Dorchester moves closer to funding school security officers

Dorchester District 2 has asked County Council to raise taxes to fund security officers.

With several councilmen questioning the process, Dorchester County Council moved a step closer Monday to amending its budget to fund school security officers countywide.

“I have a real problem with the way this is going to be done, but if I’m going to make a mistake, I’m going to make a mistake on the side of safety,” said Councilman Bill Hearn. “I don’t want to be on a County Council that has exposed our children, our faculty and our staff to a dangerous situation.”

Council voted 5-2, with council members Larry Hargett and Carroll Duncan dissenting, to approve second reading of an amendment to the budget passed in June that will fund officers in Dorchester District 2, District 4 and at the county Career and Technology Center. It is expected to bring in about $460,000 for the school districts.

Earlier this month, council gave initial approval to the amendment, which would add $6 to the tax bill on a $150,000 owner-occupied house or $1.20 to a $20,000 vehicle. A public hearing and final reading are set for 1 p.m. July 27 in council’s Summerville chambers.

“I’m in favor of school resource officers,” Hargett said. “I do not like the way we’re going to pay for it.”

He said he believes the action is in violation of Act 388, which was passed by the state Legislature in 2006 to give homeowners tax relief by eliminating property taxes on primary residences for school operations. It also increased the sales tax by 1 cent.

Hargett said he is worried that a legal challenge could result from the amendment.

Summerville lawyer and former state Sen. Mike Rose, who was not at the meeting, wrote council members a six-page letter last week on behalf of himself and “a coalition of concerned taxpayers” outlining reasons he believes the amendment to be “illegal and bad policy.”

County Attorney John Frampton gave council an opinion during closed session on Monday but had no comment in open session.

“This is an issue that quite honestly causes me a little heartburn,” said Councilman Jay Byars, a former teacher. “I don’t like the way it’s being handled, but at the end of the day, you’re also talking about public safety. ... I’m not quite sure that I ever want to face anyone, any principal or parent, and say that I didn’t vote for $6 on a house to put an armed officer in that school to make sure that we don’t have a (situation like) Sandy Hook” Elementary School, where 20 children and six adult staff members were fatally shot on Dec. 14, 2012.

District 2 has schools in unincorporated parts of the county, in the town of Summerville and in the city of North Charleston. Currently, all of the district’s high schools and middle schools and Givhans Alternative Program have on-site officers, as well as elementary schools within North Charleston’s city limits.

North Charleston funds its officers, but Dorchester and Summerville bill the town for the service.

The security program costs the district about $1 million annually, said district Chief Financial Officer Allyson Duke. That includes about $480,000 for eight officers supplied by Summerville Police Department and almost $500,000 for seven officers supplied by Dorchester County, she said.

The $179 million school district budget passed in June includes $520,000 for the program, which at the time, the district planned to handle in-house at a reduced cost.

Later, the school board decided it would be better to have the program operated through the local law enforcement agencies because private officers would not have the power to arrest. Officers made 146 arrests at district schools last year.

The district does not have fiscal autonomy, meaning that its budget has to be approved by County Council. In June, Council approved a tax increase for District 2 for the first time 2010. The increase will add $36 to the tax bill on a $150,000 rental home or about $5 on a $20,000 vehicle but does not affect owner-occupied homes.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.