Most government budgets in South Carolina run from July to June so that elected officials can get through the season of good cheer without the worry of layoffs or tax hikes or both. But the City of Charleston has a long history of following the calendar year, putting depressing stories like this one on your doorstep just as you’re sitting down in front of that Black Friday TV to watch the Grinch steal away all of Whoville’s Christmas trappings.

Similarly, Charleston residents will wake up in 2011 with just the necessities. But it may smell like fermenting garbage and drivers are chasing little old ladies off the road. That’s because the city budget has carefully plucked millions from trash collection, speed bumps, and a host of other things described as “wants” instead of “needs.”

In combating the economic downturn, the city has used every tool in the budgetary tool belt, including tax increases, fee increases, and furloughs. This year, the city continues to cut positions (except for police and fire) and is digging deep in every department to find millions of dollars to replace falling revenues. What’s left should offer an interesting social experiment given the political momentum against government spending. When tax collections are flush, it’s easy to pick out waste and excess. But, in the waning hours of a recession, the cuts are targeting all the Who trimmings. And how little is too little?

Presenting the budget, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley never says, “It could be worse,” but it’s an implied counterpoint for every depressing number in the $146 million spending plan. The number of new business licenses and permits have dropped, again, but they’ve likely bottomed out (it could be worse). The cost for health insurance and employee injury claims has gone up, but our insurance rates are better than other local governments (it could be worse) and workers’ compensation claims should be going down in coming years (it couldn’t be worse, but it’s going to get better).

Riley rightly points out there are no tax or fee increases. Police and fire jobs are being preserved, while other cities are raising taxes or cutting emergency responders. The city has also restored $1.3 million to employee salaries after holiday furloughs in 2010. And fear not Detroit. There will be 50 new police cruisers, customized fire trucks, and several other new vehicles. City Chief Financial Officer Steve Bedard says the city could put off these purchases, but at the cost of piling replacement needs up for 2012 and 2013.

“We don’t think we should dig ourselves in too deep a hole,” he says.

Less For Less

When the City of Charleston decided three years ago to raise taxes, Mayor Joe Riley said it was “the last resort.” With a full recession between then and now, it’s pretty clear that a modest tax increase (the first since 1999) was actually more like a first resort.

This year’s cuts, presumably the last last resort, include $1.55 million in savings with hundreds of cuts impacting every department, with less money for everything from paper clips and fuel to training and travel. The city also won’t pay for employee certification classes unless they’re mandatory for the position.

The city is also eliminating a second commercial trash pick-up downtown on Saturdays and limiting yard debris pick-up during four holiday weeks (each area of the city will go without for one week a year). Speed bumps are on the chopping block, too. The city is cutting spending on the low-cost traffic-calming devices, from $80,000 to $25,000. The community assistance account, used to assist nonprofits, is less than half of what it was two years ago. City parks will cut hours during non-peak seasons and slow spells. For example, park officials will leave the tennis courts open, but close the tennis center building on Sundays.

The city is also doubling down on vacant positions. They’re eliminating 70 percent of the temporary employees hired for seasonal work and continuing a stringent hiring freeze that’s expected to save $3.8 million by leaving 113 positions unfilled. A proposed early retirement package would target another 180 employees, though some of those positions may have to be filled. Still, the city expects an additional $550,000 from the program.

Riley says the 2012 budget will likely restore spending on some of the items cut this year.

“We’re going to watch the implementation and watch what we can live without,” he says. “In some cases, we may have cut into the bone.”

The proposal that has received the most attention will likely be least missed by taxpayers. The city is putting its mounted patrol unit out to pasture. Expected to close up shop next spring, the unit’s exit will save the city $136,000 a year, with an extra $25,000 in 2011 for the sale of the horses and equipment. The three horse patrol officers will be moved to other units.

Chief Greg Mullen, who recommended the change, said it was about efficiency and addressing the department’s main goal. “These officers aren’t impacting the community in regards to actual crime reduction,” Mullen says.

Riley notes technology has changed since the horse patrol was introduced 40 years ago. The city’s latest “mounted” unit has included officers on Segways downtown.

City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson is nostalgic about the loss.

“This is a head versus heart kind of thing,” she conceded.

Councilman Gary White shook his head (he does that a lot) and offered an assessment that perfectly describes the barren Christmas tree we’re looking at. “We’re in a ‘need to have’ mode.”

Getting It Done

It’s a bad budget year, but the city isn’t sitting on its hands and needlessly stocking up on Who Hash. The city has leveraged revenue from leased space, grants, and tax revenue set aside for tourism improvements.

The new Flagship site at Calhoun and East Bay streets has shepherded a new tech sector downtown. The more than $5 million renovation of the City Market is gearing up for the final leg of construction. They should be name-dropping some heavy-hitting retailers for Market Street space soon, and there are plans for a new fourth shed. The city has also put money into a free trolley service downtown.

Criticized in the aftermath of the Sofa Super Store for not having enough firefighters on each truck, the city used federal dollars to cushion payroll increases for new firefighters.

The city also has grand plans for a $142 million Gaillard Auditorium renovation, with more than half the cost expected to come from private donations. The city has also squeaked out a respectable Civil War Sesquicentennial program, again largely funded through private donations.

But private money is just as scarce as public dollars (just ask your nearest Charleston Symphony Orchestra supporter). Fortunately, Mayor Riley expects things will start looking up this time next year so we can cut right to the Who feast.

The real challenge for city leaders may not be in cutting some services this year, but in finding the political will to restore necessary programs in 2012, regardless of the cost.