OUTRAGED OVER ridiculously long lines caused by too few working voting machines, many Richland County voters did what seemed natural: They called County Council members and blasted them for the poorly run Nov. 6 elections.
But while those voters’ instincts appeared sound — county officials are responsible for county elections, right? — they had blamed the wrong elected officials. While County Council is forced to tax residents to fund the elections and voter registration office, it has no control over the department. Instead, county legislators had appointed the director who managed the botched process as well as the board that oversees elections and voter registration.
While that might shock some people, that’s par for the course in a state where legislators wield more power than in practically any other state in the union.
Whether it’s hording executive authority that should be relinquished to the governor at the state level or lording over departments and services that should be under the control of city and county councils, lawmakers continue to cleave to the remnants of an 18th century English colonial political system known as the Legislative State.
On the local level, it’s a source of eternal confusion for residents seeking help with basic services and endless frustration for council members, who seek office hoping to make a difference in their local communities but find themselves handcuffed by the vestiges of an archaic but ever-present structure that allow counties’ legislators to meddle in local affairs. While today’s lawmakers don’t rule local governments with an iron fist as their predecessors did, their tentacles remain deeply embedded inside county governments in particular, and cause serious dysfunction.
Forty years after the passage of the Home Rule Act and the creation of formal county governments to run local affairs in the 1970s, local elected officials still lack the full authority they need — whether in taxing and spending or governance — to make decisions in the best interest of their communities.
Perhaps Sid Thomas, a professional planner and former director of the Central Midlands Regional Planning Council, said it best: “Home Rule is a myth. A total misnomer.”
Although lawmakers’ intrusion into local issues has dogged cities and counties for decades with debilitating effects, residents largely ignore the problem — until disaster strikes. As it did Nov. 6.
Elections just tip of the iceberg
While some understandably incensed voters clamor for the ouster of Richland Elections and Voter Registration director Lillian McBride — there’s no doubt she failed voters — this is much bigger than any one person. Yes, it’s imperative to find out what happened and make changes, which might include bringing in new leadership, to prevent a repeat.
But it would be tragic for the people of Richland County to have endured such a travesty and all they get is a new director of elections under the same flawed governing structure.
As illustrated by the elections debacle, having state legislators overseeing local matters, leaving duly elected council members powerless, can have grave consequences. After passing a law merging the Voter Registration office and the Election Commission, both of which they controlled with their appointment powers, county lawmakers pushed out Mike Cinnamon, the man who had staged Richland’s elections for nearly four decades. They appointed Lillian McBride, who had overseen voter registration for several years but had never staged elections, to head the merged department. County officials, some of whom had some concern about the move, could only sit by and watch. And on Nov. 6, their worst fears were realized.
But while the focus has, of necessity, been on elections, Richland lawmakers’ control of the county’s Recreation Commission is equally problematic. While County Council must allocate funds to operate the department and to build new facilities, it does not appoint the commission and has no say over how parks are run. County legislators appoint commission members.
Even as the elections debacle plays out, the county Recreation Commission is headed toward a veritable train wreck of its own, due in large part to the fragmented environment in which local governments are forced to operate.
The Recreation Commission is in the midst of a $50 million construction campaign but doesn’t have money to equip and staff those parks facilities that have been completed or those slated for the future. While County Council approved the money to improve parks, it and the commission failed to identify funds to staff and equip them, a gross mistake that would have been far less likely to occur if this were a county-run department.
Here’s an interesting paradox: While the state requires the county to fund the commission, state law hinders its ability to meet park needs. It is impossible to raise enough revenue to staff and equip new parks through the dedicated property tax that funds recreation because that tax is capped by state law.
If this were a county department, as it should be, Richland would have all sorts of flexibility to address this issue. But under the circumstances, options are limited, and it’s unclear what the future holds for the new and improved parks.
This is reminiscent of 2003, when a shiny new community center in Ballentine sat idle because the commission and the county hadn’t agreed on funding to operate it. The difference is that this time it’s on a much grander scale.
Local government undermined
The structural deficiency that created Richland County’s challenges with its elections and recreation departments has haunted local governments across this state for decades.
Like gremlins in the machinery, legislators wantonly, and with few or no repercussions, meddle in local affairs. They appoint and empower hundreds of little fiefdoms such as the Richland County Recreation Commission that oversee fire, water, sewer and recreation and other services. These inefficient, duplicative little governments called special purpose districts — there are roughly 500 of them across the state — undermine duly elected officials’ ability to govern and deliver quality, efficient, cost-effective services. They should have been abolished when lawmakers gave county councils the authority to govern locally.
But that’s not all that county governments contend with. As county officials attempt to improve their communities, they must share power with elected and appointed officials who are housed and funded by county taxpayers. The list includes magistrates (technically appointed by the governor, but really chosen by the senators from the county), clerk of court, auditor, treasurer, probate judge and coroner.
Countywide elected officials oversee departments but don’t answer to the administrator or county council. How likely is the council-appointed county administrator, who presents a proposed budget to the council annually, to seriously question an elected official’s spending request, no matter how irresponsible? And although the councils must approve elected officials’ budgets, many defer to them because they are elected.
But many of those elected positions perform only administrative functions; they don’t make policy. They should be county employees, not elected officials perceived to be co-equal to the council.
While counties feel the brunt of lawmakers’ intrusion at the local level, cities are affected as well. Ever wonder why it’s so difficult for cities to grow their boundaries and expand municipal services in natural and practical ways? Because the Legislature makes annexation more difficult than in most states. Meanwhile, little paper towns that offer no services are encouraged to incorporate because the state will give them money that it diverts from municipalities that actually have zoning, pick up garbage, police their streets and offer water and sewer.
Purse strings tightly controlled
In addition to the daunting task of keeping up with demands for service, facilities and infrastructure as their communities grow, counties also must meet requirements placed on them by legislators, such as maintaining offices for local branches of state agencies, principally the departments of health and social services.
Given that, you might think that lawmakers would ensure that local governments could raise the money needed to pay for it all. You’d be wrong.
The Legislature forces municipalities and counties to depend largely on property taxes, which many citizens detest. It was often a struggle to make ends meet, and things got even tougher in 2006, when the Legislature placed an arbitrary cap on property tax increases.
Beyond that, lawmakers routinely fail to fund services properly at the state level, which pushes the demands down to local governments, and the aid they historically have sent to local governments has steadily declined, especially in this struggling economy. That places undue burden on local governments to find ways to fund local needs.
Local governments have begged for decades for more taxing options, but lawmakers largely refused. They have allowed cities and counties some sales tax options, including the 2 percent hospitality tax, which Richland and Columbia employ. But only after attaching heavy strings. For example, the 2 percent tax on restaurant food can be used only for tourism-related projects. At the very least, lawmakers should allow such options to be used to meet the real needs of a community. It would have been ideal for Columbia and Richland to be able to use hospitality tax dollars to fund the bus system rather than ask voters to further burden the already-high sales tax.
Where to from here?
It’s unacceptable and counter to good government and common sense that those elected officials closest to the people are so far removed from the power they need to adequately serve their communities. Residents upset about poorly run recreation programs should be able to call someone in Richland County government and get answers rather than be at the mercy of an unelected, unaccountable body that answers to no one.
Until lawmakers release their death grip on local government, local residents will continue to endure fragmented, inefficient government that specializes in costly and duplicative services. And, potentially — without any warning — some colossal misstep, whether it be ridiculously long voting lines or shiny new parks that are moth-balled.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.