By Greg Oliver

The Journal

PICKENS — Pickens County Council approved a nearly 10-mill property tax hike recently to make up for funding for road improvements lost after a June decision by the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Council voted 5-1 at last week’s meeting to raise property taxes 9.6 mills to replace the county’s $20 vehicle maintenance fee that had been in place for the past two decades and raise an additional $3.5 million annually for future road improvements.

The council also decided to put aside the renewal of an agreement to give 28 percent of county road money to cities to pave city-owned roads but agreed to discuss its renewal in the future.

New intergovernmental agreements will be negotiated to meet the needs of each municipality in the second year.

“The (South Carolina) Supreme Court has ruled, so we don’t have a mechanism at all on how we’re going to collect equivalent to what we’ve been collecting in order to maintain the roads that we have,” Councilman Roy Costner said. “So, to me, it’s two different issues. We’ve got to have this ordinance in place so we can have a mechanism to get the money, and the second thing, to me, is what is that agreement going to look like with the cities?”

Council chairman Chris Bowers agreed.

“The ordinance at hand repeals everything and allows us to collect road user fee replacement money,” Bowers said. “How we spend it, how we split it is going to be a whole new intergovernmental agreement.”

Although the vehicle maintenance fee, also called the road fee, has been in place since 2001, the way it has operated has changed through the years — with fee revenues at one time allotted to municipalities, which were allowed to schedule and coordinate their own paving maintenance work, and responsibility later placed on the county to begin scheduling and completing the paving maintenance.

Saitta against hikes

Councilman Alex Saitta, who cast the lone vote against the tax hike, said he was against renewing the intergovernmental agreement.

“We are not responsible for giving county tax dollars to cities for city services,” Saitta said, adding that Clemson and Easley have $16.8 million and $17.9 million in the bank, respectively. “I wanted no part of this giveaway now or in the future.”

Pickens County attorney Les Hendricks said the Supreme Court’s opinion, in the case of Burns vs. Greenville County, struck down a previous definition used by the courts to determine what was a tax and what was a fee. Hendricks said under that definition, the county’s road user fee passed in 2001 was clearly illegal, and the Pickens County treasurer and auditor were notified such a fee cannot be collected anymore.

Under that fee, Pickens County collected $2.2 million per year, with 75 percent going to the county and the remainder going to the municipalities.

Pickens County has asked municipalities to approve resolutions supporting the property tax increase. While Central Town Council approved its resolution last week, Clemson City Council did not act at its most recent meeting, as it was presented as a discussion item only.

Editor’s note: This report is the first in a series about the nixed vehicle maintenance fee.

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