The South Carolina Governance Project

Center for Governmental Services, Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, The University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina 29208

Local Government in the Palmetto State

By Charlie B. Tyer


In the United States there is one national government, 50 state governments and nearly 85,000 local governments. Local governments, obviously, outnumber by far the states and the national government. Not surprisingly, the same situation exists in most states, and South Carolina is no exception. Interestingly, the number of local governments nationally has decreased since mid-century while in South Carolina they have increased. We have one state government, 46 counties, 268 cities or towns, 86 school districts and at least 291 special purpose governments. That is almost 700 local governments. 1

(See Figures 1 and 2.  Click here.)

While the news from Washington, D. C. and the capitals of states and nations is often the subject of newspaper headlines and television news, it is local governments that have the most day-to-day impact on most people's lives. Local schools educate children, local fire departments respond to fire alarms, local police to traffic accidents, local libraries loan books and local recreation programs provide leisure services. Other services provided by local governments, however, are not as visible as fire, police, recreation and libraries. Building inspections, planning and zoning, for example, may be obscure for most people until they have a reason to come into direct contact with that service, or the result of the service.

Thus, local governments probably carry on the most important services that affect citizens day-to-day lives. And, they are the most accessible of all our governments. One doesn't have to travel far usually to reach city hall, or the county courthouse. Local elected officials live next door to us in our communities, go to church with us and attend meetings and sports events in our communities virtually every day. But, in spite of their importance, most citizens are not well informed about local government.

The purpose of this publication is to help readers understand more about local governments in South Carolina. We will review the varied types of local governments in our state, discuss the services provided by them, and the ways citizens can influence their governments. We begin, however, with a brief overview of the local government landscape in South Carolina, and the evolution of local governments in this century.

The Local Government Landscape

There are four types of local government in South Carolina, as in most states. These are counties, cities or towns, school districts and special purpose governments (sometimes called districts). Most of our attention in this module will be focused on the first two, cities and counties, which are sometimes referred to as general purpose governments meaning that they have a broad array of powers, unlike the other two which are both forms of special purpose governments.


The idea of using something called a county came with the early settlers from England. They were first established by the Lords Proprietors, and later by state statute. Early in South Carolina's history, parishes served as local governing bodies and counties did not resemble what we find today. A constitutional system of counties was not established until the state Constitution of 1868. From their founding until after World War II, counties were essentially administrative arms of state government to provide a local presence for the state government to assist in administering courts, law enforcement, keeping records (such as property deeds, marriage, birth and death records) and some public works such as road maintenance.

Counties were restricted in what they could do, however, by conservative interpretations of the state constitution. As urbanization increased, the demand grew for certain types of urban services, such as fire protection, water and sewer service and so forth. Counties were not legally authorized to provide such services. Thus, citizens choices were limited--they could organize a city, annex to a city that already existed if it was close enough in order to access such services, or, if these options were unattractive, ask their state legislators to form a special purpose government by passage of a special law for their specific area. Thus were born special purpose governments.

Special Purpose Governments

Special purpose governments, or districts, are a unique class of local government. They possess substantial fiscal and administrative independence from other local governments--cities and counties--and are separate legal entities. Most are formed by special legislation passed by the General Assembly known as a local law that pertains only to the district or government named, such as the Irmo Fire District in the midlands, or the Parker Fire District in the upstate. A few are formed under general state law which allows a special district to be formed so long as general legal requirements are followed, as in the case of some rural water districts in South Carolina.

Special purpose districts typically provide one or two services, such as fire protection or water. 2 If legally authorized, though, they can provide multiple services, but that is rare. They have not been widely studied by scholars and less is known about them than cities and counties. They are different from cities and counties in that most of them are governed by boards or commissioners who are appointed and not elected by the voters--a fact that surprises many people. A special type of special purpose government is the school district.

School Districts

Local education services in the United States, and in South Carolina, are generally provided by an entity know as a school district. There are exceptions, and South Carolina's neighboring states (Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee) are examples of them. In those states, cities and counties are responsible for local education services. But this is not the national pattern, nor is it the case in our state. There are currently 86 school districts in South Carolina. Most are contained in one county, although there may be more than district in a county (Lexington County, for example, has five districts while Richland County has only two and Greenville County has one consolidated district). A few districts cross county boundary lines.

