County nixes fee to fix roads

By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer,

By a large majority, Darlington County Council voted at their March 16 against an ordinance that would have raised annual road tax fees paid by vehicle owners.

The ordinance, No. 15-06, would have increased the road maintenance fee from $30 per vehicle to $44.25 per vehicle. Former interim county administrator Tommy Edwards proposed the fee hike at council’s Feb. 11 budget work session as a way to adequately fund the Roads and Bridges Department for equipment purchases and contingency funds.

Without this fee increase, council will need to reduce projected expenditure in the Roads and Bridges budget for fiscal year 2015/16 by $780,000. The road maintenance fee increase would have brought in a total of $2.43 million in annual revenue, an increase of $780,000 per year.

When second reading for this ordinance came up for a vote, council voted against the fee hike by a margin of 7 to 1, with only Mozella “Pennie” Nicholson in favor.

“I would like to look at reducing expenditures before we start collecting more tax dollars, and fees are tax dollars,” said council member Le Flowers before his “nay” vote.

Flowers added that repeated state cuts of the Local Government Fund are putting pressure on counties and municipalities to raise taxes and fees, sometimes to cover maintenance expenses for roads the state forcibly “gives” to counties.

Council voted in favor of two ordinances up for third and final readings.

No. 15-03 approves an administrative fee increase on delinquent taxes owed on real estate and mobile homes. Currently, those fees are $10 for properties delinquent as of March 17 (covering postage and processing), $20 as of July 1 (for postage and research) and $20 for those delinquent as of Sept. 1 (covering the cost of posting these delinquencies in local newspapers). These fees would be raised to $20, $40, and $60, respectively. These fees have not increased since 2005.

The ordinance extract states that in the current fiscal year, the Tax Collector’s Office spent $56,218 to mail notices, and $15,025 for advertising delinquent real for an estimated 4,500 parcels. By increasing these fees, the Tax Collector’s office could generate about $225,000 to offset postage and advertising expenses.

No. 15-04 transfers the Roads and Bridges Department and road maintenance fees to a newly established enterprise fund, keeping those monies from mingling with the county’s general fund.

Up for first reading with no vote required, Ordinance 15-09 would allow the county administrator to approve interfund transfers of up to $5,000 (excluding personnel line items) between departmental activities.

Also up for first reading, Ordinance 15-10, which would establish a $10 countywide business registration fee. During citizen’s comments earlier in the meeting, Quinetta Buterbaugh of the Greater Hartsville Chamber of Commerce asked some questions about this fee on behalf of her membership. She said some of them had wondered what benefit businesses in municipalities would receive by paying this fee, since most of their civil services (fire, water, police) are already handled by their cities.

“Would it be more logical to tax only businesses operating in the unincorporated portions of the county as municipalities already charge fees to operate?” Buterbaugh asked.

Buterbaugh also requested details on two suggested uses for fee proceeds put forward by county administrator Terence Arrington, namely the establishment of new economic development activities and micro business loans. Since neither of these use suggestions is written into the ordinance, Buterbaugh wondered who would administer such a loan program.

“With the county’s financial situation, wouldn’t it be better for small businesses to borrow from the SBA or the USDA rather than from the county? What if the county is unable to collect on the loans, causing further detriment to the county’s finances?” she asked, with a final reminder that such a fee would carry administrative costs that would further eat into any produced revenues.

When 15-10 came up for reading, vice chair Robbin Brock suggested he would like to hear more from the Chambers of Commerce of Hartsville and Darlington before voting on the matter. Second reading and first vote for this ordinance will take place at council’s April 6 meeting.

Citizen Diane DeLucia asked council for help dealing with a troublesome neighbor on South Mary Street just outside Hartsville. DeLucia said she and several neighbors have repeatedly asked for assistance from the county’s codes enforcement office in dealing with this neighbor who, she said, has committed multiple codes infractions since he moved there in November of 2014, including dumping used motor oil into a hole dug in his yard.

“Why are we not enforcing the law? Why do I have to beg you each and every month for assistance?” asked DeLucia, noting that the neighbor is a “middle-aged Caucasian gentleman” with an “air of privilege,” who has yet to be held to account for committing multiple code infractions in this mixed-race neighborhood.

“I have wonderful African Americans in my community, wonderful citizens who keep nice lawns, and they are upset,” said DeLucia.

Arrington said he has conferred with codes enforcement director Randy Evans and planning director Doug Reimold and discussed how the county might deal with this situation, but Arrington said more time was needed before he would publicly discuss any potential course of action.

Darlington County Council’s April 6 meeting will begin at 6 pm at the Courthouse Annex at 1625 Harry Byrd Hwy in Darlington. This meeting is open to the public.

Author: Duane Childers

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