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Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

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Editorial: Charleston should gobble up West Ashley doughnut holes, all of them

St. Andrews Public Service Districdt

These blue St. Andrews Public Service District garbage cans are placed along Dupont Road, one of many West Ashley streets where only some of the properties have been annexed into the city of Charleston. Robert Behre/Staff 

As automobiles allowed Charleston’s population to grow dramatically outward in the 20th century, particularly into West Ashley, the land beyond the peninsula’s first bridge, the city didn’t officially grow with it. The municipal government did not annex across the Ashley River until 1960, long after suburban development got under way. Instead, the Legislature created a special purpose district to provide citylike services, mainly sewer, fire protection and garbage pickup, that these new residents wanted and needed.

Generations later, the city has annexed much of the area that traditionally had been served by the St. Andrews Public Service District. Unlike cities, PSDs cannot annex and grow, so when their size is diminished, it creates more financial pressure to maintain their levels of service without raising property tax rates. The result is today’s unfortunate, awkward and confusing reality where residents in the St. Andrews PSD pay higher property taxes and higher water and sewer bills for a lower level of service than their neighbors in the city of Charleston receive. The only visual cue to the confusing state of things is that homeowners along many streets roll out different color trash cans to the curb: green if they’re in the city, blue if they’re in the PSD.

None of West Ashley’s current leaders created this mess — they inherited it. But all of them will create a better future if they figure out how to improve upon it rather than just accept it.

So we were encouraged by a recent offhand remark by City Councilman Keith Waring, who pointed out the reality and asked Mayor John Tecklenburg “to extend a hand of fellowship to leadership of the PSD to see if Charleston can negotiate something that makes sense to them and to the city of Charleston.”

Unlike his predecessor, who probably annexed more land than any other mayor in South Carolina history, Mr. Tecklenburg rarely talked about annexation on the campaign trail or once in office. Instead, he vowed to smooth over relations between the city and neighboring governments that had been strained under Mayor Joe Riley’s aggressive annexation push. But Mr. Tecklenburg also has grown more aware of the problems created by so many so-called “doughnut holes” — pockets of unincorporated areas surrounded by the city.

“One thing that’s become more clear in my mind over the last six years is we can provide better and more efficient service by filling these doughnut holes,” he said. We urge City Council to include a new staff position, an annexation coordinator, in the city’s 2022 budget to help do just that. The coordinator has been sought by West Ashley council members who have realized how much more difficult it can be to work with neighborhoods on such improvements as installing speed humps and burying power lines if only some neighbors are in the city.

But annexing these doughnut holes is mostly a Band-Aid, and while those who come into the city might be better off, leaders of the public service district as well as residents who remain outside the city arguably will be worse off, as they struggle with even more shrinkage of their tax base. One way to heal the situation for good would be for Charleston and St. Andrews leaders to hold a referendum in which St. Andrews residents could vote to be annexed into the city wholesale, but few think that idea is now ripe.

Instead, Mr. Tecklenburg said he has focused on working together, like PSD and city firefighters have done. Both respond to calls if they’re close, regardless of whether the fire is inside or outside the city. The city and James Island PSD soon should strike a garbage collection deal where their trucks pick up all trash on certain streets, rather than having two trucks work them on different days. And then the city should strike a similar deal with St. Andrews.

It’s not an ideal solution. The ideal, more efficient resolution is to disband the public service districts and allow the city to provide all the municipal services, but that requires PSD leaders to give up their power, and even then it’s difficult under current state law. Meanwhile, working together on service delivery could build trust and cooperation that will be absolutely necessary to enact a more thorough and lasting solution, particularly for West Ashley, which the city has been working hard to revitalize. One thing is clear: Ignoring the larger reality won’t improve it.

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