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If you live in SC, read these two editorials

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Legislature hamstrings local government

SOUTH CAROLINA, population 4 million, has more than 900 local governments, which jealously guard their power and often refuse to work together. That’s an average of one government, with all its expenses, for every 4,400 residents.

Richland and Lexington counties alone have two county governments, 13 municipalities, seven school districts and at least a half dozen special little governments that were created to provide a single service, be it recreation or water or fire protection.

You couldn’t do worse if you were trying to create a system that wastes money and encourages officials to act against the public interest. The duplication, turf battles and lack of accountability that this system produces make even state government look good.

But don’t bother marching on City Hall. The folks there have no power to reduce the number of competing governments, or even to make them work together.

The problem is at the State House.

Local governments are the entities closest to the people, where citizens have the best chance to influence decisions, at least when they are kept to a reasonable number, so citizens can keep track of them. It is their actions that most affect our daily lives. But in South Carolina, local government isn’t controlled by local officials. It’s controlled by state legislators, to the detriment of both local government and state government.

Legislators appoint and protect most of the 500 or so special little governments that provide water, sewer, fire and recreation services to tiny segments of the public.

They prevent cities and counties from consolidating and school districts from merging. They keep cities from expanding and providing the municipal services that urban residents demand.

They force duties down on local governments, then force them to use the hated property tax to pay the bill.

To make matters worse, all this meddling robs our part-time legislators of the time and energy they need for the full-time job of overseeing a $17 billion state government and dealing properly with issues such as education, tax policy, tort reform and insurance law.

The result is that in a poor state, we pay top dollar for bottom-tier services.


This was supposed to change in 1973, when legislators amended the constitution with the Home Rule Act.

And much did improve.

Legislators stopped writing county budgets, which freed them up some to tend to the state. County councils got to set taxes and decide how to allocate money and how to provide local services. They got to decide such purely local matters as zoning.

But much did not improve.

Many expected Home Rule would mean an end to those 500 special purpose districts; it didn’t. Legislators simply stopped creating more of them.

Home Rule was supposed to put an end to special laws written for each county; it didn’t. Local legislators still write laws dictating tax policy, spending decisions and even personnel matters within their counties.

The Legislature has even taken away some of the power that voters thought they ordered it to give local government. Home Rule gave cities the power to enact any laws the Legislature didn’t prohibit, but when they started finding ways to raise money without relying on the property tax, the Legislature stopped them.


The consequences of legislators’ refusal to yield power are widespread and diverse:

• Drive through just about any urban area, and you’ll see a city garbage truck plucking up refuse from one side of the street, a county truck from the other; city and county police play the same game of duplication. That’s the result of our restrictive annexation laws.

New residents don’t stop demanding city services just because cities can’t take them in. So counties have to provide garbage pickup and police crowded urban areas. That means duplication on the streets, and in the front office.

A reasonable solution would be for a city and county to consolidate once counties make the turn from rural to urban. But the Legislature has refused to allow that. Twenty years after voters demanded it, the General Assembly finally passed a law in 1992 that claimed to allow city-county consolidation; but local officials quickly found that the way the law was written made any merger a technical impossibility.

• Cities are allowed to consolidate, but there’s no incentive to do so. To the contrary, the state encourages their proliferation. That’s what happened in Charleston County when some residents decided they didn’t want to pay for city services. They formed the town of James Island, which rented a storefront for town hall but provided no police or fire protection, no zoning, nothing.

When the Supreme Court ordered the town dismantled last year, because it had been formed illegally, it had $1.2 million sitting in the bank. That’s money the county and state gave it just because it was called a municipality — money that was meant to help real cities provide services to residents.

• In 2003, the Richland County Recreation Commission spent $65,000 essentially to buy the resignation of an employee who pleaded guilty to embezzling public money. Later that year, the commission let its new Ballentine Community Center sit idle for months during a dispute with the County Council. The council couldn’t do anything in either case because the recreation commission is controlled by legislators.

So is the Irmo-Chapin Recreation Commission, which serves half of Lexington County while the Legislature’s Lexington Recreation and Aging Commission serves the other half. And the Richland County Election Commission, which had to mothball nearly $400,000 worth of new voting machines the county purchased in the 1980s because local senators didn’t like the brand.

• Columbia and Richland County can’t use money from their new restaurant tax to pay for school teachers, police, road repair or anything else residents need; they must spend it on arts programs and athletic facilities. Smaller counties have it worse: They can only use the money for tourism-related infrastructure, so they have to raise property taxes to run the programs that use the new infrastructure. That’s because the Legislature constrains not only how local governments can raise money but also how they can spend it.

Ironically, it is this compulsion to control local government finances that has created one of legislators’ biggest headaches — the property tax backlash. Local officials have begged for decades for more taxing options, so they don’t have to rely almost exclusively on property taxes to pay for local services and schools, but the Legislature has largely refused. So as rates remain stable or rise slightly on other taxes, they spiral upward on the tax that most people hate the most.