School districts were created by the state to deliver educational services at the local level. Because they are so important, and are so numerous in the United States, they are listed separately from other special purpose governments when we catalog and discuss local governments. They are nevertheless a variant of a special purpose government.

Cities and Towns

The fourth type of local government in South Carolina is the city or town. No legal distinction exists between a city and a town, and communities are free to call themselves by either title. That is not always true in other states, however, where a legal difference may exist between the two. Unlike counties, which today exist geographically everywhere in our state, cities do not. They are specifically created for a defined geographical area that is usually urban in character, meaning that a group of people live in close proximity to each other resulting in a need for certain services that are better provided by the community than by the citizens individually.

In colonial South Carolina, cities were established by colonial governors acting in the name of the King of England. After the American Revolution, the newly formed state legislature would grant charters to citizens who wanted to form a city. In 1783 the South Carolina Legislature granted the first municipal charter under which the City of Charleston was established. Cities initially, like counties and other local governments, had only those powers and duties specifically granted to them by the state legislature. As we shall see, cities and counties now have more power and flexibility than they did historically, although they still have constraints. Cities are basically urban service providers to help provide services to people who live in close proximity to one another.

Local governments, therefore, are formed to provide services to people. After this similarity, however, they differ more than they are similar. We will move on now to discuss cities and counties more fully, with mention made of the other two types of local government only in selected cases.

The Evolving City and County

Cities and counties, as noted already, are general purpose local governments. And, indeed, they are alike in many ways today since they both increasingly provide similar services. But, they come from entirely different backgrounds. This history must be understood if we are to understand them today. Their history includes movements to give them more autonomy, major reform initiatives in the United States which impacted upon local government, current reform ideas, and societal and demographic changes that have changed how we live and interact with one another.

From Dillon's Rule to Home Rule

The county is one of the oldest forms of local government in the United States. Historically, counties have performed two functions. The first was whatever the state required them to do. The second was what they were permitted but not required to do. State mandated functions fall into the first category. Counties were, it must be remembered, established to provide state functions locally. Hence, we often refer to them as being "administrative arms of the state." This is the traditional view of counties, not only in South Carolina, but the nation at-large. This view was true in South Carolina until Article VIII of the State Constitution was amended and the General Assembly passed the Local Government Law of 1975 (also known as the Home Rule Act of 1975). Because of their historical origin as an agent of the state, counties were geographically comprehensive, meaning they covered all the land area in the state. Everyone was and is in a county.

Cities, on the other hand, are not geographically comprehensive. Why not? Because they were formed not to act as an agent of the state government but to provide local services to people who had created some type of urban place. Initially, cities were formed in South Carolina by special charter passed by the state legislature which specified each city's authority. Thus, when a settlement of people grew to a size that people needed services not otherwise available from the county, and not subject to individual provision available to all, they would approach the legislature and request a charter setting up a city government.

After the 1895 South Carolina Constitution was adopted, the method of becoming a city changed. This process is referred to as incorporation. From 1896 till today, cities are incorporated under general laws passed by the legislature which do not require passage of special acts by the General Assembly. These laws establish uniform procedures and requirements for incorporation that apply to all who wish to become a city. We'll return to this topic later on.

Like counties, however, cities in South Carolina and the nation were considered creations of the state, or offspring of the state as some refer to them using the analogy of parent and children. Whenever a legal dispute arose over the powers of a city or county, judges would usually rule that the local governments had no power of their own, but instead derived all their power and authority from the state legislature. This doctrine became known as Dillon's Rule, after Justice John Dillon of the Iowa Supreme Court, who ruled that:

It is a general and undisputed proposition of law that a municipal corporation possesses and can exercise the following powers, and no others: First, those granted in express words; second, those necessarily or fairly implied in or incident to the declared objects and purposes of the corporation--not simply convenient, but indispensable. Any fair, reasonable, substantial doubt concerning the existence of power is resolved against the corporation, and power is denied.

