Voters should decide fiscal autonomy question

The question about freeing the Beaufort County School District from Beaufort County Council financial oversight keeps coming up because we don't get an answer from the people who matter -- Beaufort County voters.

They were last asked in a referendum 24 years ago, and the answer was a resounding "no."

Beaufort County Councilman Stu Rodman can be relied on to bring it up even as he and the district disagree over the tax rate to be levied, the collection rate of those taxes and use of the district's reserves to balance the budget. He did so again last week.

Board of Education Chairman Fred Washington Jr. can be relied on to say the district isn't looking for fiscal autonomy even as he objects to the county's handling of the school district budget. He did so again last week. He did say it was a future objective.

This back and forth grows old. If County Council wants to know what voters think on this subject (and some members say they do), they could ask in November 2012, a presidential election sure to bring out large numbers of voters. Otherwise, let's drop the subject until the school district makes a formal request to be free of County Council oversight.

For its part, the district has asked the state Attorney General to weigh in on the county's authority over the district budget. The jumping off point for the July 2010 inquiry is that the county has no such authority.

Bryan Stirling, deputy attorney general, said in an email Thursday that the issue was still being researched.

Rodman said at the Sept. 19 council Finance Committee meeting that the current system gives taxpayers poor accountability because it splits authority over the district's budget. As it stands now, County Council sets the tax rate that determines the amount of property tax revenue going to the district. It has no say over the debt side of the district budget.

It is an example of the type of dual authority too often seen in government in South Carolina.

Rodman also said giving the board autonomy could do away with the perennial bickering between the two elected bodies.

That's probably true, but it's not a good reason for such a substantive change.

Washington says the two bodies should work on improving their relationship and resolving disagreements. We'd like to see them come to an agreement at least about the collection rate. The rate used to estimate how much money will come in should be the same for both entities given that property owners pay one tax bill, not two separate bills.

It also would be good to resolve the issue that prompted the inquiry to the attorney general: If County Council approves a dollar amount for school operations, is it obligated to set a tax rate that will bring in that amount?

State Sen. Tom Davis said the county's legislative delegation might discuss the issue. Assuming the County Council has statutory authority for its oversight, it would be up to lawmakers to make the change in the law to bring it about.

Let's see what the attorney general advises and go from there.