In this episode, we sit down with Councilman Butch Kirven, the Finance Committee Chairman for Greenville County Council, to discuss the county’s budget process. Learn how the budget is developed, what priorities will likely be seen in the final budget, and how residents can get involved. With a two-year budget of just under $650 million, Greenville County has a lot of moving parts. Discover how the county allocates its resources, insights on economic development strategy, and how the county is incentivizing businesses to provide opportunities for everyone in the community.
Katy Smith: Greenville County is the largest county in the state, and it has a $350 million budget to show for it. The process for developing that budget is complex, and today we’ll hear all about it from Greenville County Finance Committee Chairman Butch Kirven. Mr. Kirven represents District 27, which is generally the Simpsonville area and he served on Greenville County Council since 2005 and is also Greenville County Chairman pro Tem.
We’ve linked his bio in the show notes. He will cover some budget facts, how the budget is developed, what priorities we are likely to see in the finished product, and how to get involved.
I’m so grateful to Chairman Pro-Tem Butch Kirven for joining us today to talk about the county’s budget process, which is vital to our county, but something that a lot of residents aren’t super familiar with.
Thanks for being here.
Butch Kirven: Katy, it’s my pleasure. I’m delighted to be with you today.
Katy Smith: Thank you. Well, to begin with, can you just give us an overview of the Greenville County budget?
Butch Kirven: Sure, of course there are a lot of facts and figures, but, uh, as we get into the session today, we can discuss some of the, the reasons why we do things the way we do and how we arrive at, uh, the numbers that we arrive at. But basically, Greenville County does a budget on a two year basis. We call it a biennial budget.
And over the two years, our current budget is just a little bit less than $650 million. FY 2022, it was $319 million. And the current year, 2023 is, um, uh, almost $329 million.
Katy Smith: That’s big.
Butch Kirven: Yeah. So, primarily, uh, it goes to pay county operations and we’ll get into some other things that come out of the budget to reflect council’s policies as we continue the podcast. I want you to know that, uh, we have about 2400 county employees. We’re a service organization, so that means you have a lot of employees and that consumes a large amount of the budget with paying allowances and benefits for the employees.
And in addition to the 2,400 employees, we have about 400 part-time employees. They staff about 34 county departments. Of the roughly $350 million a year budget, 53% of that comes from property taxes, and that’s based on the tax millage living on the value of personal property. About 21% of our county revenue comes from county offices, such as registered deeds, recording fees, application fees for certain types of permits. Some of the fines we have, uh, EMS fees for reimbursement for transportation and medical attention to individuals and, uh, probate court revenue for filing all the work that goes on over there.
12% comes from our local government fund, which is a reimbursement from the state to the county to pay for the County providing office space and, and support for uh, state offices that are, are located in Greenville County. DHEC,, state health and, uh, probation and parole and pardons and uh, and those kinds of things that a state operations. County has to provide them with office space and support.
So, but they reimbursed us, so we got about 12% of our revenue from that. And then the last 12% is usually interest or rent on county owned property that might be rented for various uses. Uh, cable TV franchise fees, uh, tipping fees out at the landfill where the commercial carriers go and the municipalities go and, and dump all their garbage collections, and road maintenance fees included in that too, to maintain county roads and bridges.
Katy Smith: You know, we did an episode and we can link it in the show notes with Scott Case, the county auditor, and he talked about property tax collection. That itself is very complex as you just talked through, but it’s interesting to know that it’s just over barely half of the county’s revenues, that there’s so much more that makes up the county’s revenues each year.
And it’s a lot to manage and keep constituents happy, I’m sure, in the managing of what that is.
Butch Kirven: Scott made a very good point there. But most of the discretionary income that council has to allocate for policies comes from property tax. Much of the rest of it is dedicated for specific services, uh, that generate the fee to pay for those. Um, and looking at the expenditures for a minute, uh, a little over 35%, uh, is our top priority, go into public safety to support, uh, sheriff’s office, uh, the jail or detention center, the courts. Forensics that we operate in the county. Uh, I might mention that the sheriff is a constitutional officer in South Carolina. The sheriff operates, uh, his own department and, uh, sets his own policies. County Council has no control over the sheriff’s policies, but we have a good working relationship with the sheriff because the county is obligated to fund the overhead and expenses and pay all of the Sheriff’s department personel.
