UNION COUNTY — It is hard to believe that 2015 has come to a close and 2016 is upon us.
I first would like to say to the people of Union that it has been an honor serving you this year. We have so many folks in Union that deeply care about our community and willingly give their time and resources for the betterment of our county. It has truly been inspiring to meet and work alongside these individuals to move our county forward.
In 2015, there were many opportunities as well as a few hurdles to overcome. I would like to give you an overview of what we accomplished this past year as well as what is planned for 2016.
I can remember being asked in January of 2015 what I thought was the biggest challenge facing the county and without hesitation I replied “keeping our hospital open.” Even as I campaigned across Union County prior to my election folks in each community would tell me to do whatever it took to keep our hospital open.
Access to healthcare is indeed a critical component of a growing community. Union County came dangerously close to seeing the doors of our local hospital close. Without the efforts of a large team of individuals working together, our hospital would not have survived the summer of 2015 as they would have been unable to meet payroll for employees by mid-July. In addition, for several months, the hospital district had gotten behind paying their suppliers and access to medical supplies was quickly becoming an issue.
Through the efforts of our hospital administration, the hospital board, county council, and our legislative delegation we put together and got court approval of a plan to allow Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System to assume operational responsibility for our hospital and nursing home services in Union County effective Aug. 1 2015.
As a result of Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System’s stipulation that EMS not be a part of their responsibility under the plan, Union County would have to assume responsibility for operation of Emergency Medical Services(EMS). The assumption of EMS by the county required county council to impose a public safety fee and road user fee to ensure that funds would be available to cover the operational costs of EMS. Without this additional revenue the county would not have been in a position to cover the costs associated with EMS and the plan to keep the hospital open would not have been able to move forward.
We are working to reduce the costs of EMS operations and we are committed to reviewing these fees in 2016 to determine what can be done to reduce the impact on the citizens of Union County. Through the coordinated effort of a lot of individuals we now have a viable healthcare system which will continue to provide access to healthcare in our community for years to come.
The promise of the construction of a new hospital facility is also in the near future!
We began working on the budget process in February of 2015. I spent a good portion of January looking at the financial trends for the county and taking inventory of our financial assets. In particular, looking at the fund balance.
The fund balance for the county is like the checking account balance for a family. Just like a family has to make sure that they have enough funds in their checking account to pay the bills while they wait on the next paycheck, the fund balance pays the bills for the county while we wait on tax and other revenue to come in.
Based on the county’s budget it takes about 3 million dollars in the fund balance to cover all the costs associated with running the county while we wait on revenue to come in. In 2012 the county’s fund balance was 4.18 million. By June of 2014 the fund balance had dropped to just over 2.6 million.
There are many reasons for this such as money advanced to the hospital, reduction in state allocations to counties, federal mandates requiring communication upgrades, but the end result was that revenues were not keeping pace with spending. We estimated that in order to balance the budget and begin to restore the fund balance we needed to reduce spending by about $800,000. This was before any of the numbers regarding EMS operations were available and was based on running the county operations excluding EMS.
County Council looked at all expenditures and the tough decision was made to eliminate funding to most outside agencies. The museum, arts council, mental health, Leadership Union, Union Services, and several other agencies were eliminated from the budget. In addition, Council made the decision to eliminate 13 budgeted employee positions. While these decisions were difficult to make it was necessary to ensure the financial health of the county going forward and through these actions the county is now operating in the black and moving to solid financial footing.
One of the biggest complaints that I got while running for office was in regards to the poor quality of the county and state roads in Union County. Unfortunately, little to no maintenance had been done on the county road system in years with only minimal resurfacing projects. We wanted to make road improvements a priority in Union County in 2015.
Working with the County Transportation Committee(CTC), we were able to secure funding and resurfaced 25 county roads (approximately 8 miles) with asphalt. In addition, the county working through the Catawba Regional Council of Governments(COG) received funding to resurface Hwy 72 in the Carlisle area and Hwy 49 through Cross Keys. Through the efforts of the CTC committee and SCDOT we also secured funding to resurface Hwy 215 through the Buffalo Community and portions of Hwy 18 as well as many other state secondary roads.
While we are delighted with the work which has been completed there is much more to be done and road improvements will continue to be a priority for 2016 and for years to come.
Through the efforts of the Union County Development Board and Staff we announced over $27 million in capital investment and 175 new jobs for Union County in 2015. Key new industrial announcements included Vapor Apparel and GES Recycling, and the expansion of Haemonetics.
In addition, several key economic development projects were completed this year. The county completed construction of a 60,000 square foot speculative building in Commerce Park. This building will be key to fueling our economic development efforts going forward as 75% of industrial prospects will not even look at your community if you do not have a modern existing building. In addition, the county completed the Trakas Industrial Park with a 250,000 square foot pad ready site. Work is also underway to complete the extension of Midway Drive to the Midway Green Industrial Park. With the completion of these projects we are now well positioned to continue to attract new and expanding industry in the coming years.
