So Dorchester County has raised its property taxes, and suggests residents send any complaints to Columbia.
In fact, the county was pretty blunt about it in a letter to residents earlier this month.
“Due to the South Carolina General Assembly’s failure to fund the Local Government Fund (State Aid to Subdivisions) at the amount required by law, the County must absorb the growing cost of state mandates and state-required services,” the “dear residents” letter reads.
Now, some people will look at that and think county officials are just making excuses — trying to shift the blame for being a bunch of tax-and-spend liberals (as we all know those folks in Dorchester are).
That’s a joke.
But the letter isn’t. Honestly, Dorchester County is absolutely right.
Cities and towns around the state are being forced to cut services or raise taxes because they are not getting the state money they should. And it’s all because state lawmakers don’t want to incur the wrath of voters by raising taxes.
They’d rather let locals get the blame.
The Local Government Fund that Dorchester County references is an ongoing source of contention between local leaders and the state.
Just ask Mount Pleasant Town Councilman Elton Carrier, Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey — or anyone else who pays the bills. Locals are getting hosed.
The fund was set up to replace the aid-to-subdivisions program. Basically, the state collects taxes on income, gasoline, banks and alcohol and theoretically splits some of it with local governments — as it should.
Right now, the law says locals are supposed to get 4.5 percent of the previous year’s revenue. Lawmakers grouse that mandate is stupid because it guarantees an amount based on a previous budget.
Imagine that, the General Assembly doing something with little foresight.
State officials may be right that it was a foolhardy formula, but it’s the law and local governments budget for that money. Well, since the state has been shorting them since 2008 — when the recession hit — most have figured they can only count on a percentage and plan accordingly.
How bad is it? Well, Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant alone are losing more than $2 million a year. Dorchester County notes that it’s been shorted $8 million since 2008, and next year the figure will be up to $10 million.
So where is all that money going? Well, into state coffers.
This is, of course, just a shell game.
State officials can claim their hands are clean, that they don’t raise taxes, but that depends on your perspective.
In the past couple of years the state has required Dorchester County to hire 27 new employees for its detention center, at a cost of $1.2 million, and change the shifts for emergency medical workers — another $1.2 million hit.
Now, the state’s reasoning behind these changes may be sound. But the county calls them unfunded mandates — just as the state complains when the feds send down new rules without the money to implement them.
In both cases, it’s a fair complaint. But the bottom line is the same: You are going to pay, it’s just a matter of who.
The state has considered wiping out the Local Government Fund and keeping all that money. Bad idea. That additional $35 million would be a drop in the bucket on a $7 billion state budget, but the move would force local governments to raise taxes or cut services.
For instance, the city of Charleston gets about $2.5 million from the fund right now (it’s based on population). That’s about 40 cops, which make up the biggest share of the city’s budget.
Ultimately, government is just like any other business — the price of operating keeps going up. But politicians don’t want to upset cranky voters by being the bad guys to ask for more money. So they pass the buck, or the buck-collecting.
That’s what is happening in Dorchester County, and everywhere else around the state. The price of poker is going up every year, the only question is where you send the check.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org