Dorchester Government Fingers
December 22, 2004
During November the citizens of Dorchester County were prevailed upon to vote an added 20% sales tax for more roads so more uncontrolled housing developments could creep across the landscape. Those who were successful in promoting the increase in taxes…paid about $125,000 in promotional advertising to sell us on this massive project.
Recently, it was revealed that the state had diverted $60 million dollars yearly from the Department of Transportation tax collections. The money went into the general fund to be spent for purposes other than for roads. Almost in the same breath, there is now in the hopper a bill to increase vehicle registration fees by $15.00 per axle and in addition the move is on to increase the gasoline tax to pay for maintenance and road refurbishment, plus an additional 40% increase in the state sales tax.
Will the citizens of Dorchester County still be charged a 20% increase in their county sales tax to pay for roads and not receive relief for that whopping $125 million increase in debt that the county borrowed to fill that portion of the gap which the sales tax won’t completely pay for until 2029? Since all the roads are to be completed simultaneously within seven years, the added 1 cent L.O.S.T. will take twenty-five years to pay for only a part of the overall cost. The $125 million from the sale of general obligation bonds will supplement the sales tax shortfall. That still won’t be sufficient to cover the total estimated $162 million estimated for all the projects. That shortfall is estimated at $40 million. Therefore, our property taxes will increase in addition to the sales tax increase for the road projects. Shouldn’t the entire sales tax and property tax referendum be aborted since the state is planning to pay for road projects?
The Dorchester County voters must feel pretty foolish to learn that this entire new burden is at their expense even though the state, now with more funds, will probably pay for all of it. This rush in judgment will cost the county at least a hundred million dollars to resurface the 262 miles of dirt roads.
Add the other taxes and fee increases to the local tax increase for roads; then add the FICA and Fed’s income tax. We certainly can’t forget the future consequences of the Dorchester School Alternate Funding Plan used to by-pass future voter referendums to build new schools.
Ever since Greenville County adopted that Ponzi scheme, that county has accumulated $1.5 billion in additional financial debt. Greenville County’s total obligated future debt amounts to over $3 billion dollars and growing.
All the 8% money borrowed to support operational costs, such as maintenance and books is now used to pay for the lease to purchase plan for new schools.
Each year, several million dollars in additional property taxes are added for school operations to help prevent Greenville County from going bankrupt…which may be entirely possible.
The horrendous building cost overruns now amount to hundreds of millions of dollars incurred by the same financial entity that administers and manages the lease to purchase arrangements for Dorchester County.
Couple the possibility that Dorchester County could parallel the Greenville County experience, then add next year’s huge property reassessments that are about to hit in 2005; plus the increase in sales taxes, both state and local; then add the new vehicle registration fee. We’re in for one outlandish taxing experience during 2005. It’s time to support the Dorchester County Taxpayers Association’s efforts to fight excessive taxation and this unconscionable, mindless, unplanned sprawl. Higher impact fees to pay for the added infrastructure costs will help.
Joe Kress, Corresponding Secretary
There Must be Lead in the Water
By Joseph H. Kress
Thanks to the article written by Former State Treasurer Richard Eckstrom in the Summerville Journal Scene’s October 18th Opinions page, the public is again forewarned of South Carolina’s budget crises. His article, however, is three years too late in giving the alarm. The Baltimore Sun published a detailed expose, October 12, 1999, regarding the disaster that was about to befall this state because of its uncontrolled and imprudent spending. In order to entice industry to relocate here the Sun’s headline stated “S.C. pays dearly for added jobs.” The article quoted William Smiley, retiree: “They keep raising the taxes on the people who live here to pay for all the people moving in.”
Mr. Jay Hancock of the Sun Staff wrote three articles of which the above was the third in a series. Here is the leadoff paragraph of the article:
“Like most people in South Carolina, A.J. and Margaret DeStefano are paying the government more and getting less. That’s what happens when public officials invite hundreds of corporations into your state and cut their taxes to a pittance. Yearly tax on the DeStefanos’ Charleston County home is set to rise by more than a fourth next year, but the crowded local schools can’t keep floors dry when it rains, can’t stop plaster crumbling from the walls and can’t educate most children up to national standards.”
