County Council to consider new costlier referendums for parks, libraries

Monday night’s Dorchester County Council meeting may seem like a case of déjà vu for the governing body as members again consider asking taxpayers to fund new county parks and libraries—this time around, the ballot containing two separate referendums instead of one.

County residents approved, by a 60 percent vote, a $43 bond referendum in 2016; but earlier this year the State Supreme Court deemed the referendum illegal because it combined two issues into one question. According to the ruling, justices said they thought the question might have confused or swayed some residents, who preferred one issue over another, to still vote in favor of the referendum.

A lawsuit, based on a S.C. Attorney General's Office opinion, was filed against the county in October 2016, a month before the election. Dorchester County Taxpayers Association, the S.C. Public Interest Foundation and a handful of taxpayers filed the suit. Mike Rose, attorney for the DCTA, and Charleston-based lawyer Andrew Gowder represented the plaintiffs.

While county officials said prior to approving the 2016 referendum, multiple attorneys advised the council they were conducting the process legally, the state’s highest court deemed otherwise. The lawsuit reached the Supreme Court in October 2018, but the issue fell silent until the ruling this past May.

Plaintiffs appealed the case to the Supreme Court in spring 2018, shortly after a judge in the lower courts denied the parties' motion to reconsider a dismissal. Because the Supreme Court's ruling reversed the circuit court's decision, some county officials were shocked to learn the news, but at the time told the Journal they were ready to move ahead with a new plan.

“Two plus years of wasted time in the court system with two completely different rulings," Councilman Jay Byars said. "The judicial process has been disappointing to put it nicely, but we will make lemonade out of lemons and get new questions in front of voters very soon.”

As the council now works toward a new approach to fund parks and libraries, members on Monday will review first reading of two different ordinances. Each one proposes issuing $30 million in general obligation bonds. Should the council pass the ordinances, in November county residents will vote on each one separately and again decide if they want to be on the hook for paying the bonds.

The 2016 referendum provided $13 million for trail enhancements and three new county parks—Ashley River and Pine Trace parks, both near Summerville, and the Courthouse Park in St. George. The remaining $30 million was to help construct two new county libraries—one in North Charleston and one in Summerville.

However, council members said the new need for additional obligation bonds is due to rising construction costs the last three years, while the lawsuit was tied up in the courts, and the decision to utilize the referendums to fund more future parks—and possibly more library facilities.

County officials said they’re still considering a North Charleston library branch and one near the Oakbrook area or downtown Summerville, along with a possible smaller branch in Ridgeville—though no plans are set in stone right now.

County Council is set to convene for a special-called meeting at 4 p.m. in Council Chambers in Summerville. However, members will discuss the referendums after executive session during the regularly-scheduled meeting at 6 p.m. According to the agenda, members will receive legal advice on the matter.

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