Dorchester council to take final budget vote after discussing stormwater fees
ST. GEORGE — Dorchester County Council plans to look at paying for its unpopular, federally mandated stormwater program out of property taxes instead of fees as a way to save residents money.
If you go
What: Dorchester County Council meeting, including final reading of proposed 2012-13 budget.
When: 7 p.m. tonight
Where: Council chambers, Human Services Center, 201 Johnston St., St. George.
More information: www.dorchestercounty.net.
The proposed $45 million budget, up for a final vote tonight, doesn't raise property taxes but freezes hiring and makes a number of funding cuts.
The budget achieved a teetery balance with projected revenue by counting on the state to disburse an additional $990,000 in local government funds. But that proposal, still in the S.C. House, is now expected to be dashed by at least half.
“We can't plan on spending money we don't have,” said council Chairman Larry Hargett.
The option would be to raise property taxes, “and I don't think this council is going to do that,” he said.
The state has cut the tax money it returns to local governments in recent years, partly because of the recession. The county depends on that money to pay for state-mandated services.
For the current budget the state paid little more than $4 million of $6 million called for under a state formula, county leaders say.
Council members have become increasingly angry at having to make up the difference while making cuts to their own services.
Meanwhile, after nine years of working and re-working stormwater fees while fielding resident and business complaints over the amounts and unequal assessments, the county will do a side-by-side comparison of resident and business costs if the charge is levied as a component of property taxes rather than a fee.
That's because the current system is making too much money.
The program currently costs the county $2 million per year.
The fees are forced by federal law, to help pay to clean up stormwater runoff, considered a leading cause of pollution in the rivers, lakes and estuaries.
Homeowners now are charged one of three fees based on how much of their property is impervious surface — the area that doesn't absorb rainfall, such as a roof or driveway; the fees range from $33.97 to $62.67 per year.
Businesses are charged a scaled fee that costs larger companies thousands of dollars per year.
County auditor J.J. Messervy speculated that the change could reduce the fee for most homeowners, but increase it for businesses.
Moving to the tax might also mean charging agricultural properties that now are excluded from the fees, and would involve sorting out county residents from Summerville and North Charleston residents in Dorchester County, who now pay the town and city fees rather than the county.
“We really have to 360 this thing,” County Administrator Jason Ward said, referring to looking from all angles, or a 360 degree view.
Charleston County charges a stormwater fee. Berkeley County has avoided it so far by paying for its program out of property tax — the method Dorchester County is looking to emulate.
Editor's note: Earlier versions of this story needed clarification with regard to how much money the stormwater program brings in each year.