Charleston County Council stood its ground and will not raise taxes next year. But does that mean a hefty increase looms in the near future to pay off the planned jail expansion?
No one knows. Not the county staff. Not taxpayers. Not even the council members themselves.
"I think the answer is yet to be determined," Council Chairman Tim Scott said, adding, "I'm excited at the fact that we have another 'no-tax-increase' budget."
Council approved its no-tax-increase budget Thursday with a 7-2 vote, marking the 12th year that the county won't raise taxes.
It remains unclear, however, what the future ramifications of the move could be, particularly with the pricey expansion project on the line.
Rising construction costs have changed the project's price tag from an estimated $76 million in 2004 to at least $106 million now, which includes about $99.2 million for the actual facility and roughly $7.5 million to relocate some occupants on the site and to temporarily house some inmates. The project cost won't be finalized until it is actually bid out to construction firms later this year.
Council was cautioned there may need to be a tax increase in 2010 when the expanded jail is up and running and new expenses are incurred. By then, the county could face a higher increase than was initially recommended to council members for next year, which they shot down.
The proposed tax increase would have added about $7 annually to the bill for a $250,000 home.
"It's like pay me now or pay me later. That's what we're looking at," Councilman Teddie Pryor said.
Thursday, Pryor voted against the no-tax-increase budget. He was joined by Councilman Henry Darby, who has compared the situation to a "broken down Social Security mentality."
Pryor previously said he thinks council should have sought taxpayers' opinions on whether to postpone a tax increase. Perhaps it would have been a smarter business move, he also said, to go ahead and raise taxes now instead of raiding their savings to help pay off anticipated debt.
The county plans to borrow $125 million this fall to fund the jail expansion and four other major projects. About $10 million will be pulled from various undesignated funds over the next few years to start paying off that loan.
But council shouldn't repeatedly pull from backup funds or the county's financial security could be jeopardized, County Administrator Mack Canterbury warned.
"The issue becomes when you need the taxes, you have to raise the taxes," Canterbury advised.
While some taxpayers say they'd be more willing to pay now than possibly pay more later, others say they instead would want to wait and see if any increase is necessary.
Mount Pleasant resident Margaret Moody said, "I'd rather them do something small now than later have a big ol' hike in taxes."
Vince Nicholson, also of Mount Pleasant, thinks otherwise. He has lived in the area for the past three years and pays about $1,700 annually in taxes. He would prefer to not pay additional taxes now in case the jail expansion is canceled or pushed back.
"Then we wouldn't have been already burdened with the taxes," Nicholson said.
Throughout the budget process, Scott harped on his intent to vote against a tax increase. He made it clear that he did not want to ask taxpayers for more money unless it was absolutely necessary.
He said the real question is not whether to increase taxes or nix the jail expansion. Council needs to look at the county's core services, set priorities and then focus on those primary needs, he said.
"It'll be very difficult, but we will have to stop doing something in order to avoid a tax increase," he said. "That is something we can do."
Council may not have a choice. It did not raise taxes this year, and it won't be able to raise them but so much in the future because state legislation passed last year caps the amount a county can increase property taxes each year.
Prepare to pay up
SOLID WASTE FEE INCREASE
Taxpayers may not see a tax inˆ-crease this fall, but they will see a $10 hike in solid waste fees.
Past projections suggested council would need to raise the solid waste fee to about $110 by 2008, but the county has held the solid waste fee steady for a decade. Next year, the fee will be $99. The new income will help avoid a future deficit, keep up with operating costs and pay off debt.
SPECIAL PURPOSE TAX DISTRICTS INCREASE
Some residents also will see increases within fire districts countywide. The below figures are estimated tax changes for a $250,000 home.
Taxpayers who live in the Awendaw Consolidated Fire Disˆ-trict will pay $9 more.
Those who live in the East Cooˆ-per Fire District will pay $5 more.
Residents in the West St. Anˆ-drew's Fire District will see a $34 increase.
St. Paul's Fire District residents will pay $12 more.
A new fire district was created in the northern part of the county, and those taxpayers will be billed $120 to help pay for operating and maintenance costs. The new Northern Charleston County Fire District will serve the county's unincorporated areas that are bounded by Summerville, Lincolˆ-nville, North Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties. Those areas currently receive fire protecˆ-tion services from three different fire departments.
Residents who live in the St.
John's Fire District will pay $2 less in taxes.