Which is, uh, some 500 people.
Katy Smith: And is that true? In every county, the sheriff is elected, but the county council is who funds the sheriff operations?
Butch Kirven: Yes. That, that’s, that’s true in every county in South Carolina because the office of Sheriff is established in the state constitution. And since the sheriff is elected at large throughout the county, and he has, uh, armed force, you might say, uh, is one of the most powerful positions, uh, in the state, in each county.
Other expenses, about 25% go to general government operations. Uh, 18% goes to community development and people say, what is community development? Well that goes for our planning department. We facilitate a lot of, uh, area plans when citizens have, have areas in certain neighborhoods that they want to come together and decide what they would like in their area.
Uh, we have professional staff that facilitates those meetings. And of course they operate day to day on administering all the, the zoning and land development regulations. Uh, we have codes enforcement. Uh, we have, property maintenance. You know, you own property. The county owns property. You have to maintain it.
You got pay your power bills and overhead and keep your roof dry. Uh, we’ve got public works administration, engineering for roads and bridges, and then of course animal care, which is very popular. A lot of people are very concerned about animal care. We’re proud in Greenville County that we have become a no-kill animal care facility, which is very hard to maintain because of the large number of, uh, pets that are sometimes abandoned and turned in that we have to then turn around and find good homes home for them.
And they do a good job out there, but it’s not cheap. We don’t mind spending money on that.
Katy Smith: That is lot of work.
Butch Kirven: So we finally finish out our expenditures on our EMS and emergency operations. Everybody’s familiar with EMS cause you see the ambulances going up and down the roads every day. Uh, emergency operations is something very important for emergency preparedness in case of natural disasters or tornadoes or things like that that occur from time to time.
Snow storms, massive power outages. And, uh, they’re trained all the time and they’re ready to go in a moment’s notice and we have to spend money to keep that in place. Just under 8% goes to parks and rec recreation, another popular county service. And then lastly, just over 4% goes to debt service on county financial obligations.
Katy Smith: Wow, that is a lot to manage and we have had a couple of episodes in the past. We’ve had on Tee Coker who oversees planning. We’ve had Hesha gamble with public works on to talk about our roads and, and litter and all of that infrastructure.
It’s a very complex body of work that county’s responsible for, and the budget is really where it all comes together and gets funded.
Butch Kirven: It is, and Hesha and Tee and their respective staff, team members, uh, do a phenomenal job for the county. It’s very reassuring to all of our council members to, when we have constituents call up about an immediate problem, whether it be drainage or potholes or a, a road blockage, a tree fell over the road or something like that, uh, we can call those folks and they have somebody out there usually that day.
Katy Smith: That’s so
Butch Kirven: outstanding.
To take care of the problem.
It is. We appreciate that very much.
Katy Smith: Well, a local government budget is a financial document that names what the county plans to spend money on in the coming two years and what revenue expects to receive. But it’s really so much more than that. I mean, just the categories you described help demonstrate that. So why is a county budget important to residents?
Butch Kirven: Well, it’s just like, like your household, uh, you know, you want to anticipate how much money you’re gonna have to spend on the things you need and the things you would like to aspire to save up for in the future. So it’s a guide that for the county, and we pride ourselves in Greenville County on being very fiscally responsible.
And that’s a really a strong suit I think from our, our administration. In South Carolina, counties are political subdivisions of the state. And I think this is important factor because some people get the idea that counties are, are independent governments, or what you might call a sovereign government, which is not true in South Carolina counties.
Were created by the state legislature and we’ve given certain duties and responsibilities in state law that are our primary focus. And those are create some boundaries or guardrails as to what the county usually spends its resources on. As time changes, uh, some of those are being tested a little bit now because the county is finding out their needs, uh, that sort of extend beyond those definite boundaries that were given to us by state law.
So it’s a new field of consideration for council. And, and our delegation to decide how we’re going to allocate resources based on the current needs of our citizens.
Katy Smith: Can you give an example of what one of those boundary tests might be?
Butch Kirven: Well, uh, one example that comes to mind is, uh, is the affordable housing issue. Traditionally, housing, uh, and affordable housing has been funded by federal block grants and a little bit from the state. The federal money comes to the state and we got a state housing authority. And, uh, they have a board and they meet and they decide, uh, what projects they’re applied for that are worthy of funding.