One critical area which we must address going forward is workforce development. Many of our existing industry partners are having difficulty finding qualified and trained employees who can pass basic screenings such as drug tests and background checks. To address this issue we will focus efforts in 2016 on education, manufacturing awareness, and substance abuse issues. In terms of education and awareness, we must begin encouraging students as early as 8th grade to consider manufacturing careers.
The County has secured an agreement with Spartanburg Community College to offer the Mechatronics Program at the Advanced Technology Center tentatively beginning fall 2016. We believe that this program will be key to building a pool of qualified workers to support existing and new industry. Offering the program locally will make it more accessible to the citizens of Union County. In addition, we will work with the Union County School District to encourage dual credit offerings for high school students in Mechatronics, Welding, and college level courses.
The County will also continue to work with Spartanburg Community College and the University of South Carolina at Union to expand program offerings for our citizens. I believe that we need a strong healthcare training presence to include the Registered Nurse degree. We will continue to work with our educational partners to provide this type of training to the people of Union County.
We should begin as soon as possible looking for ways to make higher education and training more accessible for our graduating high school seniors. Several counties in SC have implemented programs that support college level training in local institutions for graduating seniors. This will be a priority for 2016. One such program offers free training at local colleges within the county to graduating high school students who have a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher. The reality is that with the state lottery funds this can be done at a minimal cost to the county and can be a powerful tool to make college training available to those who otherwise might not see college as a possible alternative. The children of our community truly are our most valuable asset and we must make every effort possible to develop and retain that asset for the future of the county.
In terms of substance abuse, we will be working on a comprehensive approach to substance and drug abuse. This will involve bringing prevention, treatment, law enforcement, and the judicial folks together to put together a strategy to address this issue in our community. The stakes are too high in terms of economic development and lost human potential to not take action in this area.
Quality of Life
A key component of a growing community is a clean community. Cleanup of the county was a priority for 2015. The county signed agreements to provide code enforcement in the towns of Lockhart and Carlisle. In addition, we directed the detention center to take inmates out daily this year to pick up trash throughout our community. Through the code enforcement department we contacted over 300 property owners with trash and junk ridden properties which resulted in the properties being cleaned up.
The county also demolished 10 vacant abandoned and dilapidated buildings. Despite all of these efforts we have not made near the progress in this area that we need to.
In 2016, we will declare war on trash, junk, and dilapidated vacant buildings. This is a large problem in our county and it will take time to address but we are committed to making progress.
We have secured a grant to hire a new litter-code enforcement officer in 2016. Through this position we will step up enforcement throughout the county. In addition, we will take a zero tolerance policy on littering.
In the past when we have identified an individual who illegally dumped trash we have given them the opportunity to clean the trash up to avoid paying a fine. In 2016 we will prosecute anyone caught illegally littering in our county. This problem is widespread and we cannot pick the trash up as fast as it is being thrown out.
In addition, everyone will need to make sure that they properly secure the trash that they are hauling to the recycling centers. The county will also increase the number of dilapidated vacant structures which are demolished by using county public works and inmate labor to tear down the structures and clean up the properties.
We must take pride in our community and treat it with respect if we expect our county to grow. This is a problem we can fix together.
Recreational opportunities are key to quality of life. This year we restructured our recreation department which included upgrading our facility and equipment. As a result of these efforts, participation in our football and basketball programs increased by more than 30%.
Through the efforts of our Tourism Commission we are working to provide Broad River kayaking and canoe opportunities to the Lockhart Community and through a SCDNR grant we expect to complete a new public boat ramp on the Broad River just above the Lockhart community this year. In addition, we are working to leverage the national forests within the county by promoting coon and other hunting events and expos.
We also increased utilization of the Timken Sports Complex this year. Tournament play at the complex was up over 40% and for the first time ever we hosted the State Dixie Youth Tournament which brought thousands of people to our community.
Despite these efforts, we still need more recreational activities for our young people. My kids often tell me “dad there is nothing to do in Union” and this is a reality for our young people. This year we will put a team of people together to focus on bringing in recreational opportunities for our young people.
I feel strongly that we need a movie theater and a mid level chain restaurant like a Chilis, Applebees, or Fatz in Union County. In 2016, we will work to recruit these types of businesses using similar types of incentives that we would use to recruit a new industry. A growing community must provide recreational activities for its young people. This will be a priority for 2016.
While we completed many tasks in 2015, there is much work left to be done. Our county is still not experiencing population growth. Growth is key to providing the necessary tax base to support a first class school and county government. This problem dates back to the folks in Union who were against an interstate coming through our community and failure to look at what was happening to the textile industry in the US.
While we cannot construct an interstate or change the fate of the textile industry, we can take steps to grow our county. In 2016, we will work to develop and implement a 5 year plan for the county. This plan will focus on taking those steps necessary to position the county for growth and it will require input from everyone. While I do not have all of the answers in terms of how to get the county growing, I am confident that we can find those answers together.
We did not get where we are overnight and we will not get to where we want to be overnight. However, I am confident that working together we will build a better Union.
This story was written by Union County Supervisor Frank Hart.