For more than 12 years, Greenville County Council has bound itself by a special rule of council regarding new taxes or fees: Any increase requires approval of a “supermajority” of nine out of 12 council members.
The rule hasn’t been much of an issue because there’s always been enough growth in the tax base to allow county government to expand year by year without increasing taxes.
Now, however, the rule — called the “Taxpayer Protection Provision” — is at the center of a lawsuit three council members have filed against the very council they sit on.
And some council members are wondering whether it’s time to drop the rule — a change that can be made with a simple majority of seven votes.
How much support there is for repealing the rule should become evident on Tuesday, when council is scheduled to vote on the question.
The dispute began with a proposal to impose two new fees.
One fee — a flat $14.95 a year on each parcel of real property — would raise money for a new telecommunications system for emergency personnel. County officials say the fee amount would drop once the upfront cost of four radio towers is paid for after five years, though they can’t say by exactly how much.
The other fee is a $10 increase in the existing road maintenance fee, which motorists pay each year when they renew their license plates and which has been set at $15 for the past 25 years.
The money generated by the road maintenance fee is used to resurface, widen or make other kinds of improvements to county roads.
County officials say they will also use it to meet a requirement for a local match if the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank accepts their request for $168 million in state money to pay for five major road projects, including one to relieve traffic congestion on Woodruff Road.
As council was voting on the new fees, County Attorney Mark Tollison called into question whether the supermajority rule applied, saying there was a state law that addressed local government fees and courts have held that state laws take precedence over local rules, according to council members.
Acting on Tollison’s advice, council approved the new fees at third reading on March 7 by a simple majority of seven votes.
Fee opponents cried foul.
They obtained a legal opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office that contradicted Tollison, finding that the council should have abided by the supermajority rule when voting on the fees.
After that, fee opponents went to County Council Chairman Butch Kirven in hopes of arranging another vote but didn’t get what they wanted.
So they sued.
County Council members who sued are Willis Meadows, Joe Dill, and Mike Barnes.
“None of this would have happened if the chairman had agreed to work the thing out with us,” Meadows said.
Kirven said it’s his duty as chairman to decide how the council should proceed when there’s a difference of opinion in what the law requires.
Tollison declined to comment.
Also suing Greenville County Council and Greenville County are Dill’s wife, Deirdra Dill, and state Reps. Mike Burns, Bill Chumley, Garry Smith and Dwight Loftis.
The plaintiffs contend the council should have abided by the supermajority rule when voting on the fees. They also give 14 reasons why the ordinance imposing the fees violates their constitutional right to due process and other constitutional rights.
They want the ordinance declared invalid and for the county to pay their attorney fees and court costs.
The plaintiffs are represented by Greenville attorney Robert Childs III, who used to be the county’s lawyer and now represents the City of Travelers Rest.
Meanwhile, Kirven is arranging another vote on the fees, this time putting each fee into a separate ordinance. He said council should vote Tuesday on a motion to refer the ordinances to its Committee of the Whole.
That committee is also scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to repeal the supermajority rule.
One councilman who’s begun to question that rule is Bob Taylor, a retired Bob Jones University administrator and former council chairman who had already been on council for three years when the rule was adopted in 2004 with his support.
Taylor said he’s never voted to raise taxes, and he doesn’t like the idea of making it easier to do so now.
But the two new fees are necessary for two of council’s most important duties, he said: protecting public safety and providing for infrastructure.
“We’re in a position now where I think it might be necessary” to jettison the supermajority rule, Taylor said.