Council approves tax hike to lower DD2 deficit, fund more fire personnel

Property tax will soon be rising on homes, rental properties and businesses across Dorchester County to help fund Dorchester School District Two needs and to provide additional fire personnel.

At its meeting Monday in St. George, the county council approved raising taxes by 7.8 mills, or about $2.1 million, to partially reduce the school district’s nearly $8 million deficit for fiscal year 2019-2020.

Currently, one mill in the county equates to roughly $270,000 in property tax. However, that total might soon change since the county is in a reassessment year.

Broken down, the particular tax increase equates to $93.60 more on a $200,000 rental property bill. However, homeowners will not feel the effects—just countywide rental properties and businesses. Act 388 prevents the state from collecting taxes on owner-occupied homes for school operating expenses.

Aside from the tax increase, next year’s fiscal year budget will also allow the county to fund an additional school resource officer at Givhans Alternative Program—bringing the total SRO count there to two—and expand the mental health programs at multiple Dorchester Two schools.

The county’s base budget, again separate from the tax increase, will also cover certain state mandates, including a 4-percent raise for all teachers and a 1-percent increase in state retirement benefits.

While Dorchester Two said council didn’t approve enough property tax revenue to raise the school district’s base teacher salary from $35,000 to $40,000, like school officials had hoped, wages could still see a slight increase, according to district CFO Allyson Duke. “They took our presentation and basically came up with a list of things they thought they’d be able to fund,” she said of the county.

Another possibility is to use the funding to hire additional staff for classrooms, including at least six new positions, Duke said. Exactly how the school district will utilize the extra money, however, will be further discussed at the school board’s June 24 meeting.

The county was legally allowed to grant the district nearly 23 mills, or $5.9 million, though the school district needed about 30 mills to cover its entire shortfall. Since fiscal year 2007, Dorchester Two has lost out on more than $200 million in funding for student-related expenses and another $84 million from Act 388, Duke said.

Last year the school district received no added millage; in 2017 council granted them 3.6 mills, or about $872,000 in tax revenue.

The school district’s dire funding need prompted Councilman Jay Byars to try to convince the council to approve a higher funding amount than 7.8 mills. During discussion on the specific budget amendment, he said he thought Dorchester Two was being “crushed,” and that other school districts across the state continuously receive more funding and better resources.

Dorchester Two is currently ranked second from the bottom in state funding for school districts, Duke said. The district’s proposed budget for next year is about $217.4 million.

Split over fire funding

Council members also approved—though not by unanimous vote—to levy taxes by 2.4 mills, or about $696,000, for the fire fund, which is just under $7 million for FY2020, the county said.

The additional county revenue will cover the costs of nine new Dorchester County Fire and Rescue employees. They include three captains, three engineers and three firefighters.

The fire fund increase equates to an additional $19.20 in property tax on a $200,000 owner-occupied home and $28.88 more on rental properties and businesses valued at $200,000, the county said.

The 4-3 vote—with Councilmen Bill Hearn, Eddie Crosby and Byars opposed—occurred after fiery deliberation among members of the governing body. Byars explained that he thought the topic was too premature to vote on and needed more discussion and vetting. “I just don’t think we’ve looked at this (issue) carefully enough,” he said.

Byars also suggested that the towns of St. George and Harleyville—both of which he said haven’t individually levied taxes more than once in the last decade—should contribute more of their municipalities’ tax bases to the county fire department, especially since the added personnel will be staffing those areas, along with Ridgeville. “We’re doing the job of municipalities on a countywide level,” Byars said.

In 2013, the county opted to merge all rural fire departments in unincorporated areas in order to create one large county agency.

In response, Council Vice Chair David Chinnis passionately voiced why he thought it necessary to fund the extra positions and ensure enough firefighters were not helping each other but also serving the public on the county’s western end. “I’m not going to put a fireman’s life in jeopardy,” Chinnis said.

Councilman Larry Hargett said he voted in favor of the tax increase for more personnel because he thought it could help lower the county agency’s ISO rating from a 4 to a 3. In the fire industry, the lower the ISO rating, the better.

Unlike the tax increase for the school district, homeowners will feel the tax burden associated with the fire fund increase, along with an additional 0.2 mills, or $122,600, the council approved as a budget amendment to fund various outside agencies and a Codes Enforcement Officer in the Planning and Zoning Department.

The FY2019-20 county budget includes a $59.4 million general fund. With the budget ordinance, council also passed the following amendments:

  • Increase charges for services revenues in the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office and personnel line items to reflect the contractual amounts for FY2020 for a school security officer at Pinewood Prep and an additional SRO at Williams Memorial Elementary in Dorchester District Four—along with the
  • Increase various operating line items to cover the increased cost of the SRO program.
  • Increase direct assistance line items to provide $80,000 for Tri-County Link and Tri-County Cradle to Career.

The county’s new budget year starts July 1.

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