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Wryley Bettis: SC cities deserve more independence

Published on Monday, January 27, 2014

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Wryley Bettis
Greer City Council District 5

Wryley Bettis

Greer City Council District 5

An overwhelming number of towns and cities in South Carolina do a remarkably cost-effective job of bringing basic, grass-roots services and a variety of high-quality-of-life destinations  to the citizens of our state. This is particularly impressive when you consider that our cities are subject to the commands handed down from federal, state and county governments, as well as many inefficient special-purpose districts, all requiring cities and towns to “do as we are told” if you want a small portion of your tax dollars and fees funneled back to you, or if you want to be able to use public facilities that your taxes helped build and continue to pay for.

South Carolina cities and towns operate on budgets that have very few ways to raise revenue (thanks to state laws) and must smile, bend over and say “Thank you sir . . . may I have another?” to all other levels of government, as we are forced to accept any and all regulations from these other levels of government, regardless of how it impacts our citizens or budget . . . and there is no recourse.  State law has insured that, short of a lawsuit, cities have no choice but to bow to the decisions of other governments, no matter how bad.  Past lawsuits have been attempted, but ultimately thrown out by judges that are appointed by the same state politicians that hand down the mandates.

The most obvious case of this control and taxation gone rampant is Greenville County government.  Over the past 15 years or so, Greenville County Council has instituted double taxation on all municipal residents for use of the county detention center and double taxation to municipalities for use of the county landfill.

Most recently, forced taxation was used by Greenville County, aided and abetted by our local state legislators under the public radar, for the cities of Greenville, Greer, Mauldin and Simpsonville to resurrect a mismanaged Greenville County Recreation District.  All of the new $3 to $4 million in revenue from these cities for recreation goes right into the general fund, and NONE of it has to be spent for recreation.  Indications are that about 10 percent of this new money may be spent among all four of the new contributing cities, which have their own recreation programs that are more efficiently run and are open to all citizens. 

Even the dollars returned to city residents for road maintenance, their own tax dollars, are controlled by the county. And does anyone even know what the “Auditorium District Debt Service” on your tax notice is paying and who it benefits? 

That 2 percent sales tax collected by cities for prepared food? The county would have scooped it up, as they are allowed to do by law, if every municipality had not grabbed it. That money would have been taken out of the cities and collected by the county if towns and cities had not acted. 

Greenville County instituted mandatory business registration for all businesses in the county that are not in a municipality.  It costs nothing now, but it is a huge database that represents a significant amount of future revenue whenever they decide they need it.   Now Greenville County Council is laying the groundwork to take additional sales tax dollars from the citizens of the county through the creation of a new board to recommend road maintenance needs.  Each city was “allowed” to have a member on the board, but only under restrictive selection guidelines mandated by the Greenville County Council.  With only 25 percent of Greenville County Council members residing within municipalities, the “muscle” on Council seems to shift any sentiment on an issue in favor of their “county-only” neighbors, where the bulk of their votes live.

Mandates from the state or federal government often require city action that impacts the budget, but have no accompanying funding, forcing cities to increase taxes or institute fees, all with no effective legal recourse for the cities to protect their citizens.

The “Storm Water” fee that is part of our property tax bill is a perfect example of an unfunded mandate from the federal government. They told us we had to clean up and control the water runoff, but forgot to send any money to comply.

And for the past several years, our state legislators have been stealing money from what is known as the “Local Government Fund” which is a collection of revenue collected by the state which is rightfully due to local governments. Every county and town in South Carolina has had to adjust for this theft of revenue from their budgets, either by raising revenue elsewhere or cutting personnel and/or services.

City government is the most responsive form of government because it is the government closest to the people. City elected officials and public employees eat, shop, drive and socialize among their fellow citizens on a daily basis. They see problems and solutions first hand, and they are accessible to their fellow citizens. 

Municipal citizens deserve for their local government to have the ability to have more control over their city's financial destiny and to keep their tax money at home, but most of all, city citizens deserve the ability for their local government to say “thanks, but no thanks” to costly, cumbersome, unfunded mandates, skimming of tax dollars, double-taxation for services and forced duplication of services (recreation) from “Big Brother” governmental entities.

State legislators should emancipate our cities from this burden and promote true “Home Rule” instead of merely giving it lip service at election time.

Taxes would be lower and services would be more efficient. 

Wryley Bettis

Greer City Council District 5

Councilman Bettis started his 15th year on Greer City Council in January. He has served as Mayor Pro Tem and Chairs the Greer Development Corporation, Greer’s economic development organization.


 

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