Problems and Issues Facing County Governments

The 1975 Local Government Law provided South Carolina counties with greatly expanded service delivery authority and responsibilities. The Home Rule Act opened the door for counties to  provide urban-type services in developing areas. However, despite the gains made under the 1975 legislation, counties still face numerous problems and issues.

Double or Dual Taxation

An issue that has existed between city and county governments for a long time is double or dual taxation. Some city officials feel that their residents are taxed twice when services are provided by the county in the unincorporated areas and are either provided at a lower level or not at all inside city boundaries. A frequent example cited is law enforcement  since most cities have a police department and all counties have a sheriff. The argument is that city residents pay both city and  county taxes but may not receive all county services. Some cities and counties (such as Lexington County) have addressed the issue by reducing the county tax millage in city areas that feature duplicate service.

Fiscal responsibility for state mandated services and functions over which the county has no direct control

The key issue here is the inability of counties to exercise local financial control over such programs. Counties receive little or no reimbursement for providing such state-mandated services as tax assessment, maintenance of land records, and conducting elections.

Inability of the property tax to meet service demands

As a major revenue source for counties, the property tax has not been responsive to increased service demands. The property tax was designed two centuries ago as a revenue source to meet the needs of a rural economy, not a rapidly urbanizing state. It is criticized today for taxing unrealized capital gains on property (i.e., the increased value of one's home in this case), and for being unfair since the tax may have no relationship to a tax payer's ability-to-pay taxes.

Urbanization

Many of South Carolina's counties have been urbanizing at a fast pace. In 1950, only four South Carolina counties (Aiken, Charleston, Greenville, and Richland) were characterized as "Urban" by the U.S. Census Bureau. By 1980, twelve counties were urbanized. In addition to the 1950 urban counties, the 1980 list included Anderson, Berkely, Dorchester, Florence, Lexington, Pickens, Spartanburg, and York. Urbanization has been accompanied by rapid population growth in suburban areas and increased industrial and commercial development in unincorporated areas. Urbanization promises to be a major issue in future years, as developing suburban areas demand more and more urban-type services.

Challenge of government modernization

South Carolina's counties, whether urban or rural in character, must deal with several overriding issues that impact all local governments such as inflation, federal spending decisions, and state-mandated services. County government modernization is one way to address such generic concerns. Modernization trends already in evidence across the nation and in South Carolina include:

  • performing city or urban-type services and not just state-mandated services
  • utilizing some version of council-elected executive or council-administrator form of government rather that relying on forms of government that depend upon legislators to act as executives also.
  • gaining legal authority from local county charters rather than relying on state law and the state legislature.
  • relying more on intergovernmental cooperation (city-county, local-state cooperation).

Role of the special purpose district

Throughout the state, South Carolina has well over 300 special purpose districts that provide a wide range of public services. Under present state law, counties may enlarge or diminish, but not abolish, such districts. This legal provision is a major concern in any discussion of city-county consolidation. Must special purpose districts become part of a consolidated city-county government or could they choose not to be involved? The exact role of special purpose districts would have to be resolved before consolidation legislation can be finalized.

Need for fiscal home rule and alternative revenue source

South Carolina's counties have a great deal of discretionary service authority under the 1975 Local Government Law. However, what many county officials feel is needed now is the fiscal authority to raise money locally to support expanded services. Currently, counties cannot impose any new taxes or establish any new revenue sources. They may only increase or reduce existing taxes and use existing revenue sources. As federal revenues are reduced, and state funds also perhaps, local governments are being forced to rely more and more on their own resources. Hence, the reduction of intergovernmental aid is adding to the pressures which result in a call for more local discretion.

Planning for growth and development in rural areas

Since rural areas have unique planning problems and concerns, many urban oriented planning techniques are not appropriate to such areas. Some rural areas must plan for rapid population growth and economic development. Other areas will grow very slowly while some rural areas will actually lose population and jobs. County governments that serve such communities will face a declining revenue base while at the same time facing critical human service needs among rural citizens.

Decaying county infrastructure

County roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, parks, and so on, are all part of the nations decaying infrastructure. A 1983 study by Clemson University indicated that South Carolina would need to spend over $7 billion between 1980 and the year 2000 to replace the state's streets, highways, bridges, airports, water systems and sewer systems.

County correction system overcrowding

Many county jail and prison facilities are grossly overcrowded. County jails are often older facilities with a small number of cells. Such facilities were not designed to house the number of prisoners currently held there and were never intended to be the long-term penal facilities which many have become.