There have been a few grudging steps toward local autonomy since the initial burst of action — and inaction — following Home Rule.

When the original Power Failure series was published 14 years ago, legislators still controlled local road-paving. The Supreme Court later took that power away, and today many county councils control the so-called C-funds.

Another big problem for local governments in 1991 was the Legislature’s habit of ordering them to upgrade their jails, increase school funding or perform any number of tasks without providing money to pay for it.

Lawmakers have since passed a law that requires them to calculate how much any new law will cost local governments; that bit of sunshine has slowed the unfunded mandate flood to a trickle. (Unfortunately, legislators also have failed to adequately fund the public schools and other public services, which has forced responsible local governments to pick up the slack.)

Other improvements weren’t so clear-cut.

In 1998, the Legislature finally passed a law that allows voters to dismantle special purpose districts. But no one has used the law because it requires that an unrealistic 40 percent of property owners sign a petition, and then two-thirds of voters approve the dissolution.

Two years later, the Legislature loosened up the annexation law, which had prohibited cities from taking in land without the approval of at least 75 percent of the property owners, who owned at least 75 percent of the property. It still isn’t easy, but now cities can grow if 25 percent of the residents sign a petition, and half the residents vote to be annexed.

More recently, legislators have become aggressive in pushing in the other direction. Every year brings stepped-up attempts to restrict annexation authority, to place shackles on how cities and counties spend money, even to scale back that most basic of local powers — zoning decisions. Most of these assaults have been defeated, but still they keep coming.


The early resistance to true Home Rule isn’t so difficult to understand.

Most of us take for granted the idea that governmental functions that can be performed at the local level should be performed at the local level, where government is closest to the people it serves; that the state should assist the local body in carrying out its tasks, and ensure that citizens across the state are served.

For legislators in the early 1970s, these were radical ideas — ideas that took away much of their power.

But since then, a whole new generation — and a whole new breed — of legislators has been elected.

Today’s Republican legislators talk about the virtues of local authority. They talk about the virtues of limited government, of fiscal restraint, efficiency and low taxes. And yet they tie up our small state with 900 separate local governments. They force those governments to duplicate each others’ work. They make it nearly impossible for some of the governments to cooperate. At a whim, they step in and change the rules those governments operate by. And all the while, they do a lousy job running the state government, often because they simply don’t have the time for it.

Our legislators are right: We do have too much government — at the local level. We do waste money on duplication and inefficiency. We should be able to do more with less. But they won’t let us.

Wednesday: An independent Legislature and judiciary can balance a strong executive. Read this series and more at www.thestate.com/mld/thestate/10646771.htm.

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Shards of power


Editorial Page Editor

YOU WANT the bumper-sticker version of what’s wrong with government in South Carolina?


At every level and in almost every area, government is chopped up into so many little shards that power is never sufficiently concentrated to allow any of those mini-governments to get much done. This so confuses and dissolves the lines of political accountability that voters seldom have any way of really knowing whom to blame for failure.

At the state level, we have at least 85 agencies, many with overlapping responsibilities. A few are part of the governor’s Cabinet, but that’s only about a third of the government as measured by spending. Most of the rest are run by boards and commissions made up mostly of people you and I did not elect. A few are even run by people who are elected separately from the governor, and therefore have no political or legal mandate to cooperate with the governor or any other part of state government.

Last week, opponents of fixing that last problem raised the usual specious argument that letting the governor appoint such specialized functionaries as the secretary of state and agriculture commissioner takes away the people’s right to choose their leaders. Try this: Go to the mall and ask the first 10 intelligent-looking adults you see to name the secretary of state and explain what he does. How many could do it? I thought so. Then ask them to name the governor. Now, whom do you suppose they’re going to be able to hold accountable when something goes wrong?

Fortunately, the House passed the measure. The bad news: It only lets the governor appoint two of the eight separately elected state agency heads. Worse, this is the most substantive move the Legislature plans to take toward restructuring this year. The other two bills that have a chance — one that theoretically puts the governor in charge of administrative functions and the other that claims to reduce fragmentation in health care and a few other areas — do even less.

The worst news: The Legislature isn’t even contemplating addressing the fragmentation of local government.

There are no plans to do anything about the 85 school districts — every one with its own expensive administrative structure — in our 46 counties. The same with the other 800 or so local governments (no one is really sure how many there are) that make it nearly impossible for voters to keep track of who is setting their property taxes.

So why do we have a system that seems to be designed not to get things done? That could be answered in a complicated way, but here’s the simple way: It was designed not to get things done. The basic organizing principles of government in South Carolina were established to serve the interests of the antebellum slaveholding elites. They wanted a system that resisted change, and that’s what they created. There have been changes over the years, but it’s basically the same structure we’ve always had.

In a column several weeks back, I quoted from the 1990 series of columns by USC professors Walter Edgar and Blease Graham that helped inspire the original Power Failure series. I didn’t have room for this gem:

“It makes no sense for the 130 residents of Pelzer to be subject to the taxing authority of six different governing bodies and service districts.”

