Road-maintenance fee vanishing, but repair funds will still remain
By Bobby Bryant, Editor
By the time you read this, vehicle owners likely won’t have to continue paying Darlington County’s $30-a-year fee for road maintenance – but the county won’t lose the $1.7 million that the fee has brought in annually. Faced with potential legal problems from the road-maintenance fee, County Council is killing the fee entirely. Council gave tentative approval Sept. 13 to an ordinance ending the road-maintenance fee levied on vehicles in the county. The ordinance was up for a final vote Sept. 20 during a special meeting of council. A June 30 decision by the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that a similar fee in Greenville County was unconstitutional. Since the court’s ruling, local governments in South Carolina have been in a position of either getting rid of similar fees themselves, waiting for someone to file suit to challenge their local fees, or hoping that the Legislature would find a solution. “We do not believe our fee is illegal,” Darlington County Administrator Charles Stewart told the News & Press. But rather than “worrying about an issue or a challenge” at some point down the road, he said, the county is taking a different route. As the annual $30 road fee goes away, the county is raising the annual emergency-services fee that drivers must pay from $15 to $45. There will be no net change, Stewart said, no additional cost to drivers and no increase in taxes. The county will revise its budgeting system to account for the change and to continue providing needed money for road work. “It’s easier for us to make this change” than risk future problems involving the legal status of the road-maintenance fee, Stewart said. The potential problems over the road-maintenance fee began this summer, when the state’s highest court issued a ruling knocking down Greenville County’s road-maintenance fee and telecommunications fee as taxes in disguise. The court found 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. Since then, some S.C. counties and municipalities have been ending their road-maintenance fees in anticipation of problems.