Nearly three years after Dorchester County voters agreed to pay for new parks and libraries, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled the question on the ballot was unlawful.

County Councilman Larry Hargett spoke to County Attorney John Frampton and learned of the ruling that was issued by the court late Wednesday. Hargett said the county now finds itself back to square one.

“We’ll have to start over and do another referendum,” he said. “We’ll set about doing that.”

The legal issue revolved around whether the county acted legally when it combined two issues into a single referendum question in 2016 when voters were asked if they wanted to raise property taxes to fund $30 million in new libraries and $13 million in new and improved parks.

About 60 percent voted yes. 

Weeks before the referendum, lawyers Mike Rose and Andy Gowder filed a lawsuit trying to stop it and have the question declared invalid. They acted on behalf of some residents and the Dorchester County Taxpayers Association, an independent local organization.

County officials countered, at the time, that the two could be combined because they are both related to quality of life.

Their thinking originally was confirmed by Circuit Judge Edgar Dickson, who dismissed the case in December 2017. He denied a motion to rehear the case in February 2018. 

But the association appealed, and Supreme Court Justice Kaye Hearn penned the opinion overturning Dickson's ruling.

"Finding there was no indication the voters did not understand it, the circuit court determined it was not improper," Hearn wrote. "Because the question contained two separate bond proposals and required voters to support both or neither, we hold it was unlawful."

Rose could not be reached for comment late Wednesday. 

Dorchester County Vice Chairman David Chinnis said the court's ruling undermines what voters wanted. 

"Six or seven people in Columbia voted against what 60 percent of the county was interested in," Chinnis said. "I'm rather disappointed they overturned the will of the people." 

The ruling won't cause major complications. Chinnis said no bonds have been issued for the projects, and no county money has been spent.

Chinnis said he favors holding a special countywide election this November to put the issue back before voters, although it might wait until the next general election in November 2020. 

Councilman Jay Byars said the amount of money the county seeks for parks and libraries likely will increase whenever the issue goes back before voters.

"We're going to make lemonade out of lemons," Byars said. "We'll separate those questions, and we're confident it will pass."

In the greater Charleston area, it's common for referendums to be fought in court long after they're supposedly settled at the ballot box.

Successful legal challenges overturned the city of Charleston's first attempt to change its elections from partisan to nonpartisan, and a Charleston County attempt to pass a half-cent sales tax for roads and greenbelts. Both later passed on second attempts.

In 2012, Berkeley County's Yes 4 Schools referendum passed at the ballot box, but the school's superintendent and its communications director later were found guilty of ethics charges related to using public money to advocate for its approval. The results stood.

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Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5715. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly reports on crime, growth and development as well as military issues in Berkeley and Dorchester counties. Previously, he was a reporter at the Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

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