No, it doesn’t. And it makes no sense for the people of Richland and Lexington counties to be subject to more than 20. But that’s the way it is.

And nobody’s doing anything about it.

Write to Mr. Warthen at [email protected]

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Interesting articles. Its true though. In SC, the county is the county and the city is the city, and there is no in between. There was an issue last year that involved a womans house that was on fire. She called 911, and the operator said a fir truck was on its way. The problem was that nobody was sure whether she lived in the city or not, so they weren't sure if the city's or the county's fire department was to respond. So the womans house burned for about 20 mins longer than it needed to.

I didn't know that there was that much fragmentation in our government. I did know that the Legislature was extremely controlling over our local governments in the past. So much that there was no local government to speak of until the Home Rule Act.

I also find it interesting that the first article takes a jab at the current Republican government when it was the Democratic government in the past that established this mess. I'm not tring to start a partisan debate though. It would be interesting to see a comparison of how SC, NC, and GA run things.

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I also find it interesting that the first article takes a jab at the current Republican government when it was the Democratic government in the past that established this mess. I'm not tring to start a partisan debate though. It would be interesting to see a comparison of how SC, NC, and GA run things.


This mess has been in place since the 1800's, there's no sense in making partisan points out of who created it. Back then, it probably made sense. The Democratic majoritys of the 60's and 70's perpetuated the status quo. I supported the Republicans in there attempts at reform, that they based their takeover on. However, with the exception of Governors Campbell and Sanford, none of them have done much to improve things, in fact now that they have the trappings of power, they seem to have forgotten the reason the citizens wanted a change.

Dems or GOP, the legislature continues it's incompetent reign, while the state struggles to not fall TOO FAR behind other states.

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I also find it interesting that the first article takes a jab at the current Republican government when it was the Democratic government in the past that established this mess. I'm not tring to start a partisan debate though. It would be interesting to see a comparison of how SC, NC, and GA run things.


This is a very interesting article. My parents still live in Myrtle Beach and complain about the double taxation that occurs to fund both the county and city police forces, even though the county does not serve them since they are in the city.

Since it was asked, there are some interesting differences in NC.

Here in Mecklenburg county, there is Charlotte, the six towns and the county government. Property taxes are collected by 7 governments, but one of the big differences is they cover specific items and there is not any duplication. The county runs the entire school system here it is not a city budgeted item. There is also a consoldated county/city fire department, police department, and utilities. A couple of towns provide their own police forces and where that is the case, the county taxes are lowered for those residents and the city collects taxes for them instead.

NC also allows municipalities and county governments to collect more than property taxes for local projects. In Mecklenburg, we have a 1/2% sales tax for mass transit projects, a hotel/motel tax collected for local development purposes, and a prepared food tax. The state has also allowed every county to add a local option 1% sales tax and most counties have taken that option.

NC does not allow city/town governments to fund and build roads (with few exceptions that are approved case by case by the Legislature). The NCDOT builds most roads in NC with counties being allowed build minor throughfares. This is one of the reasons the road system in NC is so bad as compared to SC and roads are built where they are not needed and cities such as Charlotte suffer. One only has to drive north on I77 from Rock Hill to see the immediate difference once they cross the state line. NC operates the largest or second largest state highway system in the nation and this is a primary example of where centralized state planning and control over something that should be a local matter clearly fails.

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This is mostly an update on the previously posted story. It reads as though the County Council will move forward with splitting one fire district between two adjacent districts. The interesting information is that this process has "reignited" the debate for further consolidation of the 38 fire departments (aka special purpose districts) in Spartanburg County.

I don't know if that will go anywhere, but IMO it needs to happen at least in the more populated areas of the county adjacent to Spartanburg and along I-85.

HJ Article

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South Carolina isn't by far alone when it comes to special purpose districts - most states in the nation at the county level (typically rural or suburban) are represented not by a single agency but by numerous jurisdictions. Most likely in this political environment (which honestly has always existed in the south - distrust in government), expecting all the utility districts, emergency service districts or other districts to be consolidated is unlikely.

It should be noted though that counties in SC are allowed to add local option sales taxes as well as municipalities collecting privilege taxes.

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The difference, however, is that South Carolina has an abnormally high number of special purpose districts. A special purpose district or municipal service district in-and-of-itself is not a problem. The fact that we have so many of them that overlap creates a lower return on services and poor efficiency, IMO.

For example, I think that a county with one large fire department -especially in the more urban counties- would be better at providing services, and would be able to seek out new funding sources (grants, etc) than the scattered volunteer system since they would be able to pay people salaries.

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Most likely in this political environment (which honestly has always existed in the south - distrust in government), expecting all the utility districts, emergency service districts or other districts to be consolidated is unlikely.

The irony in this is that such an attitude runs counter to the fiscal conservatism that many in these SPD's espouse. At least in the South, people are willing to sacrifice low-cost efficiency for local rule.

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At least part of it is that the boards that run these things sort of operate as their own 'fiefdoms' and these people like having authority over something, even though it is relatively meaningless.

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