Beaufort News

County Council ends retreat with discussions on redistricting, school budget battles

Beaufort County Council wrapped up a three-day annual retreat Saturday by discussing redistricting, choosing a new meeting format and debating what to do about yearly budgetary fights with the school board.

Last year's skirmish with the Beaufort County Board of Education came after county council rejected its request to raise taxes on non-resident homes and commercial and personal properties by about 2 percent to fund the 2010-11 operating budget. The board then requested an opinion from the S.C. Attorney General to clarify council's authority over the district's budget.

"They're going to ask for an increase every year. It's just the nature of the beast," said Councilman Rick Caporale. "The notion that because the mission is noble, everyone should be willing to contribute to it, has some merit. But not enough in times like these. There are the worst economic times in my life."

The county's own budget troubles have been at the top of the retreat's agenda.

Members spent much of the first two days discussing financial challenges once property values are reassessed in 2012. The fair market value of the county's property tax base has fallen from about $45 billion in 2007 to about $37 billion today.

Caporale said he wouldn't vote for a tax increase for the school district "until things get better," perhaps in three or four years.

"It's not going to break my heart if some teachers have to be laid off," he said. "I've lost two jobs in the last six years, OK? Nobody's crying for me."

Councilman Bill McBride, who voted for the tax hike last year, disagreed.

"I'm a firm believer that school boards and law enforcement never have enough money to do what they need to do," he said.

Councilman Stu Rodman said it might help if voters reaffirmed county council's fiscal authority.

"They don't want to have to come to the county council to approve their operating budget," he said of the school board. "I think it's going to be a continuing thing unless we take it back to the voters, and have another referendum -- and let the voters decide whether they want county council or the school board to be the final body to levy the taxes."

Any decision would ultimately be up to state legislators.

State legislators "have traditionally asked for a referendum only to get a direction -- to test the wind, basically, of the county," said Councilman Brian Flewelling.

Caporale said in an interview after the event that when voters were last asked to weigh in on the topic -- more than 20 years ago -- they strongly opposed fiscal autonomy for the school board.

In fact, that vote was more than two-to-one against the change, Island Packet archives show.

After council cut $825,000 from the school board's 1987-88 budget, board members pushed for a referendum, hoping to avoid future fights. But voters didn't bite. A total of 6,403 -- or 67 percent -- voted "no" to fiscal autonomy while 3,215 -- 33 percent -- voted "yes."

On Hilton Head, just two of 15 precincts voted in favor of the referendum.

In Beaufort, just three of 21 did.

In other action:

  • Council discussed the upcoming redistricting effort and decided that a 7-person committee will create three options for new district lines. The full council will then vote on a final selection.
  • Chairman Weston Newton said the biggest challenge will likely be drawing new lines that allow for minority representation since minorities make up a smaller share of the population.

    Districts in South Carolina must be cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice, which checks them for compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act.

    If council cannot agree on a plan, Newton said, the federal government will draw districts for it and will send the county a bill.

  • Council members also agreed to a new meeting format, although implementing it will likely require a future vote.
  • Under the proposed change, county council business meetings, which currently begin at 4 p.m. every other Monday, would be moved to 5 p.m.

    Council members would meet at 4 p.m. for a "council caucus" -- an informal meeting, probably in a conference room -- to bring up ideas and debate issues. Such a meeting would mimic the format of the annual retreat and be open to the public.

    "This mechanism we have right now, we're having a lot better conversation than we would be on a dais in front," said Councilman Jerry Stewart said.

    Council members hope the sessions will increase information flow.

    "Somehow, we need better internal communication," said Councilman Steve Baer.