County council considers reopening steps
The Laurens County Council met in person Tuesday for the first time in more than a month as the local government attempts to find a safe way to return to a sense of normalcy as the COVID-19 pandemic continues into May.
“The next step is going to be some form of opening up,” said Laurens County Administrator Jon Caime. “The state dictates that our parks are open but our ability to congregate is still limited. As far as our government operations, when they all open up, they will be similar to what you see out in the world. We will require that everyone still maintain their social distance.”
Councilman Joe Wood urged council members to “stay the course” in order to keep employees and the public as safe as possible during the pandemic. Department recommended the involvement of employees in the decision-making process pertaining to reopening county offices and functions.
Most county operations such as garbage pickup, roads and bridges and emergency services have continued to fully function during the pandemic. Non-essential workers have been urged to work from home if at all possible.
Others, such as the county libraries and tax offices have been limited to online activities or drive-thru services. Eighth Circuit Court at the Hillcrest Judicial Complex has also been limited to online sessions.
How court proceedings are to be handled in the immediate future is being decided at the state level.
“We’re complying with all directives from the state supreme court and governor’s office to handle court proceedings in a manner in adherence with their guidelines as well as what’s best for the people of the 8th Circuit,” said 8th Circuit spokesman Brian King.
County offices and services, including the library, are expected to be open as early as next week, a decision perhaps complicated by the report of 13 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county on Sunday and Monday from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
“The library has really struggled with what they can do in terms of opening up,” Caime said.
While the doors will be open to the pubic in the near future, social distancing requirements and other limitations are expected to be in place.
“When things do open up, we’re going to continue safe practices,” Caime said. “Economically, we feel like Laurens County has the ability to weather the storm.
“That’s been our goal since Day One. We’ve wanted to reduce costs without raising taxes. As a result of both of those things, we’ve been able to bolster our savings, and that’s exactly what a savings account is for – disasters or an economic downturn related to a pandemic.”
The county’s general fund balance currently sits at around $24 million as the council works on a $22.9 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Caime said growth in the northern area of the county near Fountain Inn and Simpsonville has continued despite the pandemic with residential construction still on an uptick.
“A lot of growth continues to happen up there, and that’s going to impact the county as a whole,” Caime said.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, council members were also to receive Capital Project Sales Tax applications for a veterans’ memorial project at the Historic Courthouse, a new evidence facility for the Laurens County Sheriff’s Office and phase one of the headquarters project for County EMS.
A 1-cent capital project sales tax is being put to a referendum for county voters in November’s General Election. The projects selected for the referendum with a total value not to exceed $35 million are to be selected by an committee appointed by county council.
Caime said despite the economic uncertainty created by COVID-19, the county is in a good position to move forward with the referendum and the 1-cent tax that could bring projects such as an agricultural center and the needed restoration of the History Courthouse to fruition.
Council is expected to approve the a bid to build a solid waste transfer station to Hogan Construction of Easley at $984,000 – a price significantly lower than the $1.3 million the county was prepared to pay several months ago.
Caime said similar savings could be found on other capital projects during this time.
“We’ve been really conservative on our spending for the last 15 years on all things,” Caime said. “We think that has put us in a good position and gives us an opportunity to propel Laurens County forward.”