Judge rules Jasper school board doesn't have power to set taxes

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comSeptember 26, 2013 

The Jasper County Board of Education does not have the power to levy taxes or set tax rates -- that authority lies with Jasper County Council -- a circuit judge ruled Wednesday.

The board sued to restore funding July 15 after the council in June cut property taxes for schools by about $444,000 for the 2014 fiscal year. The board said council overstepped its bounds and does not have the power to change the budget.

But the council disagreed, and so did Judge Carmen Mullen.

"Jasper County Council has been delegated the power to make appropriations and to levy taxes for the Jasper County School District annual operating budget," Mullen said in her order.

Tax bills -- which had been held until the court ruled -- will now go out with the 166-mill tax rate set by council. At this rate, the bill for an owner-occupied home with a taxable value of $150,000 would pay $996 in property taxes, about $36 less than the school board proposed.

The Board of Education had 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.

At a Sept. 19 hearing before Mullen, William Halligan, who represents the school board, and Marvin Jones, who represents the council, both argued their clients had the authority to determine the school district's budget.

Halligan argued that the school board must develop, revise and approve 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. But that does not give council the power to change the budget, Halligan argued.

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.

"In 1975, when Jasper County determined their form of government, at that time County Council had that power to set taxes and the school board did not," Jones said. "It's really as simple as that."

In her decision, Mullen agreed and said the state and local laws have never given the school board any power to levy taxes -- a power that cannot be implied.

Halligan said the board is grateful Mullen made a quick decision -- she received proposed orders from each attorney Tuesday -- but it might appeal nonetheless. He said the board must decide within 30 days and should do so by the its next meeting on Oct. 14.

"Of course we're disappointed, and we still think our grounds are very sound," Halligan said.

School board Chairwoman Berty Riley could not be reached, but the district released a statement expressing disappointment with the result.

Council Chairman Henry Etheridge said he had not had the chance to read the order and could not comment.

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.

School board fiscal autonomy has long been a point of contention. The issue was discussed in Beaufort County -- where County Council also sets tax rates for the school district's budget -- as recently as last year.

County administrator Gary Kubic said he followed the Jasper County suit and thinks Mullen's ruling is correct based on the current statutes. However, he said he does not agree with those statutes. He said the county and state should consider granting school boards fiscal autonomy.

"I just feel more in tune with allowing the voters to give more authority to the school boards," Kubic said. "Because when you think about it, they literally manage the schools for about 11 months and then there are these six weeks we deal with the budget, but they do everything except the millage setting."

Document: The order

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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