Richland County Council is requiring the auditor to recalculate Richland 2 tax rates amid "an honest dispute" over Auditor Paul Brawley's figures, which district officials said would have shortchanged them.
Council members, who on Tuesday set the tax rates for property-tax bills that will go out in November, said they had to err on the side of education funding.
The school district, in a disagreement that first emerged over the summer, said Brawley had miscalculated the growth in vehicle taxes.
Brawley said it's his job to determine the tax rate - "not the school district" - and maintained their method will produce more money than state law allows.
"The citizens of Richland County elected me, just like they elected County Council, to do a job," Brawley said during a lengthy discussion at Tuesday night's council meeting. "And that's just what I've been doing for the last two years."
The council vote to use the school district's figures passed 7-4.
The decision will mean an increase in taxes on vehicles, rental homes and commercial property in Northeast Richland, but by how much isn't clear.
Tax bills are supposed to go out next month. That time frame means 16 other county agencies won't have time to wrangle over their budgets, council members said.
Brawley said he found it "interesting" that the council focused only on District 2. "There was no discussion on District 1 or any of the other millage agencies," he said.
"So I'm 16 out of 17. That still gets an A in some classes," he said, chuckling.
Budget chiefs for District 2 said the difference in opinion meant a potential $3 million shortfall in the current year's funding for the fast-growing suburban school district.
The school district enlisted the help of the former Dorchester County auditor Johnette Connelley, as an impartial expert.
She said Brawley mistakenly ruled out about 60 percent of new-car property values when calculating the school district's revenues for the year.
That 60 percent is the same percentage of homes and residential land eliminated from local-property tax bills under a state law that went into effect two years ago.
Connelley said there's no uniform way to calculate tax rates in South Carolina - a situation compounded by recent changes in state law to "cap" tax increases and the need to refigure property values every five years.
"There is no standard method. There is nothing to help people, like a guideline to go by," Connelley said. "That's why this is a real problem statewide and it's probably going to be worse next year" when more of the state's 46 counties reassess property values.
Brawley said Connelley has misinterpreted how he reached his figures. By the same token, he said, he didn't know how the school district reached its figures.
He also said the council was overstepping its authority.
County Council agreed to request the attorney general's opinion on who is responsible for setting the tax rate, the council or the auditor.
"We have a very honest dispute between a very honorable auditor and a very honorable school board," Councilwoman Kit Smith said. "What I'm going to have to do is come down on the side of those children out there in that rapidly growing school district."
But Councilman Norman Jackson scolded his colleagues for being "disrespectful" by siding with the school district over Brawley.
Attending Tuesday's meeting was a contingent from the school district, led by Mike Montgomery, a lawyer, CPA and former member of County Council.
"We weren't trying to win or lose," he said later. "We wanted to make sure the calculation was correct, because it has long-term implications for the financial solvency of Richland 2."
Because state law limits how much taxes can increase each year, budget officials said, the $3 million would compound into a whopping $12 million to $15 million over the next five years.