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Editorial: Doughnut holes — not the sweet variety — need to become part of SC history

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Downtown recovering after the big move (copy)

When cities encircle unincorporated areas — called doughnut holes — city garbage trucks drive past some houses, and the county garbage truck has to come along behind and pick up the trash.

Towns and cities are the economic and social centers of our communities. When you live in a city, you get easy access to jobs and shopping, restaurants and parks and museums, banks and hospitals.

When you live just outside a city … you still get all that. But you don’t have to help pay for any of it.

That’s the case for nearly half of South Carolina’s urban residents. While the 2010 Census found that 66% of South Carolinians lived in what it calls “urban areas,” the Municipal Association of South Carolina says that 10 years later, only 36% of us live inside cities and towns.

That disparity places an extra burden on city residents to pick up the tab for their neighbors, through property taxes and business license fees. It also makes government for everyone a little more expensive, because people who live near cities still want city services .

That means counties end up providing services that county governments weren’t designed to provide, even to those residents who live in remote areas. And when the outliers are surrounded on all sides by the city, in so-called doughnut holes, it means that instead of the city garbage truck picking up all the trash in a neighborhood, it drives past some houses, and the county garbage truck has to come along behind it and pick up the trash at those that are inside the city but not in the city.

As The Post and Courier’s Jerrel Floyd reports, it can cause life-and-death problems with emergency calls, which can come to the wrong police or fire department, delaying the response.

There are exceptions — Mount Pleasant has several in the form of settlement communities that were established long before the town was even imagined — but usually people live near a city because of the city, not in spite of it.

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Some states address these realities by allowing cities to annex adjacent property once it reaches a certain “urban density,” because they figure once an area acts like part of a city, it ought to be treated like part of a city. But South Carolina invites people to remain outside the taxation and zoning jurisdiction of a city while taking advantage of its benefits.

Here, property owners or residents must agree to be annexed, even when they’re encircled by a city. Three-quarters of property owners have to sign a petition requesting annexation. Alternatively, a quarter of the residents can request an annexation referendum, which voters must approve — but that’s a tedious process, with several mother-may-I rules, and large landowners can opt out.

It would make more sense to have an urban-density approach, so city boundaries reflect the reality of city life, but our Legislature should at least give cities an easier option for closing up the doughnut holes.

A bipartisan bill by Reps. Mandy Powers Norrell and Joseph Danning would allow cities to annex tracts of up to 25 acres — about half the size of the College of Charleston campus — that have been completely surrounded by the city for at least five years. Unfortunately, the pandemic that shortened this year’s legislative session prevented H.3439 from even getting a hearing, so it’s not on the agenda for lawmakers’ two-week session next month.

Yet the doughnut hole problem isn’t going away, and with the COVID recession putting even more strain on local governments, the last thing they need is the extra expenses and headaches that doughnut holes cause. Eliminating that problem is fairly straightforward, and would give legislators a quick and easy accomplishment in a 2021 session that’s unlikely to have many of those.

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