Jasper council, school board duel in court over tax power

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comSeptember 19, 2013 

Jasper County Attorney Marvin Jones argues before a Beaufort County judge that Jasper County Council has the authority to establish and levy taxes. William Halligan, sitting, argues on behalf of the Jasper County School Board that they have the authority to determine the budget for the school district and the County Council should not have been able to cut property taxes for school funding.

STAFF PHOTO

After a hearing Thursday, the Jasper County Board of Education and County Council are a step closer to a ruling on who has authority to determine the school district's budget.

The board sued on July 15 to restore funding after the council cut property taxes for schools by about $444,000 in June.

The board says council overstepped its bounds and does not have the power to change the budget.

Council disagrees.

Attorneys for both sides argued their cases in front of Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen on Thursday in the Beaufort County Courthouse, citing many of the same laws and statutes but offering different interpretations.

Mullen has given the attorneys until the end of Tuesday to file proposed orders on how they believe she should rule.

While there is no set date for that decision, both William Halligan, who represents the school board, and Marvin Jones, who represents the council, think she won't take long.

All involved understand that property-tax bills should not be delayed, Halligan said.

"All sides want the tax bills out soon," he said. "Of course, we want them to go out with the millage we set, but they need to go out either way."

The Board of Education approved a budget without a property-tax increase, but council voted to cut the tax rate from 172 to 166 mills, according to the suit.

The board has asked the court to prohibit council and the county auditor from imposing the tax levy, and it hopes Mullen will restore the lost funding for the current school year.

Halligan argued that the school board is tasked with developing, approving and revising a budget that is "sufficient to meet the educational needs of the county." The County Council, he said, has the authority to establish the method of how to achieve that budget -- through a tax levy.

That means the council can approve the budget or reject it, Halligan said, but it cannot override it.

"Determining what is necessary for funding is on the school board side, not the County Council side," Halligan said.

But Jones said that method eliminates any discretion on council's part, making it a "rubber stamp" in the budget process.

He said council has the authority to establish and levy taxes, power given to it by the state legislature 38 years ago. He added that until now, the school board has always accepted the council's authority to set tax rates.

"It is important to have a single body that can look over the needs of the county and determine what will be levied on the tax body for Jasper County," Jones said.

Council Chairman Henry Etheridge said Jones made sure council was within the law before it adjusted the tax rate.

"If (the school board) had the authority to set the mills, then they would not be up there fighting for fiscal autonomy," said Etheridge, who was at the hearing. "I think the judge will rule in our favor."

School board Chairwoman Berty Riley and other board members could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Of the 84 school districts in the state, Jones said there are 25 that do not have fiscal autonomy -- including the Jasper County School District. Beaufort County is also one of those districts. Another 29 have complete fiscal autonomy within state law, and 30 districts have limited autonomy in which they must get approval above a certain millage rate.

State Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Ridgeland, introduced a bill in February that would wrest taxing authority for school operations from the Jasper County Council and give it to the county school board. The bill stalled in the last Senate session.

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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