This doctrine persisted in South Carolina until recent years. Its demise, however, did not happen overnight. Earlier we referred to the Home Rule Act of 1975. The notion of home rule began to gain support in the United States, and in South Carolina particularly, in the post World War II years. Basically, the idea of home rule is to allow more independence to local governments so that every decision affecting them does not have to be made on an individual basis by the state legislature. Urbanization and societal complexity are the spurs for this movement.

South Carolina cities and counties were granted home rule by a 1973 revision to the state constitution (Article VIII) which required that they be operated under a framework of general laws passed by the state legislature. The legislature passed the Local Government Act of 1975 to put into effect the requirement of Article VIII. This Act did not, in the eyes of many, grant full home rule to cities and counties though. Fiscal home rule, or the power to decide what to tax, was not clearly granted. A state Supreme Court case in 1993, however, interpreted the 1995 Act and Article VIII as granting fiscal home rule to cities and counties. (See Williams v. Town of Hilton Head, 1993.)This set off a tug-of-war between the legislature and local governments resulting in the passage of what is referred to as the Fiscal Authority Act of 1997 which outlined what revenues could be used by local governments and clearly stated that otherwise cities and counties lacked authority to exceed legislatively permitted taxing authority.

Home rule meant that cities and counties were to organize themselves in a consistent fashion throughout the state selecting from options in the law. It also meant that each city and county had the same powers as other cities and counties. But, the Home Rule Act probably created more county service opportunities than it did for cities. And, it gave them more freedom concerning local policy decisions, and changed the way county government is organized and administered moving away from domination by the local legislative delegation. Indeed, a good argument can be made that between cities and counties, it was counties that were most affected by the Home Rule Act and the alteration of their role in South Carolina government. Cities did, nevertheless, benefit from home rule since they too were given uniform powers regardless of their size. This is not the case in many other states.

Thus, the passage from Dillon's Rule to home rule is a significant event in South Carolina history. The journey may not be complete, however, as we shall see later in our discussion. But, to understand South Carolina local government, this part of our history is essential for understanding how government operates today. But, it is not enough. Another significant impact on local government in our state, as in other states, was the Progressive Era and the reforms which made up the reform agenda of this historical movement. The legacy of that era is with us still as we shall see.

Progressive Reform and Its Legacy

The Progressive Era was an important historical period in American history. It lasted approximately from the 1880s to World War I. It's important for our purposes because a number of governmental reforms were associated with the movement. And, many of them were adopted and are an important part of our governmental system today. Among the reforms promoted by Progressive era leaders were primaries, nonpartisan at-large and isolated elections, the short ballot, the initiative and referendum, civil service systems, competitive bidding and council-manager government for cities. These reforms were proposed in reaction to public sector corruption, inefficiency, fraud, waste and abuse and were aimed particularly at local governments in many cases due to the rise of urban city bosses and machine politics in large cities. Many of these abuses were associated with political parties and partisan politics. 3

Reformers basically argued that partisan politics should be taken out of the administration of government. They wanted political candidates to be nominated by primaries rather than political conventions where bosses could make deals behind the scenes. Elections, especially at the local level, should be, they said, nonpartisan to avoid the influence of corrupt political parties. Moreover, reformers wanted these elections to be at-large rather than by district or ward so that elected officials would think of the public good of the entire community and not just their own election district. Finally, they wanted isolated elections, or elections that were held at the local level on separate dates from statewide and national elections in order to reduce the influence of political parties and machine politics.

But, the reformers didn't stop there. Too many officeholders were elected by voters to do things, they thought, that did not require election. Plus, it was hard to fix accountability when large numbers of people were elected to govern, many of them actually acting as department heads. So, they advocated the short ballot--or reducing the number of elected positions in government to the bare essential.

The long ballot had been popularized by the Jacksonians earlier in American history who wanted to increase democratic controls over government. So, then, does the Progressive desire for a short ballot mean they were anti-democratic? No. They also advocated more direct democracy using such devices as the initiative and referendum as ways to let voters propose policy and approve decisions.

