Our View: Don’t play shell game with taxes

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By The Staff

Tax hikes and fee increases have been in the news a lot lately, as they always are this time of year. All across the county, residents are learning they will have to pay more in taxes and fees in the upcoming year.
Lancaster County School District recently approved a 5-mill tax increase, which will cost the average Lancaster County homeowner about $20 more this year.
The town of Kershaw’s budget includes a 1.2-mill tax hike, which will cost its homeowners $4.80 more in yearly taxes on a $100,000 home. It also increased its water and sewer bill by $7.
Lancaster County Water and Sewer District increased its rates by 2 percent earlier this summer. In the city of Lancaster, although there was no tax or water rate increase, garbage fees are going up $2.
So it was no surprise when Lancaster County Council began discussing its budget that it called for tax increases – 1.2 mills for the general fund, one-tenth of a mill for the University of South Carolina Lancaster and $5 more for the county road fee.
The increases would have amounted to about $12 for the average county family with a $100,000 home.
But after council members were greeted by a crowd of angry residents, many sporting “No increase in taxes” badges, at the final reading of the proposed budget June 27, it’s no wonder council decided to pass a $32,699,253 budget with no tax hikes.
This meant not funding several items it had already voted twice to fund, such as the career ladder at the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office to help retain employees ($284,793), a new University of South Carolina Lancaster academic building ($237,538), equipment and training for the county’s fire service ($111,000) and $308,333 more for repairing county roads and bridges.
It also meant not funding several direct-assistance groups, which it had first voted down, then restored, then voted down again, including Counseling Services, Communities in Schools, the Arts Council, Disabilities and Special Needs, Catawba Mental Health and Southside Literacy (totaling $45,085).
Crisis averted.
Afterward, we followed up with a story on the affected local officials’ reactions, several of whom have not given up hope of receiving the funds they asked for, which strikes us as an odd reaction. Clearly, they are expecting council to go back and add these items to the budget through amendments.
In the meantime, the sheriff’s office has implemented the career ladder on its own, opting not to fill four of the 13 open positions to do so. But it has not given up hope either, and is still asking the county for the funds so it can fill all of its vacancies.
However, in its initial airing at Monday night’s council meeting, an ordinance to amend the budget “in title only” was killed by a tie vote, partly because it contained no specifics and, as Councilman Cotton Cole said, he didn’t want to vote “on a blank sheet of paper.”
But you can expect to see the budget amendment ordinance back on the table next month, because as County Administrator Steve Willis said, “Not passing an ordinance is not an option. The only question is at what are you going to set the millage rate?”
In other words, there will be a tax increase; the only question is how much will it be.
We think if council was going to raise taxes anyway, it should have gone ahead and done so at the final budget reading June 27, not copped out and then come back later to do an end-run around the people it purports to serve.
Maybe it should take the advice of resident Marc Culler, who suggested council look at selling off some of the county’s assets, including the temporary court facility along S.C. 9 Bypass, and a former Founders Federal Credit Union building on U.S. 521.
Given that council recently learned the county owns quite a few properties it didn’t know it had, maybe now would be a good time to sell some of those off. Since the county didn’t know it had them, it will never miss them and they could probably help pay for some of these budget items.