He continues with examples of just how much the public is paying such as a 1 percent retail sales tax increase, restaurant taxes doubled in two years from 1997 to 1999, the state tripled the registration fee on the DeSefanos boat, local water rates jumped 30% since the couple moved in seven years ago and South Carolina’s vehicle car tax is so high it deters new car sales. Yet the Charles Towne Landing, the state’s first European settlement, hasn’t been fixed since it was mauled by Hurricane Hugo a decade ago (at the time of the writing). South Carolina state troopers make less money than those of almost any other state. [What was omitted is Mayor Riley’s disastrous “Fish Tank” project in lieu of a water run-off system. Every high tide floods the downtown Charleston business area.]
The article then gets to the crux of the problem: “One set of South Carolina taxpayers, however, has been spared the pain of higher taxes: the new companies causing all the growth. Business taxes aren’t rising in South Carolina. They’re falling, placing this impoverished and under-educated state in a fiscal vise.”
What has changed since the Sun’s article was published? In the Post and Courier, October 18, 2002, there on the front page, tells the reason why Georgia was able to entice Daimler Chrysler to locate its van assembly plant at a lower cost ($65,000 per employee) than South Carolina offered ($115,000 per employee). The plant is expected to hire 3,300 employees. Multiplying $115,000 x 3,300 employees = $379,500,000 that the state of South Carolina was willing to pay to locate the plant in a congested, highly populated area, near Summerville, that is already experiencing a deterioration in the quality of life because of increased traffic, crowded schools and higher taxes. To answer the question, nothing has changed whatsoever. The governor, the Treasurer and Comptroller general created this new crisis by misleading the public and the legislature on acts of financial mismanagement, according the former State Treasurer Eckstrom. The State is $249 million in debt and the governor wants the general assembly to take care of the deficit after November 3rd.
The public should be up in arms over a gross abandonment of fiscal responsibility by not only the governor, but also the legislature for not addressing a problem that was first brought to their attention in 1999. Yet, the local papers were all excited about the possibility of an additional new industry that costs the taxpayers an additional 379.5 million without a prayer that the new industry would enhance the quality of life of the surrounding areas or that the industry would pay taxes sufficient to offset the huge expenditure that burdens the taxpayers from the get-go. Maybe there is lead in the South Carolina’s water system...that can be the only reasonable excuse for such stupidity.
The Budget Folly
It’s extremely difficult to know where to begin in order to express the outrage that the members of DCTA experienced as a result of the final vote to approve the county budget. It is obvious that the county council concocted an agreement in the men’s room or some other out of the way place where the general public was not allowed to be present. The Medieval term for kingly privilege was the word “privy.” Later, the term was associated with the bathroom or outhouse. The term privy is very appropriate as it relates to the shenanigans that occurred behind closed doors that resulted in a stream of last minute decisions to spend money inappropriate even for outhouse consultations. In other words, the whole proceeding smelled to high heaven.
John Hill, Co-Director of DCTA, was not available for the past two weeks. He is at his farm in upstate New York. After receiving an email which related the result of the County Council’s budget decisions, he sent back a message of encouragement which is herein quoted:
“Friends: Here in upstate New York, the State Legislature passed a bill that mandated that the assessments jump to100% of market value at one blow. This resulted in many owners of property facing a huge tax increase - double that of the prior assessment period. I had several people discuss this with me and they said there was no organized opposition. They don’t have taxpayers associations in these counties.
“I am proud of our efforts and accomplishments. Just our example is a breath of fresh air and consternation to those who want to hide behind secrecy. We are blessed to have the talent within ours and in counties like Greenville who are alerting the public to what is transpiring.”
DCTA membership is rapidly growing, but thus far the bureaucrats and the elected officials have chosen to ignore our protestations because whenever there is a meeting only a few of us are able to attend. Most voters and that includes our membership are too busy to attend meetings periodically held at 5 p.m. in the afternoon when hardly anyone can attend or at 7pm when the kids are still being fed, homework to be done and prayers to be said before bed.
