County governments in South Carolina are general purpose units of local government. Counties are legally authorized to perform a wide array of governmental services and to act, along with city governments, as the basic units of local government organization in the state.
Legally the county is a creature 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 statues that affect individual counties. There are no sovereign county governments in South Carolina.
The Local Government Law reflected the General Assembly's new view toward counties. This was shaped by a number of trends and forces. Nationwide, there has been a trend toward county government modernization, with an emphasis on local decision-making and local control of services. This trend has stressed local responsibility and self-governance. A second trend has been toward some version of professional county administration and away from the old commission form of government. 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). Finally, 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 Local Government Law was the General Assembly's response to forces acting on county government in South Carolina.
The Local Government Law 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 SE 2d 92, 1976) since it was not consistent with the state's constitutional prohibition against special laws for local governments. The four remaining forms were: Council form; Council-Supervisor form; Council-Administrator form; and Council-Manager form.
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 of the state's 46 counties held referendums. (Two counties, Anderson and Chester, changed their form of government following their initial selections.)
The only real differences in the four available forms are structural. Under the council form, all legislative and executive power is held by county council. The position of administrator is not specified, although the council may hire an administrator if it desires. The other three forms explicitly separate the legislative and executive functions. Under the council-supervisor form, the county supervisor is popularly elected as a separate county officer. He or she chairs the council, although the supervisor votes only to break tie votes. The supervisor is the county's chief administrator officer and therefore supervises county departments, hires and fires county employees, prepares the budget, and carries out the policy directions of county council. The council cannot remove the elected supervisor, and can remove employees under the supervisor's control only by a two-thirds vote.
The council-administrator and council-manager forms are very similar. In both forms, the council may hire a professional manager or administrator to carry out council policy. The hired administrator has powers very similar to the elected supervisor in the council-supervisor form. However, a major difference is the council's power to dismiss the appointed manager or administrator, although it cannot dismiss employees hired by the administrator or manager.
The major difference between the council-administrator and council-manager forms concerns the status of two popularly elected county officials under each form. Under the council-manager form, the positions of County Treasurer and County Auditor may be made appointive rather than elective. The county manager, rather than county voters, would control the two positions if they were made appointive. York County, the only South Carolina County featuring the council-manager form of government, made the two positions appointive in 1979.
The four forms of county government available under the 1975 Local Government Law are illustrated in Figure 1.
County council, under the Local Government Law, has no direct control over employees hired by independently elected county officials. (These employees are labeled "constitutional and statutory officers" in Figure 1) These officials actually function as elected department heads within the county government organization. The primary position involved are that of Sheriff, Treasurer (except York County), Auditor (except York County), and Clerk of Court. Other elected officials traditionally found in county government include the positions of Probate Judge, Solicitor, Magistrate and Coroner.
Most South Carolina counties have a number of boards and commissions, such as boards of voter registration, election commissions, and planning commissions, that date from the days when the local state legislative delegation directed county government. These boards and commissions reflect the idea that counties were merely extensions of state government which prevailed prior to the Local Government Law. Traditionally, the county legislative delegation appointed members to such bodies. Under the Local Government Law, each county council is given the responsibility to: "establish such boards and commissions as may be necessary and to prescribe the functions thereof and to regulate, modify, merge, or abolish such boards or commissions, except for public service districts, or water and sewer authorities." This authority extends to all boards and commissions created by local (special) state legislation, but not to those created by general law.