Bolton: Richland County’s taxes, spending influenced by lawmakers

Associate EditorMay 26, 2013 

Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— LOOK NO further than Richland County for an example of how lawmakers can unduly influence local taxing and spending.

State-mandated agencies and services are threatening to exert an even greater financial strain on the county, whose residents have been getting a thorough — and unwelcomed — lesson on the dysfunctional relationship between state and local governments lately.

That lesson began with the Nov. 6 election mess, when voters learned that although the council is forced to fund the elections and voter registration office, it doesn’t control it. County legislators appointed both the director who oversaw the elections debacle and the board that oversees elections and voter registration.

Just as the botched election schooled residents on the archaic structure that allows counties’ legislators to meddle in local affairs, rising costs for state-mandated services and decreasing state aid are revealing that the unacceptable authority lawmakers have over local governance extends to taxing and spending.

For example, the law that local legislators passed merging the elections and voter registration offices requires County Council to fund the merged department at a level at least equal to the average of the annual budgets in Charleston and Greenville counties. The first year that resulted in an office budget that was $400,000 more than what the two separate offices had been receiving combined. The Board of Elections is asking for a $550,000 increase for next fiscal year. On top of that, the council is struggling over whether to pay nearly $102,000 in legal fees generated by the Nov. 6 elections mess.

Then there’s the county Recreation Commission, also appointed by lawmakers but funded by the county. The commission, in the midst of a $50 million building program, wants millions in new dollars to fund park facilities that it recently renovated or built — or is building — despite the fact it knew it didn’t have the money to operate them. The county must find funding to staff and equip the new facilities or let them sit idle.

Meanwhile, the county is awaiting word on how much money lawmakers will allocate to help pay for services the state requires local governments to provide.

Richland has seen its share of state aid drop over the years just as other counties have. Today, roughly 9 percent of the county’s general fund comes from intergovernmental sources, 95 percent of which is from the local government fund. In 1999, 19 percent of the general fund came from that source.

Richland administrator Tony McDonald said that if the local government fund was fully funded, the county would receive roughly $18 million as opposed to the approximately $14 million it received this fiscal year. That means the county made up the $4 million elsewhere, whether through raising taxes, cutting services or raiding savings.

The county had planned to spend $6.8 million from its fund balance this year. But when lawmakers added $30 million in one-time money to the local government fund, Richland received $2.1 million more, which it used to reduce the amount it drew from savings to $4.7 million.

Mr. McDonald rightly notes that it’s not wise to use one-time money from savings for ongoing services. At the same time, the county can’t rely on taxes as it once did because of a state-imposed cap.

“Fortunately, we have been able to maintain our level of services,” Mr. McDonald said. But he said if the local government fund continues to decrease, “we would virtually have to look at services and have to cut back.”

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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