But, we as board members believe attendance and interest will increase proportionately to the amount of information that becomes available to them. Letters to the editor in the Summerville Journal Scene has had some success, but because of its low circulation too few of the County’s taxpayers read the paper. Thus far, we have been able to produce a limited circulation of The Dorchester County Taxpayers Association Newsletter and a number of handouts to subdivisions that will vote their interests. We also have a box at the Summerville Library. In addition, DCTA has a Website and a phone number to leave messages: (843) 871-1384. As far as we know, we’re the only taxpayer group that is on the Internet.
Yet, the word still isn’t getting out sufficiently to convert these politicians. We need a biweekly newspaper and paid subscriptions. We need volunteers to go house to house and sign-up members and collect subscriptions. We need group captains, writers, and just plain workers to help do the legwork and form a powerhouse that politicians will listen to. We need the help of business people especially their contributions towards a fund that can launch not only a newspaper, but candidates to replace the sorry ones sitting behind their podium looking down at us as if we were beneath contempt.
HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED AT THE BUDGET MEETING, FRIDAY, JUNE 30, 2001:
Richard Rosebrock has a habit of passing himself off as a conservative...a friend of the taxpayers. Don’t believe it for a minute! At the last minute, he popped up with a proposal that all county workers making less than $25,000 per year be given a $500 a year raise above cost of living expenses. Some would say that low wage earners should receive more pay. The question then is why not $5,000 + cost of living increases? Rosebrock, just didn’t pull the five hundred figure out of thin air, he needed the other council members to make that decision before the meeting. How do we know this? How else within seconds did the entire body decide that the proposition was valid and vote approval? Not a single question was asked by any of the members present.
Are arbitrary pay increases valid? They are if the council says that they are. From what we know, there are no criteria that spell out when a county employee deserves pay increase on merit. It’s left entirely to the arbitrary discretion of a line of supervisors with council’s approval or disapproval. Merit can’t be defined by any county document and because it isn’t defined the decisions are made based on nepotism or the degree the employee is willing to bend over. But that’s another matter entirely from the egregious, arbitrary decision that $500 is enough and $1,000 is too much. These councilmen made decisions based on fiat thereby increasing the budget by as much as $400,000.
Councilman Randy Scott obviously shills for the rest of the members. He added another $63,000 plus for the public defender including a $5,000 dollar a year pay increase, plus an increase for medical and pension benefits for staff. Of course, we need a good public defender, but why the increase added at the last minute when EMS employees don’t have a trainer or receive such low pay that few are left to care for medical emergencies. With limited funds, which is more important, saving lives or increased benefits for lawyers to defend criminals?
But that isn’t the end of it. They added back $52,700 to 1st Circuit Solicitor, Walter Bailey’s budget that was earlier cut from the budget. But that isn’t the end of it. A few weeks ago, the complaint was that there were not enough EMS workers to utilize an ambulance. Guess what? The council approved the purchase of a new ambulance.
But that isn’t the end of it. The Council approved $249,000 to meet a prior agreement to support speculation building project to attract business for an industrial park that is partially, privately owned. This could be postponed or even aborted, if the council was really serious. Yet, Colin Martin, the CountyAdministrator warned council members that maintenance money for the vehicle fleet is an absolute necessity and that using lease purchase instead of outright purchase of vehicles is much less cost effective. Council went for the leases. The newspaper said that the council saved $800,000 by going the lease purchase route. What economic figures does the Post and Courier go by? Probably, budget calculations established by the U.S. Congress.
Chairman Byrd and Rosebrock put on a dog and pony show for the last few weeks, each accusing the other of irresponsibility, while Councilman Hearn was against any cost cutting. He mentioned that by Councilmen Richard Brook’s absence, “I smell a rat.” In fact, it looked for a while that the members would never agree to anything. Yet at the last budget meeting at the last minute, all conflicts are solved by adding two million to last year’s budget despite the fact that $1.7 million is missing from the prior year’s tax collections.
