Berkeley County officials disagree on how to spend fees from industries
Google and other industries have brought millions of dollars to Berkeley County, but officials disagree on how the money should be spent.
“I don't think people know that so far we've collected about $15 million from (the Mount Holly Commerce Park, where Google is located), and not one dime has ever made it to the school system,” said County Councilman Tim Callanan.
County Supervisor Dan Davis said he believes the money should be earmarked for economic development.
Businesses that received tax breaks to locate in the county's “multi-county parks” are now generating the income. The South Carolina Multi-County Park Act allows counties to charge fees instead of property tax.
Davis said the money generated as a result of the Multi-County Park Act can be distributed however the county sees fit.
Callanan said he believes that since Google moved in, the county has taken $8 million that should have gone to the schools and will take more than $22 million more in the next decade.
The income should be distributed the same way tax money is, Callanan said, with the school district receiving about 80 percent.
“This is money the schools are entitled to,” he said. “I don't think anyone who has a kid in the schools is going to tell me that $22 million isn't going to make a difference.”
The Berkeley County School District plans to ask voters to approve a bond referendum for as much as $275 million on the November ballot for school improvements and new schools.
“We have not taken a dime from (the school district),” Davis said. “Google came and bought in Mount Holly, and that was a great thing for us. If we hadn't had Mount Holly, we wouldn't have Google, and the money wouldn't have been there in the first place, so they can't say that they lost any money.”
Davis said the county used to split income from the parks with the school district, but stopped when Google moved in. The county invested in the site, and that investment needs to be repaid, he said.
In 2008, Google made a $600 million investment on 520 acres at the Mount Holly Commerce Park, which is off U.S. Highway 52 between Goose Creek and Moncks Corner. At the time, Google turned down an incentives package from the state, but did accept tax breaks from Berkeley County.
The 1,000-acre commerce park was started in 1996 as a joint venture of Alumax, Berkeley County and state-owned utility Santee Cooper, which in 1998 contributed $5 million to the park's development.
The money was supposed to be paid back over 10 years as the land was sold, but much of the property stayed vacant until Google moved in.
At that time, the county borrowed $10 million from its water and sanitation authority to pay back debts associated with the park and erase the debt of the county-operated Cypress Gardens. The county has been repaying $500,000 annually toward that loan.
County Council recently voted 5-3 to pass a new law that determines how it will distribute revenue from multicounty parks:
1 percent to Williamsburg County;
5 percent to a Berkeley County economic development fund;
$500,000 to repay a loan from the Berkeley County Water and Sanitation Department;
$2 million for the construction of the Sheep Island interchange.
Remaining money will be distributed in the same percentages as county taxes, meaning the schools will get about 80 percent, or about $500,000 per year.
Council members Callanan, Cathy Davis and Dennis Fish voted against it, while Jack Schurlknight, Bob Call, Phillip Farley, Caldwell Pinckney and Steve Davis were in favor.
“It was understood that when the investment was repaid … we were going to use that money for economic development purposes,” Davis said. “We are investing so that it pays dividends in the future.”
Part of that economic development is the new interchange planned for Interstate 26 and Sheep Island Parkway, a more than $100 million project that will include widening I-26 and building the Sheep Island Parkway.
“I'm not there to defend the School Board,” Callanan said. “I am the only council member with a child in the schools, and I was defending that. We are going to abscond with an additional $22.5 million from them, and there wasn't even a whimper (from the School Board). I think they are taking the ‘I surrender' approach.”
Government watchdogs like Truman Metts, Jeff Reuer and former School Board member Terry Hardesty have spoken about the issue at public meetings.
“You all fumbled the ball on this one, and I don't know if there's anything that can be done about it,” Reuer said at last week's School Board meeting. “You didn't even try to stop this, and I'd like to know why.”
School Board member Phillip Obie II agreed with Callanan's assessment.
“It's not like they don't know our position,” he said. “We've fought so much, and we don't get anywhere with it. The county has the power to do what they want, and there is nothing we can do about it. If the county really wanted to bring in economic development, schools should be one of the first things they focus on.”
At a recent School Board meeting, Superintendent Rodney Thompson said, “We have opposed this adamantly in the last several years, and it is apparent to this superintendent that it's going to take a different set of circumstances to defer all of that money back to the school district and the other taxing entities in the county that are missing out.”
A political issue
Some say the problem lies in the makeup of County Council, which often votes 4-4 on issues, with the supervisor casting the deciding vote.
“Many of us have been fighting those councilmen for years,” said school board member Doug Cooper. “There's just not enough votes to change what happens over there regardless of who we're talking to. We've been trying for years.”
At the same time, officials said they support the new Sheep Island interchange and the growth it will bring.
Callanan suggested that it should be funded differently, perhaps by extending the 1 cent sales tax for a longer period.
“The nice thing is the commercial, retail and industrial development will come first,” Davis said. “There will be no schoolchildren at first. Businesses pay the most taxes and don't draw on the school district.”
Obie said those people have to live somewhere, though.
“Those neighborhoods are owner-occupied housing, which doesn't pay anything to the operation of schools,” Obie said. “They are bringing in however many homes, and we don't see a dollar from those folks to operate schools, but we're still expected to educate those children.”
And the school district could find itself in a situation similar to Mount Holly if the county elects to include the new commercial growth in its multicounty park ordinance, Obie said.
“They can dictate how much money the new businesses pay,” he said. “The school district has no say in that. If the county wants to give away their portion, that's fine with us, but don't give away our portion.”
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or www.facebook.com/brindge.