Local government

Local government in South Carolina consists of general-purpose governments and special-purpose governments. Counties and municipalities comprise the general-purpose governments. Special-purpose governments in South Carolina include school districts and special-purpose districts.

Local government in South Carolina consists of general-purpose governments and special-purpose governments. Counties and municipalities comprise the general-purpose governments. Special-purpose governments in South Carolina include school districts and special-purpose districts.

Municipalities and counties are political subdivisions of the state. The state constitution and statutes specify the basic governance structure and the general powers, duties, and authorities of counties and municipalities. The most notable piece of legislation defining their structure and authority is the Local Government Act of 1975. Each county in South Carolina operates under one of four forms of government: council, council-supervisor, council-administrator, or council-manager. Municipalities have three options: the council (weak mayor), mayor-council (strong mayor), or council-manager form. The major difference between these forms of local government is where administrative/executive authority lies. In other words, the authority resides either with the council or with an elected official, such as the mayor or county supervisor, or with an appointed manager or administrator.

The constitution and state statutes grant counties and municipalities the authority to exercise broad “police powers.” These powers allow them to legislate for the purpose of regulating public health, safety, welfare, morals, and abatements of nuisances, so long as such regulations do not contradict the constitutional and statutory rights of citizens and general state law. The constitution and state statutes also grant counties and municipalities significant and broad latitude and authority to provide services based on the needs and expectations of their citizens. The majority of governmental services that affect the day-to-day lives of citizens are provided by general-purpose local governments–for example, fire and police protection, emergency medical services, infrastructure (water, sewer, drainage, streets, and sidewalks, for instance), parks and recreation, and cultural activities. The notable exception is public education, which is provided at the local government level by the school districts. County and municipal governments in South Carolina employ in excess of thirty thousand citizens to deliver these services.

The ability of counties and municipalities to respond effectively to these demands for services is tempered by the fact that the General Assembly has not extended true “fiscal” home rule to them. This means that counties and municipalities cannot impose taxes that they are not specifically authorized to levy by general state law. This was most recently affirmed by the Fiscal Authority Act (1997), in which the General Assembly stated that a “local governmental body may not impose a new tax after December 31, 1996, unless specifically authorized by the General Assembly.” The General Assembly also defined the sources of revenue available to counties and municipalities.

Special-purpose districts usually supply one or a few services that general governments could not or would not provide. They possess significant administrative and fiscal independence from the general-purpose local governments and are separate legal entities. Special-purpose districts were created before implementation of “home rule” by special acts of the General Assembly and were created to respond to demands for services that the counties could not constitutionally or statutorily provide. The Local Government Act prohibits the creation of single-county districts. The services provided by special-purpose districts vary greatly but include, for example, water and sewer services, flood control, recreation, fire services, airports, and zoos. Special-purpose districts are governed by boards and commissions, some elected and some appointed. Special-purpose districts typically are funded through fees and charges for the services they provide, but many do have taxing powers granted in the legislation creating them.

School districts are also special-purpose districts. The eighty-five school districts in South Carolina have the responsibility for providing K–12 public education. The number of students varies greatly from district to district, ranging from more than 57,000 students to less than 500. Each of the school districts has a school board that makes local decisions. The large majority of these school boards are elected, although some are appointed. However, many of the decisions governing the operation of public schools are made by either the legislature or the South Carolina Department of Education. The federal government also mandates certain actions and programs as a condition of receiving federal dollars. Schools are funded primarily through a mix of state and local funding. Some targeted federal dollars also are added to the mix. The fiscal authority of school boards to set the budget varies from total independence to significant limitations imposed on the district in its enabling legislation.

Tyer, Charlie B., ed. South Carolina Government: An Introduction. Columbia: Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, University of South Carolina, 2002.

Tyer, Charlie B., and Cole Blease Graham, Jr., eds. Local Government in South Carolina. 2 vols. Columbia: Bureau of Governmental Research and Service, University of South Carolina, 1984.

School districts are also special-purpose districts. The eighty-five school districts in South Carolina have the responsibility for providing K–12 public education. The number of students varies greatly from district to district, ranging from more than 57,000 students to less than 500. Each of the school districts has a school board that makes local decisions. The large majority of these school boards are elected, although some are appointed. However, many of the decisions governing the operation of public schools are made by either the legislature or the South Carolina Department of Education. The federal government also mandates certain actions and programs as a condition of receiving federal dollars. Schools are funded primarily through a mix of state and local funding. Some targeted federal dollars also are added to the mix. The fiscal authority of school boards to set the budget varies from total independence to significant limitations imposed on the district in its enabling legislation.

Tyer, Charlie B., ed. South Carolina Government: An Introduction. Columbia: Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, University of South Carolina, 2002.

 

Tyer, Charlie B., and Cole Blease Graham, Jr., eds. Local Government in South Carolina. 2 vols. Columbia: Bureau of Governmental Research and Service, University of South Carolina, 1984.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Local government
  • Author
  • Keywords Municipalities and counties are political subdivisions of the state, Local Government Act of 1975, Each county in South Carolina operates under one of four forms of government: council, council-supervisor, council-administrator, or council-manager, Municipalities have three options: the council (weak mayor), mayor-council (strong mayor), or council-manager form, constitution and state statutes grant counties and municipalities the authority to exercise broad “police powers.”, Fiscal Authority Act (1997), Local Government Act prohibits the creation of single-county districts,
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date June 18, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 9, 2022
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