How would becoming a municipality affect local services?

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Fact check on IL incorporation, part 3

By Reece Murphy

With the Indian Land incorporation vote only weeks away, much has been said about how incorporation would change Indian Land and, depending on one’s stance on the issue, the benefits or drawbacks those changes would have on its residents.
Aside from the contentious issues of law enforcement and road maintenance, much less attention has been paid to the other services proposed for a future town of Indian Land beyond their overall impact on property taxes.
Yet one of the most important roles of a municipality is its ability to provide benefits for its citizens in the form of services.
In a 2000 study for the University of South Carolina’s S.C. Governance Project, Charles B. Taylor wrote that cities and towns are basically service providers to help people who live in close proximity to one another.
“Cities are important because they provide the basic, day-to-day services we need to live together,” he said. “We rely on them more than we do on the state and national government on a day-to-day basis.”
In this, the third article on incorporation issues ahead of the March 27 incorporation referendum, we’ll take a brief look at those proposed services and set the record straight on a few claims made by proponents on each side.
Current services
Lancaster County currently provides most non-utility services in Indian Land, including emergency and fire protection, planning and zoning, parks and recreations, road maintenance and other services, such as those provided by the county clerk of court’s, auditor’s and treasurer’s offices.
The county operates a recreation center near Collins Road on U.S. 521 and two parks, Roy Hardin Park on Shelley Mullis Road and Walnut Creek Park, a sports complex on Walnut Creek Parkway off U.S. 521. The Lancaster County Library system runs the Del Webb Library on U.S. 521, next to the Carolina Commons shopping center.
Emergency medical and fire protection services are also provided through Lancaster County, although Pleasant Valley and Indian Land fire district residents and business owners pay an additional annual fire district fee of $90 to support their departments.
The Pleasant Valley Fire Department’s Station 14 is located on Possum Hollow Road, with a substation on Harrisburg Road. In addition to volunteers, the station is manned by a rotating crew of 15 part-time paid firefighters, according to Lancaster County Fire Marshal Russell Rogers. PVFD, which now has round-the-clock coverage except for  weekend nights, will move to 24-7 coverage July 1, said Lancaster County Councilman Brian Carnes.
In addition to its volunteers, the Indian Land Fire Department on Six Mile Creek Road is staffed weekdays by five full-time Lancaster County firefighters.
Lancaster County pays for most major purchases like firetrucks and other apparatus, fuel and utilities for the departments. The fire fee districts pay for salaries, worker’s compensation and insurance for paid firefighters, along with other paid and volunteer personnel expenses and equipment, and can be used for capital expenses like new apparatus or substations.
Though the county provides a convenience center for self-service household trash disposal and recycling, curbside garbage pickup in Indian Land is provided through resident or neighborhood contracts with private garbage disposal companies.
All Panhandle residents pay an annual $60 fee for federally mandated stormwater monitoring and control through the Panhandle Stormwater Utility.
Lancaster County Water and Sewer District and Lancaster County Natural Gas Authority, both state-chartered entities, and Duke Energy and York Electric Cooperative provide the area’s other utilities.
Proposed services
In addition to law enforcement, S.C. Code Title 5 Chapter 1, which lays out the requirements for municipal incorporation, says petitioners must demonstrate that the municipality will provide, directly or through contract, at least three of nine services listed in the statute.
Organizers of the incorporation effort, Voters for a Town of Indian Land, proposed the town provide three: enforcement of building, housing, plumbing and electrical codes; planning and zoning; and recreational facilities and programs.
The group proposed that the county continue providing the fire services it currently provides and budgeted $1.5 million for additional support to the Panhandle’s fire stations. At the time the proposal was submitted, the incorporation area included a third fire department, the Charlotte Road/Van Wyck Volunteer Fire Department.
Other than the three services provided by the municipality, VTIL proposes that all other services would remain the same, pending agreements between the town of Indian Land council and County Council.
The county has agreed to provide those services through contract with the Indian Land town council, plus municipal court service, which the county funds, though judicial appointments are controlled by the state.
VTIL proposes a $398,800 annual operating budget for the planning department with four employees, a $770,200 budget for the building and zoning department with eight employees, a $652,500 budget for parks and rec with five employees, and a $461,250 budget for a permits and licensing office, though the proposal doesn’t include how many employees. Departmental budgets include funding for salaries and benefits, supplies, training, equipment contract services and vehicle maintenance.
VTIL’s proposal says it included funding in its budget to contract with an outside firm to supply or supplement planning and zoning efforts.
The group says the three departments are key to its vision, starting with control over development and future land use through the planning department.
Permits and licensing would also help with development, VTIL says, and generate an estimated $2.2 million in revenue alone, in addition to other fees, charges and fines.
The parks and recreation department, with a $652,500 budget, would address a severe shortage of recreational opportunities in Indian Land, VTIL says, and points to the county’s plans to build a sports complex just north of Lancaster with proceeds from Indian Land’s hospitality tax as proof that the county isn’t meeting the community’s needs.
