Court’s ruling could cost county

By Bobby Bryant, Editor

A state Supreme Court ruling might jeopardize Darlington County’s ability to keep collecting the $30-a-year road-maintenance fee it charges vehicle owners. The county could take a serious financial hit because of the high court’s decision knocking down Greenville County’s road-maintenance fee and telecommunications fee as taxes in disguise. In a June 30 decision, the court ruled that the Greenville fees were unconstitutional. “Local governments, for obvious reasons, want to avoid calling a tax a tax,” Justice John Kittredge wrote. “I believe today’s decision sends a clear message that the courts will not uphold taxes masquerading as ‘service or user fees.’ Going forward, courts will carefully scrutinize so-called ‘service or user fees.’ …” A suit filed by Greenville lawmakers led to the decision. Greenville County expects to lose as much as $7 million because of the ruling, and it could have similar impacts statewide. Kershaw County officials fear the county could lose more than $5 million. Darlington County Council members said they expected to take up the issue in their next regular meeting July 12. Members said they had been briefed on the court’s decision by County Administrator Charles Stewart. (Stewart, out of town last week, could not be reached for comment.) Councilman David Coker of Hartsville said last week that it was not yet clear what financial effect the court’s ruling might have on Darlington County. “The administrator made us aware of it,” Coker said. “He said it could have an effect on us.” Darlington County ordinances require that vehicle owners pay “a road-maintenance fee of $30” per year. That fee is collected by the office of county Treasurer Jeff Robinson, who said he can’t be sure yet how the ruling might play out for the county. “I was actually shocked to hear about it,” Robinson said, because the type of fees the court targeted have been in place a long time and are integral to most counties’ operations. Robinson said the court’s decision was not a blanket ruling specifically striking down all such fees in every South Carolina county. That means each county will have to decide how they’re going to deal with it. Some counties might choose to immediately kill any user fees that the court’s ruling has thrown into question, rewriting their budgets to make up for the loss, perhaps having to lay off employees. Some might decide to do nothing for now, and wait to see if their particular user fees are challenged in court. Others might stand by and hope that the Legislature comes up with a solution. “There’s almost certainly going to be a response by the Legislature,” Robinson said. “Otherwise, it’s going to leave a lot of counties at a standstill.”

Author: Rachel Howell

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