Transforming Union County

Union County could receive $1 million a year for five years for a total of $5 million from the State of South Carolina under a proposal developed by Union County Supervisor Frank Hart and being submitted to the state legislature by SC House District 42 Rep. Mike Anthony.

During Tuesday’s Union County Council meeting, Hart presented his proposal for a “Rural County Transformation Fund.” Subtitled “A Path To Growth,” the proposed fund would address the needs of Union County and 22 other rural counties across the state including Cherokee and Newberry counties.

Hart began by pointing out that the challenge facing rural counties is that “they are not growing.” He said the population of these counties is either “flat or declining,” a situation which he says brings with it the following problems:

• Decreased enrollment in county schools which Hart said in turn leads to decreased funding for those schools. Hart pointed to a report by the Union County School District’s Technology Department that enrollment in the school district will decline by 37 students a year over the next five years as a sign of the impact of the decline in the county’s population.

• A flat or declining tax base which in turn forces counties to increase taxes to support public services such as law enforcement, fire protection, and maintenance of local infrastructure including roads and bridges.

• A struggling local small business economy which has to deal with a declining customer base.

• Limited workforce availability to support industrial growth. While the county has been successful in attracting new industry and in fostering the expansion of existing industry, its ability to do so could be threatened by a lack of a workforce sufficient to meet the needs of new and/or expanding industries.

Hart contrasted the performance the state as a whole with that of its rural counties like Union County. He pointed out that, as of July 2016, unemployment in the state had fallen to 5.2 percent. Hart said that the SC Department of Commerce reported that in 2015 the state as a whole attracted $4.2 billion in new and expanding industrial investment which created 17,000 new jobs. He said that from 2000-2015, South Carolina’s population grew by 22 percent to more than 4.8 million.

By contrast, Hart said that South Carolina’s 23 smallest counties which he said are those with a population of less than 60,000, experience a combined population growth of 0.08 percent between 2000-2015. He described these counties as “operating in a pre-recovery mode” which he said includes “declining fund balances” and “struggling to cover rising operating costs” such as “utilities, insurance, retirement contributions, capital improvements, and repairs.”

Hart said a possible solution to this is the creation of a “Rural County Transformation Fund” which he said would provide funding to address barriers to growth in areas including, but not limited to, quality of life, blight, infrastructure, housing, and educational facilities.

Counties would be eligible for the program if they had populations of less than $60,000 and would receive funding based on the SC Department of Commerce’s “Tiered Rating” system which ranks counties on a scale of 1-4 based on a county’s per capita income and unemployment rate.

Hart said that eligible counties would receive between $300,000 and $1 million a year with Tier I and II counties receiving $300,000 a year; Tier III counties receiving $900,000 a year; and Tier IV counties receiving $1 million a year.

With a population of 28,961 and a SC Department of Commerce Tier IV rating, Hart said Union County would receive $1 million a year for five years for a total of $5 million through the fund.

As a Tier III county, Hart said Cherokee County would receive $900,000 a year or $4.5 million over five years.

Newberry County, which is a Tier II county, would receive $300,000 a year for a total of $1.5 million.

Hart said the total annual cost of the program would be $19.5 million and would be funded each year through a proviso in the state budget which the legislature would have to approve each year and subject to the availability of the necessary revenue. He said he has turned the proposal for a Rural County Transformation Fund over to SC House District 42 Rep. Mike Anthony, chairman of the Union County Legislative Delegation and a member of SC House Ways and Means Committee, for submission to and consideration by the state legislature.

“It’s really a great idea,” Anthony said. “Working with the other counties like Frank has to do he saw a situation where if we could come up with an additional $20 million in the budget for local governments then it could benefit 23 of our 46 counties. I’m just grateful we have a supervisor to have that kind of foresight.

“I’ve already taken it to the Ways and Means chairman and to the speaker,” he said. “The chairman has asked to let them discuss it and decide whether to fund it as a yearly proviso or file it as a bill for recurring funding.”

By Charles Warner, Staff Reporter with The Union Times