money.

"I've been here for 22 years, and this much exceeds the magnitude of anything we've had in the past," said Virginia Hudock, the vice chancellor for business and finance at the University of South Carolina Aiken.

USC Aiken and Aiken Technical College will lose nearly 15 percent of their state funding, and both institutions are trying to find ways to cut costs to compensate for the loss.

Local programs and organizations receiving state money will most likely see significant funding reduction as the Legislature attempts to stabilize the budget with across-the-board cuts. Gov. Mark Sanford has until the end of the week to approve or veto them.

"We've had to do a number of things, and some of them are fairly significant, especially since we are a technical college," said Susan Winsor, the president of Aiken Tech.

The college is facing a 14.4 percent budget cut -- about $800,000 -- from the state.

"We've reduced all operating budgets in the college, including even deeper cuts to travel and cutting professional development for our faculty and staff," Dr. Winsor said. "We have frozen most open positions and have reduced, significantly, our computer technology upgrades and have zeroed out our equipment purchases for the year."

At USC Aiken, the state has proposed a budget cut of more than $1.6 million.

Mrs. Hudock said the university experienced a 3 percent cut at the beginning of the year.

"When we had the downturn in September, we thought we'd have another 3 or 4 percent cut, but instead we got almost 15 percent," she said.

The university had already made changes to become more energy efficient, had cut the operating budgets of all departments by 10 percent and had frozen all vacant positions.

Both institutions have said they will not raise tuition in the middle of the school year, but that could change next fall.

"Next year, there will be some sort of tuition increase, but we are not going to make up all these cuts on the backs of our students," Mrs. Hudock said. "We are really looking at things we can reduce overall and not pass all of these cuts onto students."

Dr. Winsor said Aiken Tech is sensitive to the fact that students have financial constraints.

"At this point, we're not increasing tuition for our spring terms," she said.

The Tri-Development Center of Aiken County, which serves about 1,200 special needs people in the area, falls under the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs, which will see a funding cut of 11.2 percent, or $24.4 million.

Ralph Courtney, the executive director of Tri-Development, said the cuts to the state agency will be compounded by cuts in Medicaid funding, because the federal money requires matching state money. The agency could see a reduction of more than $60 million.

Mr. Courtney said he doesn't know which of Tri-Development's programs will be affected, but "we do know that some of the services will be reduced, and it will be difficult for quite a few of the families in our area."

Aiken County's government fund also will see a reduction of about 6.5 percent in its state-shared revenue. The proposed cut will put the fund back at last year's level of about $700,000, County Administrator Clay Killian said.

Mr. Killian said the county is in a position to deal with the cuts.

"We've got some capital purchases that we will defer until springtime so that we'll stay on the right side of the ledger," he said. "Right now, we don't expect any long-term negative impact."

Mr. Killian said Aiken is in a better position than other counties because of the county council's sound policies.

Reach Michelle Guffey at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or michelle.guffey@augustachronicle.com.

HOUSE BILL 5300


KEY ACTIONS


- Oct. 22 -- approved by the House


- Friday -- approved by the Senate




WHAT'S NEXT?


Gov. Mark Sanford has until Friday to approve or veto the bill.


"It bears repeating that at the end of the day, this budget is the result of four years of reckless overspending by the Legislature," Mr. Sanford said in a statement. "Government has grown far faster than the pocketbooks and wallets of average South Carolinians, and the results of that overspending are likely going to be felt well into the future."


-- Michelle Guffey, staff writer

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