Mr. Byrd challenged former council member Bill Whatley to come up with a better budget and to show him where council wasted taxpayer dollars. Mr. Whatley and DCTA took him up on this challenge. One of the first questions to be answered is why, at the close of the 2000 budget, which supposedly had a huge surplus, was it necessary to borrow money to cover interim anticipated tax receipts?
But that isn’t the end of it. Richard Rosebrock came out later with a statement that we (You and I as taxpayers) must have a sales tax to lessen the homeowner’s tax burden. The Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) was defeated four previous times by an educated public, especially those who rent. Robert Pratt, the most prominent commercial investor and Realtor, called Dorchester County the hole in the donut in this part of South Carolina. He would benefit enormously if the tax were passed. We must remind people that both Charleston and Berkeley Counties raised their sales tax by one penny on the dollar and except for the first two years, property taxes increased significantly despite the increase in sales tax. Any benefit was soon lost because of additional spending.
But that isn’t the end of it. During the month of June, the County’s computer system crashed and incredibly the drives were never downloaded to save records in case of such a possibility. It causes one to wonder how and why this could happen doesn’t it? All records were destroyed from March until July 1st, just when an outside audit is being organized and immediately after Chairman Byrd accepted ex-Councilman Bill Whatley’s challenge to conduct his own audit.
The County Council form of government doesn’t work any more. We should elect a manager, who can’t fool with figures and make back room deals favoring those who have the most political influence. An experienced, elected business manager can provide specific guidance as to the purpose of using taxpayer money. He or she should be held accountable for establishing priorities starting with supplying the basic needs such as police protection, roads, water and sewers, emergency medical support, schools and vehicles. He or she should not consider the purchase of property for speculation, donations to the Chamber of Commerce, the YMCA and other charities and senior citizen centers that will eventually evolve into a whole new sphere of additional county employees with pension benefits and cost of living increases. He or she should embargo funds for industrial parks that enrich private commercial developers.
He or she should always ask the question: “Cui bono?” Who benefits? As an elected official, he or she will not be subject to or answer to members of County Council and will be able to alert the public when unauthorized or wasteful and inappropriate actions are taken by County Council. He or she would have authority to review the School Board’s budget and force line item audits and zero base budgeting. As it is, County Council members have no inkling of details in the school budget, other than a two page, general report and what is stated in the annual presentation by the county superintendent of District Two schools. District superintendents traditionally bring, as back up to the presentation, a room full of teachers and administrators. The meetings are held at 7 P.M. or earlier while the general public is still eating supper or on the way back from a hard day’s work. Perhaps, if on Saturday morning CountyCouncil would hold meetings, the public would have an opportunity to voice opinions and exert their influence.
BAD SCHOOLS CREATE POVERTY AND A LACK OF INDUSTRIAL GROWTH
District Four, having a rural, poor population is raising taxes by 15 mills or $100 on a $100,000 home. Obviously, something must give way. The County can’t continue to have taxpayers for the District Four’s schools (that are severely lacking in just about everything) pay a higher school tax increase than those living in the more affluent District Two. The abysmally poor District Four SAT scores reflect a total failure in student education. The State Legislature must be prevailed upon to change the law so that school districts located in rural, poorer areas are provided a greater proportion of state education funds. The State Department of Education must decrease the mandatory number of administrators to student ratio and use the funds to enhance the poorer districts with competent teachers. The entire public school system is overloaded with bureaucrats that create mostly added paperwork. They enforce politically correct interference between teachers and their pupils in order to administer discipline. This added layering creates additional support staffs at enormous cost to the taxpayer for an unneeded, superfluous, highly paid bureaucracy. The lowest paid administrator is paid more than the highest paid teacher. A few earn over a hundred thousand per year. By 2010 educators anticipate the cost per pupil will rise from the present $5,000 to $10,000 annually.
Sun Revealed S.C.'S Disastrous Course
By Joe Kress, Corresponding Secretary, DCTA
THE Baltimore Sun, almost two years ago, published a three-page expose that told its readers that South Carolina is heading for disaster. Through sheer, blind ineptness the promoters for more industry have given the farm away in order to attract businesses while disregarding the cost to the taxpayers and the overloading of this State’s infrastructure -such as schools, roads, police and fire protection – coupled with the destruction of the environment and what once was an enviable quality of life.
