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County Government and Services of Dubious Value to Big City Dwellers
Lee Walton

As a notable catalyst, the ongoing debate on Charleston County Council over the extent and cost of police protection to be provided within the new Town of James Island now affords a timely opportunity to scrutinize and question the relative value and equity of many public services currently being provided by Charleston County Government.

Several recent news articles and at least one editorial in the Palter and Chatter have pirouetted around this bigger question but stopped far short of the journalistic obligation to investigate and honestly report on what many city dwellers in Charleston County need to know. Are many of the services that Charleston County Government now provides redundant and wasteful duplications of similar if not identical public services now being provided exclusively by the larger cities in Charleston County?

Sheriff Al The Cannon seems to be the only local elected official with the courage to question the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of police protection provided to all the citizens of the County - "I can give you dozens of examples of how inefficient this current structure is…." His call for a referendum on the police consolidation issue is a good first step toward countywide consolidated services and should open the door to a broader evaluation and public debate regarding many of the other public services currently being provided by the County.

Historically, the basic organizational structure of Charleston County Government has changed little in the past four decades, except for County police protection now provided by the Sheriff's Department. There have been many notable additions to the list of general county services now provided to all citizens including consolidated solid waste disposal, EMS, and emergency preparedness, but many of the core public services still provided by the County to the smaller towns and unincorporated areas have now been duplicated and exclusively replaced by the three largest municipal governments within the County.

The Cities of Charleston, North Charleston and Mt. Pleasant assess and collect real and personal property taxes for many of the same public services still provided by the County. All the while, the County still taxes all County property owners the same for these services whether actually provided or not. Police Protection, Planning and Building Services are only three notable examples of "double taxation" for duplicated services provided by the larger municipalities. One wonders when or if the overtaxed property owners of the larger cities will realize that they are being "ripped off" by the County. And just how many in the County are now victims of this "double taxation" and "duplication of services"?

In 1980 Charleston County had a population of approximately 276,600 of which almost 65% resided within incorporated municipalities. By the 2000 Census, approximately 75% of the 309,969 people in the County resided within the fifteen separate towns or cities that then existed, but a whopping 72.2% of the entire County population resided within just the three largest cities. Current estimates indicate that, of the County's approximately 320,000 population, over 81% now reside within the four largest cities - the new Town of James Island just added another 20,000 city dwellers to the "double taxation" equation. As urban infill development, redevelopment and annexations continue within the now four larger cities, this disparity will become even more evident. The citizens of the larger cities in Charleston County are subsidizing the smaller towns and unincorporated areas to a significant degree, but in what ways and to what degree needs to be both qualified and quantified. In fairness, the taxpayers of the larger cities should be ripping the doors off the County's Lonnie Hamilton Building and demanding a reduction in their County Property taxes.

Notwithstanding the pedantic sophistry of Chairman Napo-Leon Stabyourbackus, The Machine's Colleen Condon and Pericles' Savior Ed Fava, each member of County Council who now represent single-member districts dominated by the four largest cities must face the reality that fundamental structural changes in County Government are essential and long overdue. The smart ones on Council who want to survive their next election must now concentrate on the provision of equitable, cost-effective consolidated services to all citizens of the County and recognize that they can no longer tax big city dwellers for services no longer provided. Hopefully, one of the more qualified Mystical Nine will step forward and provide the kind of non-partisan, altruistic leadership now so desperately needed on Charleston County Council.

Double taxation" and wasteful, inefficient duplication of public services have no place in a county fighting to economically compete with other more structurally progressive metropolitan regions in the Southeast.

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