GREENVILLE, SC (FOX Carolina) – The South Carolina Supreme Court has decided two measures imposed by Greenville County Council for road maintenance and upgrading public safety telecommunications are unconstitutional.
The Council enacted the two ordinances in 2017.
The road maintenance fee charged car owners $25 a year to the Greenville County Tax Collector. That fee was originally $15 in 1993 but was increased because the $15 fee was “insufficient to keep up with increased costs of maintenance,” according to the Greenville County Council.
The telecommunications fee was enacted “for the lease, purchase or maintenance of County-wide public safety telecommunications network infrastructure and network components” and relative costs. The ordinance requires that every owner of property in Greenville County to pay $14.95 a year for 10 years to the Greenville County Tax Collector.
The Council said this fee was imposed to “move all county-wide public safety telecommunications to a single network platform” and to “promote the safety of life and property in Greenville County by providing much needed modernization of current public safety telecommunications infrastructure.”
State representatives Mike Burns, Gary Smith and Dwight Loftis from Greenville County challenged the ordinances in several areas, including their claim that the ordinances impose a tax and not a permissible fee.
The Court then decided that neither ordinance imposes a value-based property tax and said that the South Carolina General Assembly hasn’t authorized Greenville County to impose any other new taxes.
The Court said this means that unless the charges in the ordinance are “uniform service charges” or a “service or user fee,” the charges are invalid under state law.
The Court also cited a 1992 ruling called Brown v. City of Horry, which states:
• Under Brown, a fee is valid as a uniform service charge if the revenue generated is used to the benefit of the payers, even if the general public also benefits, the revenue generated is used only for the specific improvement contemplated, the revenue generated by the fee does not exceed the cost of the improvement and the fee is uniformly imposed on all the payers.
Greenville County argued that the road maintenance fee meets the requirement of a “government service program… that benefits the payer in some manner different from the members of the general public” because “the funds collected are ‘specifically allocated for road maintenance,” which the Court approved in the Brown case.
However, the Court said the fact that the funds are allocated for road maintenance doesn’t mean drivers who pay the fee benefit anything by paying that fee.
Greenville County also argued that the telecommunications fee would “enhance real property values.”
However, the Court said when the County enacted the ordinance, it didn’t address the question if whether an improved telecommunications system enhances property vales and that the County only provided speculative evidence that it would enhance the property values.
The Court then concluded the two different fees are taxes. They also went on to say state law doesn’t allow local government from “imposing taxes unless they are value-based property taxes or are specifically authorized by the general assembly.”
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