Charleston Council Continues Tax Debate

The NerveLast week’s Charleston County Council Finance Committee meeting was largely taken up with a continuation of debate on whether an increase in property taxes could be avoided, along with a presentation by staff on budgets for enterprise funds, council agencies and other entities.

A special meeting of the Finance Committee earlier this month focused on the Fiscal Year 2011 budget. Suffice to say, times are tough and revenues are weak.

The committee approved staff’s recommendation, which included a 0.8 millage increase and a 10 percent reduction in allocating local option sales tax revenues to offset property tax bills.

Obviously these moves will increase the tax burden for Charleston County property owners.

During the most recent Finance Committee meeting, Council members Dickie Schweers and Joe McKeown said they were opposed to any increase in the property tax burden at this time.

They argued that citizens are already burdened by the current economic downturn and both sought ways to avoid the effective tax increase. Staff was also requested to provide a list of fund balances.

County Council staff told the committee that rating agencies looked to municipalities to maintain a fund balance equal to 1.5 months to 2 months of spending. As members noted, most balances of county funds were at the two-month level or well above. So why not use up the surplus above the 1.5-month level to balance the 2010 budget?

Not possible, the committee was told.

First, the rating agencies really looked at two months as most appropriate and maintaining the county‘s AAA bond rating was important. With a $200 million bond issue coming up, the county needed to ensure that it could obtain a low interest rate.

Second, the high balances in some funds reflected the proscribed use of the monies. By law, they could not be withdrawn and directed to other purposes. An example was the federally mandated Stormwater Fund. The balance was presently high but spending was likely to increase in future.

If the committee members hoped to reverse the proposed tax increase measures, it was forlorn.

The majority of members showed no inclination and indeed County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor Sr. and Council member Henry Darby argued that staff had been tasked to do their best and had done so.

Council member A. Victor Rawl, who voted for the staff recommendation last week, took mild issue with the chairman and noted that as a council member he had a right to take issue.

The Finance Committee also received the recommendations of Greenbelt Advisory Board as to changes in the Greenbelt Plan. As both Schweers and McKeown noted, the proposed changes were very modest and this was pleasing.

Rawl was the only council member that voted against the amendments. He was seeking changes that would have given greater weighting to projects that allowed public access and viewing. He also questioned the broadness in defining the term “greenbelt.”

Warwick Jones is a resident of Charleston and has been involved with a number of area organizations, including the Charleston County Greenbelt Advisory Board and the Preservation Society of Charleston.