This tax increase is brought to you by the good folks at the Berkeley County School District, educating your children 33,000 at a time.
That’s the message, more or less, that will appear on Berkeley tax bills this fall. And what could go wrong with that?
Last week, Berkeley County Council amended its budget by $5,000 to include these notices in property tax bills, which helpfully will include the phone numbers of board members and the superintendent, who doesn’t even get a vote on the budget.
Many schools officials believe this is a dirty trick perpetrated by Councilman Josh Whitley, leading opponent of the district’s 2012 bond referendum campaign to build new schools.
Well, yes, he wrote the amendment. And stands by it.
“They could be right as the day is long, and I could be wrong as the day is long,” Whitley says, “but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with transparency.”
It passed unanimously, so his colleagues agreed — even the Democrats.
“I don’t see it as political,” Councilman Caldwell Pinckney says. “I don’t like to pay taxes any more than anyone else. But if they can justify it, I’ll pay.”
Yes, that is surprising — there are actually Democrats in Berkeley County.
Pinckney is right: public officials should be able to justify any tax increase.
The trouble here comes from assuming that all people pay attention to “facts” and extenuating circumstances.
And since there is little evidence of such analysis in gubmint-hating Berkeley County, this kind of smacks of using government resources for political purposes.
You know, the same thing Whitley accused the school district of doing during that 2012 bond referendum campaign. And he won.
This, however, is legal — but perhaps misleading, because there are a lot of those pesky extenuating circumstances.
The biggest is this: The state bars school districts from taxing your house. The only school-related line item on a homeowners’ tax bill is debt service from that 2012 referendum — which voters approved themselves.
But, Whitley notes, school taxes do apply to everyone who owns a car or boat. Fair enough. They also apply to people who own a home but don’t live in it.
Whitley says the county should be “really clear about that” distinction, which is good. If they aren’t, somebody’s liable to file a lawsuit.
Then everyone’s taxes go up.
Yes, the school district has raised taxes in recent years.
But Berkeley County is growing like a weed; it now has the fourth-largest school district in the state, yet still ranks 67th in per-pupil spending.
That means Berkeley’s tax burden is lower than in two-thirds of state school districts, yet its district ranks in the top 25 percent on academic performance.
Not that you can tell that from the political signs out there.
The state and county both have a hand in what’s happening in schools, but that won’t appear on notices.
See, when lawmakers took away school districts’ ability to tax homeowners, they promised to make it up by allocating state funds based on a formula — which they ignore, so they don’t have to raise taxes. This year, Berkeley was shorted $11 million.
School districts can only make up the difference by taxing businesses. But these days many companies get deals to pay “fees” instead of taxes.
Berkeley County used to give the school district more than 80 percent of that money, but then they cut it back to 70 percent — so they don’t have to raise taxes.
The county and school district will continue to argue how much that costs schools, and what’s fair. As they should. It’s a complicated issue. Much too complicated to be explained with a name and a phone number.
It’s the same concept as the district posting signs in their schools that said: “This overcrowded classroom brought to you by state lawmakers and Berkeley County Council.”
It would be about as simple, and about as fair.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org