The county is one of the oldest forms of local government in the United States. Early settlers from England brought the tradition of county government to America. Today, well over 3,000 county governments provide services that affect almost every citizen's life. Only Connecticut and Rhode Island do not feature some form of county government.
Traditionally, America's counties perform two types of functions — those which the state requires them to perform, and those which it permits but does not require them to perform. The traditional state-mandated functions, such as maintaining tax records, a jail and courts, and paving roads are being replaced by more municipal type services such as recreation and parks, utilities, housing and zoning. County governments have assumed greater service responsibility as suburbs have grown, and service demands, and have expanded well beyond traditional state-mandated services.
South Carolina's 46 counties are very representative of how county government has evolved nationally. The county unit in South Carolina was traditionally regarded as a local extension or branch of the state government. As such, county responsibilities and authority were restricted to a few basic activities, such as maintaining roads and bridges, keeping public documents and records, enforcing the law and administering certain state programs. This traditional view of county services was true in South Carolina until Article VIII of the State Constitution was amended and the General Assembly passed the Local Government Law (also known as the Home Rule Act) in 1975. The Home Rule Act greatly expanded former county authority and changed the nature of county organization and administration.
The Home Rule Act created more county service opportunities, provided more freedom concerning local policy decisions, and changed the way county government is organized and administered.
Legally, the county is a creation of state government. The state may create, alter, or even abolish its county governments under powers granted to the state by the South Carolina Constitution. Counties have only those powers and duties authorized by the laws which affect all counties, or by specific statutes that affect individual counties. There are no sovereign county governments in South Carolina.
The Home Rule Act reflected the General Assembly's new view toward counties. Counties are now being recognized as not only extensions of state government at the local level, but rather as units of government that can be significant service providers on their own (given adequate authority).
The pressures of population growth and economic development in many South Carolina counties have produced service demands that, prior to the Home Rule Act, counties could not possibly meet. People in these developing suburban areas had high service expectations, especially for such non-traditional county services as water and sewer provision.
The 1975 Home Rule Act was the General Assembly's response to the forces acting on county government in South Carolina.
The Home Rule Act provided for five different forms of county government. One of the five, the commission form, lasted only a short time. It was adopted by one county but was subsequently found to be unconstitutional (Duncan v. County of York, 267 SC 327, 228 SE2d 92 (1976)), as it was not consistent with the state's constitutional prohibition against special laws for local governments. The four remaining forms are:
Under the 1975 legislation each South Carolina county was required to select one of the available forms by holding a county referendum. If no referendum were held, the form closest to the form already being used was adopted. Twenty-five (25) of the state's 46 counties held referendums.
Beaufort County operates under the Council-Administrator form of government. Under this form of government, the Council may hire a professional administrator to carry out Council policy. The Council has the power to dismiss the appointed administrator, although it cannot dismiss employees hired by the administrator. Under this form of government, the County Treasurer and County Auditor are elected officials.
1 Understanding South Carolina Government: A Student's Guide, (Bureau of Governmental Research and Service, University of South Carolina, May 1986), pages 1-2.