Opinion supports Richland 2 in tax controversy

The attorney general's office has settled the tax dispute brewing since summer between the Richland County auditor and District 2 schools.

For now.

An opinion issued Wednesday said County Council - not the auditor - is responsible for setting the tax rate and determining the maximum amount schools may receive under a state law limiting tax increases.

But Auditor Paul Brawley said that may not be the end of it.

"I'm sure somebody will probably challenge it," the auditor said.

Asked whether that meant he was encouraging someone to sue, Brawley responded, "I can't encourage citizens one way or the other."

At issue are the calculations that go into figuring the tax rate to produce the school district's $120 million budget - without exceeding the limits set by state law.

District 2's finance officers said the schools would be $3 million short this year if the county adopted Brawley's figures.

Richland County Council went with their figures, raising the school taxes paid by businesses and the owners of vehicles.

The first of the tax bills should start arriving in today's mail.

Mike Montgomery, a former councilman who was the school district's advocate on the issue, said he's confident the calculations won't exceed the state "cap" on increases.

Brawley disagreed.

"Anyone that's familiar with the taxation process in this state understands that the auditors are put into the equation to make sure there are checks and balances for the citizens of the county," he said.

"If the County Council calculates the millage (or tax) cap, that's the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse."

There's no uniform way to calculate tax rates - a problem compounded by recent changes in state law to "cap" tax increases and the need to refigure property values every five years.

This is the first year those two issues have arisen at the same time in South Carolina.