UNION COUNTY — The State of South Carolina is being asked to provide “literally life-changing support” to 23 rural counties including Union County by establishing a “Rural County Transformation Fund.”
In its December meeting this past Tuesday, Union County Council voted unanimously to approve a resolution endorsing and supporting approval of the Rural County Transformation Fund by the South Carolina General Assembly.”
The resolution points out that while some of South Carolina’s 46 counties “are doing well in terms of increasing population and associated tax base,” other counties “are not growing, or having declining populations, resulting in a flat or declining tax base, putting many of the small counties in the State in a perilous financial situation, as their operational costs are increasing, yet revenues are flat or declining.”
To address this problem, the resolution states that Union County is asking the State of South Carolina to establish the Rural County Transformation Fund “as a viable means of providing literally life-changing support to the rural counties of South Carolina.”
The proposed Rural County Transformation fund was presented to council in October by Supervisor Frank Hart who said the fund would provide state assistance to Union County and 22 other counties including Cherokee and Newberry counties. The proposal, subtitled “A Path To Growth,” would address the problems Hart said these counties are facing due to flat or declining population growth. Those problems include:
• Decreased enrollment in county schools which Hart said in turn leads to decreased funding for those schools. Hart pointed to a report by the Union County School District’s Technology Department that enrollment in the school district will decline by 37 students a year over the next five years as a sign of the impact of the decline in the county’s population.
• A flat or declining tax base which in turn forces counties to increase taxes to support public services such as law enforcement, fire protection, and maintenance of local infrastructure including roads and bridges.
• A struggling local small business economy which has to deal with a declining customer base.
• Limited workforce availability to support industrial growth. While the county has been successful in attracting new industry and in fostering the expansion of existing industry, Hart said its ability to do so could be threatened by a lack of a workforce sufficient to meet the needs of new and/or expanding industries.
Hart contrasted the performance the state as a whole with that of its rural counties like Union County. He pointed out that, as of July 2016, unemployment in the state had fallen to 5.2 percent. Hart said that the SC Department of Commerce reported that in 2015 the state as a whole attracted $4.2 billion in new and expanding industrial investment which created 17,000 new jobs. He said that from 2000-2015, South Carolina’s population grew by 22 percent to more than 4.8 million.
By contrast, Hart said that South Carolina’s 23 smallest counties which he said are those with a population of less than 60,000, experienced a combined population growth of 0.08 percent between 2000-2015. He described these counties as “operating in a pre-recovery mode” which he said includes “declining fund balances” and “struggling to cover rising operating costs” such as “utilities, insurance, retirement contributions, capital improvements, and repairs.”
Hart said a possible solution to this is the creation of a “Rural County Transformation Fund” which he said would provide funding to address barriers to growth in areas including, but not limited to, quality of life, blight, infrastructure, housing, and educational facilities.
Counties would be eligible for the program if they had populations of less than $60,000 and would receive funding based on the SC Department of Commerce’s “Tiered Rating” system which ranks counties on a scale of 1-4 based on a county’s per capita income and unemployment rate.
Hart said that eligible counties would receive between $300,000 and $1 million a year with Tier I and II counties receiving $300,000 a year; Tier III counties receiving $900,000 a year; and Tier IV counties receiving $1 million a year.
With a population of 28,961 and a SC Department of Commerce Tier IV rating, Hart said Union County would receive $1 million a year for five years for a total of $5 million through the fund.
As a Tier III county, Hart said Cherokee County would receive $900,000 a year or $4.5 million over five years.
Newberry County, which is a Tier II county, would receive $300,000 a year for a total of $1.5 million.
Hart said the total annual cost of the program would be $19.5 million and would be funded each year through a proviso in the state budget which the legislature would have to approve each year and subject to the availability of the necessary revenue.
In announcing the proposal for a Rural County Transformation Fund, Hart said he had turned it over to SC House District 42 Rep. Mike Anthony, chairman of the Union County Legislative Delegation and a member of SC House Ways and Means Committee, for submission to and consideration by the state legislature.
Anthony in turn said he had taken it to both the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and to the Speaker of the SC House of Representatives. He said the chairman had asked him to let them discuss the proposal and decide whether to fund it as a yearly proviso for file it as a bill for recurring funding.
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Charles Warner can be reached at 864-762-4090.