State funding for counties and cities will fall short again next year

County governments often use money from the state's Local Government Fund for public safety and EMS services. Taylor Griffith/Journal Scene

The population is booming in the tri-county area, but state money to provide basic services has remained flat for years.

Counties, cities and towns in the region are bracing themselves for another year of reduced funding from the Local Government Fund for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

State law requires that the General Assembly allocate an amount equal to 4.5 percent of the previous year’s budget to the state’s counties, cities and towns for expenses such as police, fire and trash collection services. But each year since 2008, the Legislature has suspended that requirement, and eaten into the fund.

Melissa Carter, legislative liaison for the Municipal Association of South Carolina, said the fund will allocate $212.6 million statewide this year, the same amount that was dispersed during the previous three years. But, she said, if it were fully funded, there would be $294.9 million to distribute.

Money from the fund is important because it goes to cities and counties “with no strings attached,” Carter said. Many other sources of income are earmarked for specific purposes.

When the Local Government Fund isn’t fully funded, counties suffer the most, she said, because it makes up a bigger portion of their budgets. Counties receive 83.3 percent of the money that is dispersed and cities get 16.7 percent. The money distributed based on population.

Dorchester County Council chairman David Chinnis said the county’s budget, which will comes before Council for final approval this month, includes a tax increase. Most of the money from that increase will go toward fully staffing the detention center and increasing EMS staff. A taxpayer with an owner-occupied $150,000 home will have to pay an additional $33 each year if the budget ultimately is approved.

The county would be bringing in an additional $2.5 million if the Local Government Fund were fully funded, Chinnis said. In that case, the same homeowner would be facing an increase of only $6.

Keith Bustraan, Charleston County’s interim administrator, said county residents also likely will face a tax increase this year, largely for expansion of the library system and public safety initiatives. Both expansions are needed to serve a growing county population, he said.

The county’s proposed tax increase would bring in about $5 million, Bustraan said. Much of that wouldn’t be necessary if the Local Government Fund were fully funded.

Berkeley County officials said due to cuts to the fund, they will be bringing in $3 million less during the next fiscal year.

Berkeley County Supervisor Bill Peagler in a February news release about the fund said “When the state does not provide the resources promised to cover its mandated services, local governments and taxpayers are forced to cover the difference.”

Carter said several bills were filed during the most recent legislative session aimed at making improvements to the fund. One of those, which was filed state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, was deferred to the Senate Finance Committee, she said. None of the others got much traction, and none of them passed.

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.