South Carolina's counties have the power to tax and spend for a wide variety of public purposes. However, even with the passage of the "home rule" legislation in 1975, counties do not enjoy full or true local power to impose new taxes. They can change only the level of existing taxes they are authorized to levy. Fiscally, counties remain creatures of state government and, with the exception of constitutionally mandated power, must look to the state for all powers and privileges.
Article VIII of the South Carolina Constitution was amended in 1973 to reflect an expanded county service role. Under the revised article, counties were given service delivery authority similar to South Carolina's cities. The traditional county services of road and bridge construction/maintenance, ferry, jail and court provision, and record keeping were retained, and a long list of new county service activities were enumerate. Counties could now engage in the following services: water, sewer, solid waste collection and disposal, transportation, planning, economic development and human services such as recreation, hospitals, medical care and public health.
South Carolina's counties may charge uniform service fees to finance new activities or services but may apply different tax rates to different service areas within the county. Such areas are termed special tax districts, depending on the number and quality of services provided. Counties can design a package of services to fit general county needs as well as the special service needs of smaller areas within the county. Special service area tax rates are possible since the revised Article VIII eliminated the restriction that all county taxes had to be equal county-wide. The revised Article VIII prohibits county-wide taxes from being used to support services which a city government was already providing on or before March 7, 1973. This provision is aimed at preventing double taxation or the preemption of existing city services by the county.
Expanded service authority was accompanied by new procedural requirements for county council. Standard procedures for passing local laws (ordinances) were ser forth for the first time. Counties must give prospective ordinances a reading at three separate public meetings of county council. County Council must hold public hearings before adopting a budget; making appropriations; adopting building codes and zoning and subdivision regulations; levying taxes; transferring property; and at the request for any county employee who feels he or she was wrongfully discharged. County council must provide for an annual budget and audit and develop a centralized purchasing system.
South Carolina's counties were clearly the principal beneficiaries under the Local Government Law in terms of expanded powers and service authority. Counties were granted powers under general law, rather than under special county laws. Therefore all counties enjoyed the same grant of power and authority. The Local Government Law sets forth the general powers and duties of all South Carolina counties.
Accompanying the significant extension of power and authority under the Local Government Law were restraints on counties in certain areas. Specifically, counties were denied additional powers concerning the operation of public education (school districts) and any pre-home rule special purpose district. These districts remained under the control of the General Assembly.