Harleyville Mayor Charles Ackerman faces a dilemma — his staff is squeezed into a small, decrepit Town Hall, but funds to replace the building are scarce in a community where the tax rate is the highest in the tri-county area.
“Everyone tries to keep residential taxes as low as we can,” Ackerman said. “We have no major industries inside of Harleyville. Insurance premiums are going up by leaps and bounds.”
More than half of the Harleyville tax rate is for schools, he said.
The tax rate in Dorchester County is consistently higher than in Charleston and Berkeley counties. A major factor is a lack of local jobs. As in Harleyville, most workers who live in Dorchester County work in other counties. Some 67 percent of Dorchester County residents go to work beyond the county line, said county auditor James Messervy Jr.
“We are a bedroom community,” he said.
The result is less tax revenue for a county where the school district is the biggest employer.
Because of its smaller tax base, Dorchester County collects $6 on every $1,000 of taxable property to raise what Charleston County gets through a levy of $1 on every $1,000 of taxable property, said Reba Campbell, spokeswoman for the Municipal Association of South Carolina.
Some Dorchester County residents think the taxation and spending should be curtailed.
“It is clear to us that new residential development in Dorchester County has led to poorer public facilities, which has led to an explosive growth in the size and influence of our local governments and, as a direct result, to higher and higher taxes,” said John Braund, chairman of the Dorchester County Taxpayers Association.
“While it may be distressing for some to learn that Dorchester County has attained the unenviable status of the highest-taxed county in the region, it is certainly no surprise to DCTA,” he said in an email.
The taxpayers association advocates that new residential development be rejected unless public services required to support it are already in place or unless the developer pays for needed schools, roads, water lines, sewers, police, fire and EMS.
In all three counties, the biggest part of the overall tax rate goes to fund school operations and debt. Taxes on owner-occupied homes are used to pay for school debt, not operations, which is funded differently.
Charleston and Berkeley counties have a local option sales tax that provides some relief on property tax bills, but Dorchester County does not.
Property tax rates here still pale in comparison to what homeowners pay in parts of New York and New Jersey. The counties with the lowest property taxes are in Alabama and Louisiana, according to the Brookings Institution.
In Harleyville, $220 is levied for school operations for every $1,000 of assessed value for business, rental properties and second homes, which is double the tax rate in Charleston. Harleyville has service-related business such as stores, a pharmacy, lodging, a restaurant and a bank, but the majority of its residents work in Orangeburg, Walterboro or Charleston, Ackerman said.
In 25 years, five new homes have been built in the town.
“Most young people leave because they are looking for more pay,” he said.
Harleyville, a town of about 700 residents east of St. George, has a $400,000 annual budget and a strong mayor form of government, which means Ackerman also serves as manager. He earns $1,200 per year. Four council members are paid $300 annually.
The town raises revenue with a total property tax rate of $435 for every $1,000 of assessed value for residential and business property. In comparison, the total tax rate for the city of Charleston, with its much larger tax base, is about $264 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Homeowners who live in their houses pay taxes at a rate of $215 per $1,000 of assessed value in Harleyville, which is $52 more than in Charleston.
Still, some are drawn to the rural area. Stacy Pearsall of Goose Creek and her husband, Andy Dunaway, recently purchased 12 acres outside of Harleyville where they plan to build a home. Both are former Air Force combat photographers. She envisions having a studio and a retreat for veterans in transition.
“Taxes are definitely always going to be a concern,” she said. But she expected the agricultural zoning of their property would provide tax breaks.
“We liked the fact that it was just 20 minutes from Summerville but far enough away that we are not going to be disturbed by the quickly growing city,” she said.
Ackerman hopes that the new Lake Marion Regional Water Authority project to Harleyville will result in more growth for the town and increased tax revenue. He envisions eventually replacing the 1,200-square-foot facility that serves as Town Hall. The three-member police department, a town clerk/treasurer, an assistant town clerk, Town Council, the courtroom and the maintenance supervisor are squeezed into a building where a leaky roof was recently patched.
“Most of your small towns are really struggling right now,” he said. “Our building is really in bad shape.”
Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711.