VTIL’s parks and recreation plan also includes a little-publicized proposal for a no-kill animal shelter, for which it budgets $125,000 for start-up costs. The proposal, in response to what it says is residents’ request for an animal shelter, calls for a public-private partnership with Paws in the Panhandle, an Indian Land nonprofit that recently acquired a space on U.S. 521 just north of Shiloh Unity Road in Lancaster.
The proposal calls for the animal shelter department to share office space with Paws in the Panhandle and says “operation of the animal shelter would be performed by parks and recreation employees,” with the help of Paws in the Panhandle volunteers.
No Town response
Citizens Against Indian Land Incorporation and other No Town supporters say Lancaster County is already doing a good job providing services to Indian Land residents.
They argue that if incorporation were to pass, the new town wouldn’t receive any more services than it already receives, only another layer of government and a needless increase in taxes.
In general, the group makes no arguments on most specific proposed services, saying that in general, VTIL lowballed its budget and budget costs would likely be much higher.
They say that even though Indian Land only has two representatives on Lancaster County Council now, representation would increase by at least one with council district realignment following the 2020 U.S. Census. More council representation, they say, will further improve the county’s provision of services to Indian Land residents.
Citizens Against Indian Land Incorporation highlights Lancaster County’s current effort to improve services in the community by pointing out that the county will soon open a satellite office near Doby’s Bridge Road on U.S. 521 and plans to build a new recreation complex on 10 acres of donated land at the corner of Calvin Hall and Harrisburg roads in northern Indian Land.
Among the few services Citizens addresses specifically, is Indian Land’s fire services. Citizens says it believes that if the Panhandle were to incorporate, the town would consolidate its fire departments into one large department. The result, they say, would be a loss of funding from the county since the county’s funding for the needs of two departments would be combined into one lump sum.
Citizens has not addressed the animal shelter proposal.
The facts
Since services are a primary feature of a municipality, and required by law, it is to be expected that VTIL would choose municipal services they believe would best fit the needs of the community.
Whether or not one supports the incorporation proposal largely boils down to their aversion to an “extra layer of government” and taxes and their thoughts on the community’s need for the services in the first place.
Incorporation supporters say it is necessary, and opponents say it isn’t, which is all just a matter of opinion.
As for the question of the budget, it must be remembered that the proposed budget is just that – a proposed budget. Indian Land’s first council and mayor will decide the actual budget if incorporation wins, and even then, they have three years to do so.
A few assertions, however, do lend themselves to fact checking, such as No Town supporters’ assertion that if Indian Land incorporates, the town would consolidate its fire departments resulting in a loss of funding.
VTIL simply does not include such a proposition in its proposal.
Lancaster County Fire and Rescue Director Darren Player said nothing would change for Indian Land’s fire departments as proposed. The county would continue funding them just like the other departments in the county.
Even if they did consolidate into one department, they would still receive the same funding, just like the county does for the city of Lancaster Fire Department, but in a lump sum.
“If nothing changes, nothing changes,” Player said. “If they start adding substations, and that kind of thing, then we’d have to take that into account because it would change the costs of utilities, for example.
“That’s not to say that we wouldn’t fund it, but that would have to be taken into consideration,” he said.
Another point to remember about fire department funding is that while Lancaster County does cover the costs of many items, a significant amount is reimbursed by the fire districts.
Finally, Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis said while it is unusual for a municipality to fund a no-kill animal shelter under parks and recreation, “it is certainly the prerogative of the town’s first council and mayor to do so.”
When asked about the shelter plan, Paws in the Panhandle founder and Director Gloria Davey was caught off-guard. She said a VTIL official contacted her “some years ago” and asked if she would be interested in a partnership with a town of Indian Land, but that was the last she heard of it, no one from the group has contacted her since.
Davey said the organization’s acquisition of its new location in June 2017 changes things, though she’d still be open to a partnership, as long as the partnership isn’t too intrusive.
“He called me some years or so ago, and yes, we would love to have their assistance. We would work together,” Davey said. “But no, the town of Indian Land is not going to run my shelter … and I never agreed to share an office with the ‘animal shelter department.’”
As with most issues, both sides have valid points and some exaggerated claims that hinge on genuine differences in opinion about the need for local government in Indian Land.
Yet careful consideration of the full range of proposed services against their potential drawbacks is necessary in order to make an informed decision.
On the No Town side, Citizens Against Indian Land Incorporation’s talking points about fire department consolidation and loss of funding are a slippery slope of assertions that begins with a dubious claim.
On the VTIL side, the group’s little-known plans for a no-kill shelter – even by its proposed partner – seem thrown together and more designed to attract votes than to provide a much requested service.
For details on services in VITL’s proposal, visit www.TownOfIndianLand.org, then click on “The Vision” tab, scroll down and click on “Download the Incorporation Package.”
For details of Citizens Against Indian Land Incorporation’s position, visit NoTownOfIndianLand.org and click on “Download our presentation…” and “Download the presentation transcript.”