Berkeley Council passes $63m budget that reclaims $600,000 from school district

Jack Schurlknight

MONCKS CORNER — Berkeley County Council on Monday passed a $63 million budget that will not require a tax increase.

But it also “reset” the distribution of an annual $25 million — and growing — distribution from multicounty industrial park revenue from companies such as Google, Nucor, and Blackbaud. A budget amendment restores the original 70/30 distribution of the park revenue.

The net effect is a loss of about $561,780 from the budget approved by the school district.

Councilman Jack Schurlknight cast the only vote against the budget.

“I just don’t feel comfortable coming in the back door and taking those funds,” he said. “It is imperative, as Berkeley County grows, that we work hand-in-hand with the school board.”

The district can absorb the loss by using money from its fund balance, interim Superintendent Mike Turner said, but he still felt that the move was unfair.

“What (County Council members) are not saying is that they would rather take (money) from the school district than raise” taxes, Turner said. “County will not have to raise taxes ... and they can tell the taxpayers once again, ‘We didn’t raise your taxes, the school board did.’”

In June, the school district passed a $238 million budget that includes a $150 tax increase on a $150,000 rental home and $20 for a $20,000 car or boat. Part of the increase was to fund additional teachers to accommodate growth, startup costs for Nexton Elementary school and raises for teachers.

Act 388, passed by the state Legislature in 2006, gives homeowners tax relief by eliminating property taxes on primary residences for school operations. It also increased the sales tax by 1 percent.

It means that school budgets are funded by mostly by businesses and rental property, and when the county government accepts fee-in-lieu agreements instead of taxes, it hurts the school district’s finances, Turner said. Fee-in-lieu of taxes agreements are incentives that allow companies to pay a negotiated, reduced fee over a certain time instead of property taxes, which can fluctuate year to year.

From at least 2002 to 2012, the county shared fee-in-lieu money, with the school district getting 70 percent, County Deputy Supervisor Tim Callanan said. But in 2012, the split changed from a fixed formula to a proportion based on the tax rate, so “every time the school district raises (taxes), it lowers our revenue,” Callanan said. Now, the district gets 82 percent of the revenue as the county’s share has eroded.

Turner and several other speakers also bemoaned the lack of communication between the district and Council.

“Instead of a reset of the fee-in-lieu formula, we need a reset of the relationship between the county and the school district,” he said.

Councilman Caldwell Pinckney proposed earlier in the night that the county absorb the nearly $600,000 from its fund balance this year and then the reset would have gone into effect next year, but he couldn’t get support from fellow councilmen.

“I hoping to move forward and try to build good relationships,” Pinckney said. “There’s a lot of blame to go around and we all need to get along.”