And then the counties and the city, in this case city of Greenville, we have a redevelopment authority which receives those block grants and some funds from the state and creates an annual agenda or strategy for housing in the county and in Greenville County, the county’s, uh, redevelopment authority also supports, uh, the five municipalities other than the City of Greenville.
During the recent times federal block grants may not be enough to allocate resources to serve all of our citizens with an opportunity to have decent and affordable housing.
Katy Smith: That’s a great example because we know that the need for affordable housing, especially at certain income levels, is enormous. and if everyone has their lane that they’re in, but we need more bandwidth. Yeah. Who plays what role in making that happen? That’s a question for all of us to solve together.
Butch Kirven: Well, Greenville County has done quite a bit in the last, uh, two or three years, on affordable housing. Uh, with the settlement we got from the hospital consolidation, uh, we’ve allocated that $1 million a year to affordable housing, uh, with the ARPA funds. We designated 10 million for affordable housing and, uh, we’ve designated the G C R A as the affordable housing management identity for Greenville County to use those fund with some oversight and input from County Council as to how they do that based on their strategies that they report to council on. And finally, the county is pretty good at incentivizing behavior. So we’ve created an affordable housing incentive for, uh, economic development, if you will, so that companies that want to come into our, our wonderful market here and capitalize on building apartments and housing, may get an incentive to reduce their cost if they include an affordable housing element in their project. And that’s pretty new for county council and we’re looking for some of the best test cases to come forward. Although we did a few of those cases prior to the policy being put into place that, uh, actually showed us the way that we could incentivize this, uh, very effectively.
And a couple of those projects have been built out very successfully and we’re pretty proud of the results.
Katy Smith: That is so great. I really appreciate that you’re responding to a need you’ve heard from constituents and that you all see on your own in the community in such an array of creative ways, you know, drawing on different pots of money, if I can. And then using that creative incentive approach, cause it does take a lot of creativity to solve the problem.
Butch Kirven: Well, the next test is going to be the $10 million from ARPA funds one time money. So when that money gets spent out in projects, uh, how’s it gonna be replaced? What’s going to recur, financial wise to continue that stream at, at that level? And that’ll be for council to decide how we’re going to, uh, manage that.
But at least it gave us the opportunity to really kickstart program and to make a dent in affordable housing.
Katy Smith: Yes. Thank you. The great demand for affordable housing is one example of a need that you all have observed and have heard from constituents that you’ve responded to in the budget. Can you think of any other past examples of ways you’ve seen kind of new things or, or greater things come up that you’ve included in the budget process?
Butch Kirven: Well, thanks Katy. It’s amazing how, our, our citizens actually lead council in seeing what the needs are. For example, traffic congestion. We get complaints all the time about what are you gonna do about traffic congestion. It’s a very complex problem. Well, one thing is, uh, reduce, uh, vehicular traffic.
And so how do you do that? We have public transportation. If you got a, a growing urban area like Greenville County is, then public transit becomes a viable option. But you gotta fund it to a level to make it attractive and useful to wider group of citizens and not just low income areas, if you will, or transportation between a few points that don’t attract that many people.
It’s gotta be useful to, to businesses, uh, shoppers, uh, convenience that is widely used. And I think, uh, , if we get to that level, we’ll see maybe not a reduction in traffic, but it won’t increase as fast as it has in the past.
Katy Smith: Yes, yes. There’s a graphic that I love that shows 40 cars on a street, and then it shows 40 bicycles, and then it shows the size that 40 people on a bus take up. And I think if you never planned to use public transit, if you could imagine that all the people around you were on a bus instead of in lanes next to you, how much better your life would be.
So transit when funded adequately can be a, a terrific traffic mitigation strategy. So thanks for pointing that out. Well, what are some of the priorities you think we’ll see come up in the budget process this year, and are they any different from previous years?
Butch Kirven: It is amazing how most of ’em are, are similar year to year. Public safety we like to say is always our top priority. Public safety of our citizens. And I think that goes for any government from the national on down to, to a local level. At Greenville County, that means, uh, we gotta keep funding the sheriff’s office because a hiring a qualified deputies is very competitive.