To make government function more apolitically, the reformers advocated civil service systems, usually based on some idea of merit, to remove partisan political interference with government employees doing their jobs. Similarly, they wanted government to purchase the things it bought after using competitive bidding procedures. Finally, and very importantly for local governments in the United States, the reformers advocated the adoption of the council-manager form of city government. This form of government placed executive power in the hands of an appointed executive, the city manager, and left day-to-day running of the city in his hands. The Council and Mayor, elected by the voters, appointed the Manager and could dismiss him. But, they were to set policy and stay out of the technical, administrative matters of providing services to citizens and supervising emloyees.

The reform agenda of the Progressives was widely adopted by the end of World War I and the ensuing years. Elements of it are visible today as we look at cities in South Carolina particularly. Nonpartisan elections are common. A short ballot is often used and at-large elections remain common, although recent years have witnessed changes due to federal law. The Council-Manager form of city government is often found, or something that resembles it with a City Administrator. Competitive bidding policies are also often followed.

Counties reflect many of the Progressive reforms, but have not exhibited as many elements as cities. This may be accounted for by several factors. One, counties have historically been the building blocks of political parties, and therefore less likely to adopt nonpartisan attributes. Second, counties have a different history as agents of the state. Thus, they have tended to mirror state government with long ballots, numerous elected officials, many of whom are department heads. Hence, while we do find examples of governmental reform--in this case Progressive Era ideas--in the counties, more examples are in our cities. This may result also from the Progressives targeting cities in their reform efforts, as well as that counties until recent years were not as involved in delivering urban type services.

Whatever the case, the Progressive Era impacted local government throughout the United States, including South Carolina, and the legacy continues to this day. Not all of that legacy turned out the way the Progressives thought it would, however.

Reform Consequences

The reforms advocated by reformers had both intended and unintended consequences. The electoral reforms were probably the most widely adopted of the ideas proposed. Direct primaries, for example, were widely adopted to make elections more democratic and reduce the influence of party bosses. Along side went nonpartisan elections which is the most widespread reform adopted with almost three-fourths of cities in the United States and over 252 of South Carolina's 269 cities using them today. Isolated elections were also popular, and again most cities in South Carolina have adopted them rather than holding elections on the general election date in November.

The City Manager form of government has been widely adopted in this country and is today the most common form of government in mid-sized cities. South Carolina has 27 cities that formally adopted this type of government, but more than twice that number have elected to hire a city administrator who is similar. While the number of South Carolina cities using professional managers or administrators is not as large as nationally found, the reason is easily explainable. Most cities in South Carolina are small, with three-fourths having less than 3,000 population. Such cities typically cannot afford to hire a professional manager.

One consequence of the reforms adopted by cities has been a decline in the number of people voting in city elections. Much of this may be due to their isolated nature. Other factors may hinge on the nonpartisan nature of the elections which reduces the influence of political parties. Without the stimulus of state and/or national elections attached to the ballot, many voters stay home. Whatever the ultimate reason, it is not uncommon to find ten percent or less of registered voters actually voting in city elections. The result is that a very small number of people actually determine who gets elected in cities and what policies will be followed. And, those who do vote are in many instances not representative as a group of the citizens of the community--voters often being more affluent, older and more conservative than the citizenry at-large. 4

On a positive note, however, some of the reforms have helped make cities more streamlined than their counterparts among local governments (i.e., counties, special purpose governments and school districts). Cities headed by a manager, for example, are frequently noted for their innovation and efficient, honest administration presumably due to professional expertise. However, it can be argued that by focusing so much on eliminating corruption and patronage, and installing nonpolitical administrative processes (such as competitive bidding and merit systems), the Progressives overlooked other concerns that citizens might have about their government.

Citizens today are often critical of government, believing that it costs too much for the benefits they receive, that some activities are ineffective altogether, and that services are not customized to the needs of the specific citizen taking into consideration individual needs and preferences. These concerns, which exist at all levels of government, not just locally, have resulted in contemporary reform ideas that are sweeping many local governments today and promise to be with us for some time to come.

