Columbia, SC — SMALL TOWNS in the Midlands and across South Carolina have stumbled over themselves and struggled for their lives for so long that we barely flinch when trouble encroaches upon their borders these days.
The misbehavior, corruption, mismanagement, dearth of resources and other problems — self-inflicted and otherwise — that beset the troubled municipalities have come to be expected. So much so that it’s far from surprising to hear that South Congaree’s town hall is raided by federal and state law enforcement or that the mayor of tiny Atlantic Beach is charged with assaulting a council member or that Eastover has given up on running its own police department. Two former Gaston officials were sentenced to prison and another put on probation for spending $72,000 in public money on themselves? Ho hum.
But the fact is that the least bit of trouble can take a toll on most of our small towns, because they’re so fragile.
We don’t know the details of the South Congaree raid. Town officials say it had nothing to do with South Congaree and that no money is missing. Maybe that’s so. But the town’s police chief and administrator were placed on administrative leave; both eventually resigned, although the administrator was brought back briefly before deciding she will leave for good June 11. I’d say this had a lot to do with the town, which is short a police chief and administrator.
It’s one of those unfortunate things that happen too often in small-town South Carolina. Unfortunately, many of our small towns will struggle eternally. But should we be satisfied with that? Should some of these towns be shut down? Should we continue to allow new towns to form willy nilly?
The answers are no, we shouldn’t be satisfied, yes, some towns do need to shut down, and no, we shouldn’t be encouraging new municipalities to emerge unless there’s a really good reason, which there never seems to be. The problem is that we have a system in South Carolina that promotes just the opposite of what needs to happen.
Our state’s archaic annexation rules choke off the growth of real cities by making it extremely difficult to expand their limits. Meanwhile, any groups with a hankering to form unnecessary paper towns that provide little or no services are rewarded for doing so: Once incorporated, they receive a share of the state aid sent to cities and counties, which only serves to reduce the amount of cash legitimate local governments depend on to help meet real service needs.
At some point, lawmakers are going to have to address this mess and bring our annexation laws into the 21st century — even 20th century guidelines would be a help — while also making it difficult for new municipalities to be established on a whim. Quite frankly, there need to be some incentives that would provoke some of the existing towns to fold their tents.
Existing cities and counties — real governments, I mean — could be tasked with serving those areas. Perhaps, initially, the county would provide the services. But as an area grows more dense, the need could arise for it to become part of a real municipality. Cities should annex areas on their fringes as the population grows and residents demand more services, such as police and fire protection and water and sewer service.
But the fact that the state will subsidize paper towns undercuts cities and counties. The possibility of state aid played at least a small role in spurring residents in the northeast and northwest sections of Richland County to explore incorporation. They knew that if they could convince voters to back their misguided efforts, the state would provide them some level of start-up — and ongoing — cash.
Fortunately, those who explored the notion of incorporating in Northeast Richland eventually decided it wasn’t workable. But a group in the Ballentine area in northwest Richland pushed until it got a measure on the ballot; the good fortune there was that voters rejected the attempt to incorporate Ballentine, White Rock and Hilton into a town.
Some folks in the Ballentine, Irmo and Chapin area haven’t given up, though: They’re now working on a plan to form a new county and including a portion of Lexington County in the mix.
This would only serve to further complicate our already overly fragmented local governmental structure and create unnecessary confusion and duplication. It would make it more difficult to set effective public policy and deliver efficient services. And, like forming a new town, it would hurt cities and counties by siphoning away a portion of the limited state funding provided to local governments. (Fortunately, unlike forming a new town, state law makes it nearly impossible to form a new county.)
All we have to do is look at how so many towns — including South Congaree, Gaston, Eastover, Atlantic Beach and Lake City — always find themselves embroiled in petty political disputes, financial woes and other problems to understand the need for change.
While they have met the legal requirements to incorporate — many have been around since the early 1900s — a number of the towns spend much of their time struggling to provide all the things that make municipalities worthwhile: a higher level of service (police protection, in particular), sound financial practices, a strong tax base, open and accountable government and solid leadership and management. Too often, the absence of capable, competent people in leadership positions combines with perpetual financial needs to create a trouble-plagued town.
Show me a town with poor leadership, a paucity of resources and an unengaged electorate, and I’ll show you a town destined for disaster.
To be fair, some small towns actually function quite well. But many — I’d dare say most — in South Carolina struggle mightily, seemingly always cycling through one crisis or another. They’re fortunate to make it through a couple years without voting irregularities or a severe money crunch or serious mismanagement.
Are we really OK with that?
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.