The new S.C. industries, according to the Baltimore Sun, were given grants, tax exemptions, land and other perks so extensively that no relief in taxes to benefit the public can be expected for the next twenty years. The old, established business communities do not benefit from this larder given to the multinational corporations, but on the contrary, they are subjected to an ever-increasing tax burden, as is the citizen taxpayer. It is estimated that property tax revenue from single family homes, on average will fall short of what is needed by $1,600 dollars annually because of increased cost to support the already expanding infrastructure, i.e., schools, roads, etc.
The budget shortfall does not include the projected massive, unsupportable future growth that is just around the corner, when the port expansion takes place. The new industries, thus far, have paid practically nothing towards the costs as a result of their relocation here. BMW pays only 2.5% of the tax it should pay due to giveaway tax benefits, grants and long term, low interest loans supported by the public. NUCOR expanded it operations as well as Charleston’s largest industry, the Bosch Corporation. These enticements are still happening throughout South Carolina. The Berkeley County administrator is one of the most aggressive in trying to attract industry. Homeowners are now realizing the consequences.
The result of this expansion is staggering. The population increase has overburdened our schools, clogged our roads and future anticipated growth is at least double that of the recent past. The Ports Authority projects 30,000 new jobs due to its expansion. The state is expected to fund a major portion of this expansion at tremendous cost to the average taxpayer.
Hundreds of industries from around the globe have already relocated to this country and to South Carolina. What is so attractive for a number of businesses to settle here besides the perks is the right to work laws and lower labor costs. The problem is that local workers pay scales haven’t risen mainly because skilled labor is imported to fill the higher paying positions. The undereducated South Carolinians are filling jobs as waiters, bus boys, clerks in Wal-Mart and K-Mart or performing unskilled tasks for the state. Many technicians are in the building trades subject to boom or bust economic conditions coping with Mexican labor competition and their pay rates absent normal, legal benefits. While living costs rise along with taxes and the cost of housing soars, the established long-time residents reach their financial limits. Those retirees on fixed incomes eventually must relocate to survive.
The Wal-Marts and K-Marts with their cold gray exteriors provide impersonal service at rock bottom prices that drive small retailers out. Because of their ability to mass merchandise goods produced by near slave labor conditions in China, Mexico, India and the third world countries, extraordinary profits are realized. By using mass purchasing and distribution, local retail competition soon are forced to close their doors. Not only are these mega-corporations receiving state and county tax incentives, but through their monopolistic ability to destroy competition, they drive down wages and hire part-time help, avoiding health insurance or pensions that full-time workers enjoy. The ripple effect of this type competition prevents smaller businesses from offering even reduced health and pension benefits for their full-time employees. As a result, small businesses, in order to survive, resort to hiring as many part-time workers as possible. Instead of benefiting from the lower prices these corporations offer to the public, their employees are stagnated in jobs that prevent them from purchasing even lower priced merchandise.
Tri-County establishment newspapers ignore all this subterranean economic chaos. It took an outside establishment newspaper’s investigative team to uncover what was all too evident to the Dorchester County Taxpayers Association in its efforts to bring common sense to stem an out-of-control real estate and developer powerhouse. Money interests appears to have control of all three Tri-county legislative bodies. The recent imbroglio involving the Dorchester County Corridor Coalition and those who would destroy the overall plan for beautification and development exemplifies the mindset of developers who are driven by profit at the expense of the community’s quality of life.
Thus far, land development in Dorchester County has not been assessed sufficient impact fees to cover water and sewer treatment, roads and schools, emergency medical service, increased police and fire protection. Instead, the administrators can only look to increasing taxes for those who are not benefiting from this unbridled expansion. If the near-term economic slow down forces cutbacks in higher paying jobs and industry retrenches, the infrastructure costs and taxes won’t go away. Empty commercial lots and deteriorating, vacant stores and warehouses, abandoned golf courses and unfinished construction may be what taxpayers will be asked to continue to support.
Soon the smoke of discontent will rise to such a level that those elected with no vision will be the targets for derision.