Contemporary Reform Ideas

The reforms sweeping the country, and in evidence in South Carolina as well, can be grouped under six headings: citizen participation, customer focus, consumer choice, privatization, public-private competition and performance benchmarking. 5

Citizen participation has a long standing tradition in American politics, but became even more prominent in the 1960s and continues to be emphasized by political figures and citizen groups alike. Recent years, for example, have seen many local governments adopt strategic planning initiatives to set goals for their communities which have typically involved citizens as well as government officials. Customer focus, unlike citizen participation, tends to focus more on citizens as voters and their preferences for services. Borrowed from the world of business and popularized by best selling management books, this idea has gained much attention. It has provided support for a more performance-oriented approach to managing government services. Difficulty exists at times, however, in translating the concept into the public sector since those who pay for a service may not always be those who benefit from the service. And, other types of "customers" may exist when we talk about government and its purpose as well. Nevertheless, one sees the idea discussed often. (Rock Hill would be an example.)

Consumer choice is related to the idea of focusing on the customer. As used in government, this idea often refers to letting citizens choose among different governments as providers of a service, or perhaps providing some type of voucher to citizens and letting them choose from public and private providers of a service. The latter idea has been most prominent in public education and is referred to as "school choice." Privatization has received a great deal of attention in recent years, particularly since the Reagan Administration, and continues to gain interest in many quarters. Sometimes it refers to shifting services to the private sector, other times it refers to encouraging governments to compete with private companies. This leads directly to the next reform, public-private competition. At the local level, a number of cities have adopted this idea for some services. (See Rock Hill again)

Performance benchmarking is perhaps more recent as a reform initiative at the local level of government but has gained much attention, particularly in North and South Carolina in recent years.6 The idea behind benchmarking is to find examples of good performance and document the results or outcomes produced in a way that can be measured. Then, others can use these measurements as a way to gauge their own performance

These reform ideas are found in many local governments today and are influencing how they provide services to citizens. There is one final important influence on local governments, however, that requires mention if we are to understand government today. That is the growth of suburbia.

The Suburban Century and Its Consequences

There have always been small towns or cities as well as large ones. Initially though in both South Carolina and the United States as a whole, people lived in rural settings. In 1790 only five percent of this country's population was urban; in 1990 it was 78 percent. Similar shifts have occurred in South Carolina. Historically, however, people moved to cities which were fairly compact. With the invention of the automobile, the coming of interstate highways, and innovations in banking, such as government backed home mortgages, home ownership grew but also began to move to the periphery of cities. Thus began suburbia.7

Today, more Americans live in suburban communities than in traditional cities. The impact of suburbanization has been profound. It has allowed people to segregate themselves by race and economic class. State laws have allowed citizens to incorporate suburban communities into cities on the fringe of existing cities thereby stymieing their growth. And suburbs have contributed to the continuation of an "anticity bias" among citizens who want to enjoy the benefits of urban life, but avoid the costs associated with them. In addition, suburban growth has increased our reliance on the automobile, contributing to pollution. And, suburbs have resulted in businesses leaving the inner city to relocate on the periphery resulting in loss of tax revenue for cities, jobs for their residents, and sometimes blight.

Thus, local governments find themselves in an environment shaped by many forces--reform ideas of the Progressives, newer reforms emphasizing performance, and demographic and technological changes leading to the decline of the traditional city and growth of new suburban communities. And, these forces will continue to change. To truly understand how local governments are structured and operate today, one must appreciate history, demographic and social change.

Contemporary Issues Confronting Local Governments

Local governments in South Carolina face a number of issues or challenges as the 20th century comes to a close. Most of them are commonly shared by cities and counties while a few are unique to one or the other. Among the latter are structural issues--cities still confront the issue of restrictive annexation laws which make it difficult to grow. Counties remain bound to structures created over a hundred years ago in a different historical era. Shared challenges include growth and environmental protection, land use regulation, changing demographics, mandates and devolution of authority, deregulation, performance management pressures, and technological innovations. We will briefly review each of these.