And if your salaries fall below other local governments or the state, then you’re gonna be, uh, losing the number of qualified personnel that you need to actually provide good public safety and preventive, uh, safety measures. Quality of law enforcement is key. You got to have well trained, dedicated law enforcement officers, and you have to be compensated for that skill and responsibility that you carry with them every day out on the street.
But again, uh, emergency and medical services is another one that’s, uh, that’s a high need area. We want to have a, a very, very humane and efficient, uh, detention center, but it’s a challenge keeping the personnel that are engaged in that career full strength over the detention center.
So for those reasons, that’s a budget priority, to create those public safety opportunities there. And in our budget, politically, we’re fiscally conservative, as I started out to say, which means we always balance a budget. We don’t write any bad checks when we pay our bills on time, just like you as an individual
Katy Smith: Always a good policy.
Butch Kirven: Want to do it at home. And that’s reflected in the county’s, uh, AAA credit rating. So we don’t borrow a lot of money, but when we need to, we can get it the best rates available in the market. And a lot of times our bonds qualify for a premium, which means we, we get more back than we wanted to borrow and had the payment is the same.
So, uh, that’s a very useful tool. Uh, planning and infrastructure is always important as we’re a very dynamic growing community. It is hard to keep the infrastructure to catch up with the growth as you got new subdivisions, commercial areas, multi-use areas, uh, going up all around the county and in unincorporated areas.
Then you need, uh, water, sewer, quality of life issues, roads, uh, relief congestion and how to pay for all that is always a budget priority too. This is something that we’re starting to talk about now. In the past, uh, we used, uh, state incentives that we negotiate with companies coming into Greenville County that wanna bring in jobs and capital.
investment. Capital investment is great because a company, people may not know this, not only they’re building, but they also pay tax on their machinery and equipment inside the building, which could be billions and billions of dollars. The job situation though, is a little bit different. We were transitioning out of the textile industry, people use this all the time, of course. All those in textile employees were suddenly looking for jobs. And so we, we wanted to incentivize businesses and Greenville County has done a great job of doing this and South Carolina has too, so that, uh, the people who were displaced from the old industry can find employment in the new industry.
And then how they could qualified. You got the technical schools. High school vocational work so that they can have opportunities to learn how to do those new tech jobs. But industry is getting so sophisticated now with even higher tech qualifications, and Greenville County is so desirable. So how much do we need to give away to get certain companies to come here?
And, uh, how much do we need to incentivize companies that are gonna require a lot of infrastructure? And the jobs aren’t going to be of the kind that will pay well enough to increase the per capita income that we’re trying to do in Greenville County.
Katy Smith: Gosh, that is a complex calculation.
Butch Kirven: So we have to, yeah, we we’re just starting to think about how can we reformulate our economic development strategy to make it attractive to the companies that we want to have, and some of the ones that we don’t want to have may go to places more amenable to them.
Katy Smith: I really appreciate and had thought about before, but not in sufficient depth, that if we’re gonna bring a new employer here, how many taxes are they gonna generate either in, property tax or, you know, all the stuff inside the building, as you say, the quality of the jobs they’ll bring. How many jobs? Because if it’s all automated, there might not even be that many jobs. It’s a lot for Mark with Greenville Area Development Corporation to think about.
Butch Kirven: And, and we want the kinds of industrial growth, business and industrial growth that will provide opportunities for everybody in Greenville County. Opportunity to improve their quality of life and their families to live better in the future and grow with Greenville’s economy and as you know, Greenville County is such a desirable place.
Some of the top companies would like to be here. We wanna find them and show them how they can really prosper in Greenville County and our citizens can prosper along with them.
Katy Smith: I appreciate that cause if our land is finite and we are as desirable as we know we are, we can choose.
Butch Kirven: Exactly. Exactly.
Katy Smith: I’ll, we.. We’re giving all of you listeners a bunch of assignments in this episode, but we also did a great episode with Mark Ferris about how fee in lieu of tax agreements work. And so we’ll note that in the show notes as well.
Okay. So what else do you see as priorities?
Butch Kirven: Well, uh, we’ve already talked about a couple of them, but one is of community development, which means creating sustainable communities and addressing our lack of affordable housing. I just got through it this morning with a meeting with the, uh, Appalachian Council of Governments Board and we had a nice presentation on services to the aging in Greenville County.
Katy Smith: Oh gosh.
