James Island has always been an odd hamlet, in the most Shakespearean sense of the word.
For decades, islanders were preoccupied with the question of whether to be or not to be — their own town, that is.
This wasn’t a debate about whether it was nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles.
They simply didn’t want to pay Charleston property taxes.
It took four tries to establish a town of James Island that withstood constitutional challenges, but they finally did it.
Their Valhalla charges no property taxes — ah, to sleep, perchance to dream — but then it offers little in the way of services. The town is primarily a moat to keep vile Charleston at bay.
Of course, islanders still need the amenities a municipality provides — sewer system, fire service, garbage pick-up — and they must get that from the James Island Public Service District.
So now, the PSD says it will have to raise taxes several times over the next few years to make ends meet. Which means before long, island residents will pay more in taxes than if they'd just joined Charleston in the first place.
Shakespeare included a term for this predicament in — surprise — "Hamlet":
"Hoisted on their own petard."
Rotten in Denmark
James Island Mayor Bill Woolsey is apoplectic.
He’s raising Cain that the PSD is raising taxes by 13 percent this year, and there’s nothing town officials can do about it.
Woolsey is correct. The town of James Island has no power over much of anything.
In any other municipality, the mayor and council could regulate the costs of fire service or garbage pick-up. But by creating a town totally dependent on others to provide normal city services, James Island only added another layer of unnecessary government.
The PSD does the work a town should do, and there is little doubt it’s short on cash. The island has been cut up into so many political subdivisions, the public service district has a limited tax base and absolutely no way to grow. Yet costs continue to rise.
Right now, the PSD has 13,000 wastewater customers and 10,000 residents under its fire protection. It picks up garbage from 8,600 homes. Those folks have to shoulder the entire cost of doing business.
And that’s only going to get worse if people who live in the remaining unincorporated pockets of James Island decide it’s cheaper to annex into Charleston and enjoy the economies of scale.
Scorns of time
As The Post and Courier's David Slade reported, this first tax increase from the public service district will cost the owner of a $350,000 home another $105 a year.
That is not a modest amount, and it’s only the first of four tax increases planned over the next few years.
Woolsey argues the initial tax hike is more than the PSD needs and has urged his constituents to show up at the board’s June 25 meeting to protest.
Remember, that’s the PSD board meeting — not Town Council, County Council or Charleston City Council.
It's funny that an island so proudly and defiantly anti-government has four different governmental entities controlling its fate. Which works marvelously for things like drainage.
Hard to keep a ditch clean when it runs through three jurisdictions that don’t get along any better than the people who set them up.
For James Island residents who don’t live within the corporate limits of Charleston, the PSD is the most immediate — and important — government. Even if the elections for PSD board seats don’t reflect that.
The mayor and council members hold no sway over the PSD but still may take the blame for the tax increase. After all, they are the island's titular heads of state.
If town officials can generate enough backlash to make the public service district back down, however, you can bet services will be cut. And if the PSD goes belly up, island residents will learn the hard way that the emperor, and the entire empire, has no clothes.
It's a tragedy worthy of the bard, but this outcome was foretold a fortnight ago. 'Tis the cost of following the philosophy of “to thine own self be true.”
Translated into the 21st century, that means “Buck up and pay — or haul your own trash to the dump."
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com.