Structural Issues

"Cities can't grow and counties can't govern." Knowledgeable local government observers in South Carolina coined this phrase to describe what many believe to be the basic problem facing cities and counties. Cities can't grow due to very restrictive annexation laws. Extraordinarily high percentages of property owners owning equally high proportions of property values must agree to annexation before it can occur. Thus, cities fail to expand and are surrounded by suburban communities that make it difficult to plan and deliver services in an orderly and efficient fashion. Moreover, businesses in the city increasingly migrate to the fringe of the urban area, often outside city limits, to be nearer those who live in the ever growing suburban communities. This results in a declining tax base for the city and less ability to raise revenue to provide services to those who still live there, or visit during the day but leave to return to homes outside the city's limits.

Revising the annexation laws has been complicated by issues such as electric utilities and special purpose governments. Cities are constitutionally granted the right to franchise their electric utility services within their borders. Changing a city's borders may in some cases threaten a utility company or cooperative which already serves people proposed for annexation. Similarly, special purpose governments become concerned about losing customers to a city and a reduction in their geographical service area and revenues. (The reader may want to consult on-line articles on annexation by Kearney and Tyer.).

Counties, on the other hand, find themselves still using governmental structures created in the 1800s and before when they were basically administrative arms of state government. Numerous elected officials exist, many serving as department heads. Compared to cities, counties have relatively weak executives. County councils also have less control than their city counterparts over activities that they fund. Thus, reformers have called for making it easier to change the structure of county government in order to streamline it and make it more accountable to the citizens. 8

Annexation reform and county government reorganization remain two of the most vexing problems facing South Carolina local governments. (The reader may want to visit the web sites of the South Carolina Municipal Association and the Association of Counties for information and links dealing with legislation related to these topics.)

Growth Management and Environmental Protection

As South Carolina continues to grow in population, growth increasingly becomes an issue. Coastal counties, the midlands of South Carolina, and upcountry counties alike have experienced substantial growth. Growth results in many cases in sprawl resulting in leap- frog development. Such patterns of development typically are more expensive to deliver services to. In some cases, adequate services are not available. Roads become congested. Schools overcrowded. Open space disappears.

Growth can result in other problems, however. Sensitive environmental areas may be destroyed. Historical sites disappear. Beaches erode. Pollution may increase due to increased traffic. Hazardous wastes may be generated by business and industry. Water supplies may be threatened. More solid waste is inevitably generated as the population increases requiring land fill space or even new land fills.

Environmental protection is a good example of local governments interacting in a complex intergovernmental system involving the national, state and local governments. Congress often sets standards dealing with such things as clean drinking water, clean air, solid waste disposal and hazardous waste storage and disposal. Local governments are often the entities that enforce these standards, as well as bear the brunt of the costs of compliance. (See articles on recycling and sustainable development.)

The question that is raised is what role should government play in planning and regulating growth? How important is quality of life and a clean environment? Who should protect or preserve it--government, the private sector, or both? Who pays the costs and how should they be paid? And, what roles should different levels of government play?

Land Use Regulation

Cities and counties in the United States have long been recognized as having broad powers to regulate the use of private property to protect the public health, safety or welfare. But, there are limits to this power. Recent years have seen cases go to federal and state courts in which property-rights advocates have challenged zoning and other government restrictions on the use of private property. Often the goal of such litigation is to discourage such regulation by requiring compensation for property owners who are financially harmed by the regulations. United States Supreme Court cases such as Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council (1992) and Dolan v. City of Tigard (1994) have favored plantiffs in property-rights disputes and thus encouraged law suits at the state and federal levels. 9 (Visit the Internet site on Supreme Court decisions, ARIN, and the Planning Commissioner Journal.)

In addition, property-rights advocates, developers and land owners have pushed for state legislation requiring compensation for limitations placed on the use of private property. At least 20 states have enacted some form of what is referred to as "takings" legislation. Although not passed thus far, such legislation has been introduced in South Carolina regularly for the past several years and likely will continue to be in the future. The issue remains a sensitive one, however, and illustrates the clashing of interests--individual versus public--over the role of government in society and the extent to which government should restrict individual freedom in order to protect a larger, common good.

Demographic Changes and Influences

South Carolina's local governments also face challenges as the demographics of our state changes. Two notable changes occurring involve the age of our population and its ethnic origins. In 1996 the early wave of the baby boomers turned 50 years old. The age 50 and older population of our state now outnumbers teenagers. Almost one-fourth of our residents are over 50, a 20 percent increase since 1970. And people are living longer. Those older than 85 have seen their proportion grow larger than at any time in history.