Butch Kirven: And the percentage of, uh, elderly that are living alone is going up.
And they would like to stay in their homes as long as possible. And so, uh, based on their ability to support themselves, there are programs to help, say an elderly person needs a handicapped access ramp at their house. There are ways to get that built. Some churches do that too.
Meals on Wheels and other providers of nutrition and food, either through community centers or individually. Those are areas that, uh, we see a lot of growth in. We’re working with the ACOG and the state on that. And the other two I wrote down was Public transit and the Swamp Rabbit Trail.
Katy Smith: Always the Swamp Rabbit Trail. Always a favorite.
Butch Kirven: Yeah.
Katy Smith: Sometimes complimentary interests, but it probably feels like they’re competing at times when you get into the budget process and can be tricky. Um, so it’s a lot for you to manage as the finance committee chairman. So speaking of that process, it is a long one and necessarily so, so can you tell us what is the county’s budget process and how residents can get involved?
Butch Kirven: Sure. Good question. As I mentioned earlier, our budgeted budget process is fairly disciplined. And actually our form of government is the administrator council form of government in South Carolina that was selected many years ago when on Rule came in. And under that form of government, under state law, the administrator is charged with preparing the budget.
And then, when it’s prepared, he presents it to county council well in, in advance of, uh, time to approve it so council can go over it and ask any questions and decide if they wanna make any changes. And then the final phase is approving the budget. The preparation phase is vitally important. Now the administrator hears from council on priorities, sometimes very specific district priorities and all that. But he factors all that in on one side of the ledger. . And on the other side of the ledger, he has interviews with all of the existing county departments and heads of staff, and, uh, they review their budget for the previous year, uh, what the performance was of that department.
What they could do more of, if they had the resources, what they might’ve been able to economize on and transfer resources to a apply it to what was needed more. That’s an ongoing process, and that starts in, in the planning phase, which is really ongoing. But for our two year budget, under budget preparation year before the two year budget is approved, which is this coming year, this year, right now, uh, the planning phase started back in au August of last year.
Katy Smith: Wow. So the budget will be finalized when? When will council approve it?
Butch Kirven: Well, the first year of the two year budget will have to be finalized by the end of June.
Katy Smith: So the end of June, 2023. That work began in August, 2022.
That’s a lot.
Butch Kirven: With all those interviews and review performance of all the departments and factored in, uh, evolving needs of the county based on what the county council reports individually to the administrator. So that sort of wound up in October. You got all your rough facts and figures, and the administrator then sits down and goes through the development phase, which we’re in.
He’s about to finish that up November through, uh, February. And then we do the review and, uh, modification phase, which is now through April. And that’s when you start having conversations with county council on how things are shaping up, you know, uh, that we’re gonna have, uh, enough to put into our, uh, government fund, uh, our savings account, if you will.
what’s that situation look like? And then, uh, you get into the adoption phase, which is in May or June, which always requires three readings at different council meetings and at least one public hearing. And we’ll have workshop meetings with council well before that, which are open public meetings as well.
Uh, and then the implementation phase, which will, it’ll start July the first, and the new budget goes into effect at that time.
Katy Smith: That is a lot. And then at what point does the public become aware of what the draft budget is and, and can speak to that?
Butch Kirven: When is presented to council, of course, that’s public meeting and then council ask questions. But primarily the public is involved by letting their county council representatives know what they like or don’t like about county services that they see every day and about the policies they see, what they think the priorities should be, and, uh, that’s the job of the county council. When to represent those views and bring it back to council and admit that the administrator and the other council members know what’s important in their district.
Katy Smith: Outstanding. I’ll say to listeners that if you wanna learn more about how to follow along with county council meetings or your city council meetings, or who your elected officials are, if you go to our website at greatergoodgreenville.org, you’ll see under resources a Simple Civics Hub, and you can look up all of that information there, so that can help you follow along as this process and other local government processes take place.
Well, we are so grateful for your service, Butch, it’s just been a gift to the county and um, we really appreciate all the knowledge you bring to your role as finance committee chairman, and the hard work that’s gonna be ahead for you and for Mr. Cornell and your fellow council members in the coming months.
Butch Kirven: You’re very kind, Katy, and I really appreciate you having me.
Katy Smith: Thanks so much.
Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of the Greenville Podcast Company.