During his several years as solicitor for Georgetown and Horry counties, Greg Hembree was drawn in by municipal officials to “help fix my town.” Now a state senator, Hembree has proposed legislation that adds to South Carolina law “Plan B to address struggling municipalities.”
The Joint Legislative Committee on Municipal Incorporation determines if an area seeking municipal incorporation meets the state’s minimum service standards. If governance fails, “What do you do? This statute sets out a Plan B,” Hembree says. The state “lets [municipalities] get born, but has no way to mend them up when they’re sick or bury them when they’re dead.” Hembree’s bill (S. 163) is pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Kevin Johnson, a former mayor of Manning, requested that S. 163 be carried over from the Judiciary Committee’s meeting March 22. The Senate was on break this past week.
Hembree anticipates that the committee will report favorably on Tuesday, advancing the bill to the full Senate for debate. Hembree says he is “reasonably optimistic” about Senate passage, in time to move the bill to the House by the May 1 deadline. The House works faster than the Senate, Hembree notes, so “there is time to get it done this year.” He has conferred with Gov. Nikki Haley’s staff and “they favor the concept.”
In the Senate, “no one has come to me and expressed opposition,” although he’s realistic that there might be questions from senators not familiar with the bill and the problem it addresses. However, half of the 46 senators are on the Judiciary Committee, one of two primary Senate committees with Finance.
“I’ve been working on this for three years,” Hembree says. An earlier version died in a House committee. “This is a much improved version,” including many suggestions from the Municipal Association of South Carolina and legislators such as Johnson. MASC is currently opposed to the bill. The proposed change has two triggers for a review of municipal charters. When the U.S. Census shows less than 150 inhabitants, the municipality must apply “for the continuance of the municipality’s certificate of incorporation.”
Some elected officials have complained about the post-Census (every ten years) report required, but Hembree says “It’s a pretty light requirement,” with all required information being “readily available from required audits and budgets ... if you’re doing all the requirements.” Regardless of population, S. 163 allows a county legislative delegation to trigger a review, on a two-thirds vote of the delegation, which Hembree calls “a super, super majority.” A delegation must have a written statement outlining a failure to provide required services, so it “can’t be done on whim or for political revenge.”
Hembree asked Senate Judiciary staff to check Supreme Court rulings on county legislative delegations and “they could not find any constitutional problems.” Still, it seems like another questionable power grab by legislators, even though he notes that legislative delegations could only ask for a review, not do it. That would be up to the Secretary of State and the Joint Legislative Committee on Municipal Incorporation.
The bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee provides reasonable avenues for review of municipal incorporation when municipal services fall below established standards. It deserves legislative and gubernatorial consideration with perhaps more thought on whether the cutoff should be 150 residents, and other means for residents to seek review of failing towns rather than depending on the legislative delegation.
In South Carolina, like other states, municipalities are subdivisions or creatures of the state.
S.C. municipalities (270 total) are either cities or towns, according to the wishes of the place at the time of incorporation.
There’s no difference in the state law relating to governance, according to Tiger Wells of the Municipal Association of South Carolina.
The minimum population required for initial incorporation is 300 per square mile. This was established in 2005. About 33 municipalities have under 150 inhabitants.