If local towns and cities had to pay the full cost of the construction and maintenance of roads within their borders, would they think twice about annexing portions of unincorporated Beaufort County?
County administration leaders think a recent opinion from the S.C. Attorney General’s office may result in those sort of second thoughts from municipal officials and property owners.
The opinion, authored last month by Assistant Attorney General Elinor Lister, says “that (the) municipality, and not the county, is responsible for the maintenance and repair of roads located inside its corporate limits.”
It is “irrelevant what political subdivision built or traditionally maintained the streets,” according to the opinion.
Beaufort County attorney Tom Keaveny says the opinion makes clear that even if the county paid for the construction of a road, a municipality would be responsible for maintaining it should municipal leaders annex the roadway into a town or city.
If you annex the area, now you have to take care of the roads and the services.
Beaufort County administrator Gary Kubic
Unlike a court decision, an attorney general’s opinion isn’t legally binding. However, the opinions are used “to resolve questions of law as the author believes a court would decide the issue,” according to S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s website.
County administrator Gary Kubic said the opinion may have a chilling effect on “opportunistic annexations,” in which municipalities absorb property — often commercial areas — “for the purpose of tax generation,” with little regard for the cost of services such as road maintenance.
“Currently, there is really no downside for municipalities to annex,” he said. “... A municipality can annex and not have any of the responsibilities that ought to come with it.”
“Everyone claims they are independent of the county until they get into budget and financial issues,” he said. “Then (municipalities) look to the county for help.”
Deputy county administrator Josh Gruber said the attorney general’s opinion does not preclude the county from entering into agreements with municipalities to provide some level of support for roadway maintenance. He cited such a pact with the Town of Bluffton for maintenance of Bluffton Parkway as one such existing agreement.
Were there to be a dispute with a municipality in the future, Kubic said he hopes the opinion from the attorney general’s office would “help avoid going into litigation” and encourage municipal leaders to accept that “if you annex the area, now you have to take care of the roads and the services.”
If municipalities shoulder more of the load for paying for transportation infrastructure projects, they may be forced to raise taxes, Kubic said. If taxes were to be higher in municipalities, property owners may opt to remain in unincorporated Beaufort County rather than petition for annexation into a town or city.
The annexation process has been a sore spot of late for county leaders, who have complained about being left in the dark about a plan by the Town of Hilton Head to absorb Bay Point Island, a piece of unincorporated county land near the tip of St. Helena Island.
Whether the attorney general’s opinion will have any effect on the town’s move to annex the island for the purposes of accommodating construction of a new resort is unclear, county leaders say.
“We don’t quite know the actual impacts (of the opinion as it relates to Bay Point), because we are still digesting and processing it,” Gruber said.