Retirement communities are growing in South Carolina. Del Web's decision to build Sun City East near Hilton Head Island was just the obvious manifestation of the attractiveness of our state to retirees. The aging of our population will have many implications for local government (as well as state government). Recreation and leisure services, public safety, housing and health care are just some of the areas that are and will be affected. Public policy likely will be influenced by the aging of the population as well since older citizens tend to vote in higher numbers than younger ones. This will likely have an influence on taxes and spending decisions local governments make. (See Figure 3 and articles by Hawkins and Tibbetts.)

Retirees, moreover, are often moving to South Carolina from out-of-state. Thus, not only is our population changing as it ages, but the influx of people from different regions of the country will bring new and different attitudes to our state and its communities. This, often requires adjustment by existing citizens.

Another major demographic change in South Carolina has been the increasing number of Hispanic residents flowing to the state. This change also affects local governments with cultural differences and language being major adjustments for local governments.

A final demographic influence that has and will likely continue to influence local governments is race. Federal laws dealing with racial discrimination have already impacted the way cities and counties elect their councils by often requiring movement to districts for election of some if not all of the council. In addition, however, racial differences appear in the way people perceive government and problems. Opinion surveys have consistently shown that race accounts for different perceptions on the part of citizens. Thus, race will continue to be major influence on local government policy making, along with age and ethnic origin. (See article by Link and Oldendick.)

Devolution and Mandates

The 1980s and 90s have also seen a movement in the United States to devolve authority to the states and their local governments. Spurred by the federal deficit, conservative national administrations and Congresses, various initiatives have been proposed to transfer responsibility to the states. The states, in turn, tend to shift responsibilities to their local governments.

Devolution has therefore joined mandates as a central theme in state-local relations in most states of the U. S., including South Carolina (A mandate is a requirement from a higher government to a lower one to do something.) The mandate issue gained prominence in the 1970s as costly federal mandates were imposed in a number of policy areas, such as air and water quality, solid waste, hazardous waste, transportation standards, labor management, health care, courts and corrections. (See article on mandates.)

One byproduct of the 1994 Republican gains in Congress was the 1995 Unfunded Mandate Reform Act at the national level of government. This legislation makes it more difficult for the federal government to adopt unfunded mandates in the future, but it does not apply to existing mandates. Moreover, the act exempts some large categories of legislation from coverage, such as civil rights and entitlement programs. Similar legislation has been introduced in many states to deal with state-local mandates. South Carolina, in 1993, passed a law requiring a two-third's vote in each house of the General Assembly to impose an unfunded mandate on counties, but also exempted a number of areas in which mandates are common. (South Carolina Code, 4-9-55) It also requires fiscal notes or cost estimates for bills which would impose costs upon local governments. Again, these requirements do not affect existing mandates and can be can be avoided in certain circumstances.

Thus, devolution and mandates remain a continuing theme in federal-state-local relations in the U. S. and South Carolina.


A major theme at the national level of government since the 1970s has been deregulation. Examples of this impact upon local governments can be found in communications and the utility industry.

Changes in regulation of the telephone and the cable television industry have had impacts upon local governments as consumers and regulators of those industries. Telephone deregulation has brought many new telephone companies into existence offering services to citizens and using public rights of way. Wireless phones, of course, do not use wires and therefore do not require rights of way, but may instead need satellite towers which dot our landscape. Cable television companies today fall under local government regulatory oversight for very basic coverage and rate regulation thereby bypassing local governments and relying on the national government for oversight.

The federal government, through regulatory order and statute (1992 Energy Policy Act), has changed the environment for local governments as suppliers, franchisers and users of electric power. Competition has been permitted by allowing equal access to power lines by independent power producers and setting off a debate on utility industry restructuring. With the changes taking place, local governments will have different oversight responsibilities and authority over electricity generation, transmission and distribution than they have now. Local governments, particularly cities in South Carolina which provide electric service as a municipal service, will confront competition. Others will confront choices as users of power from private utility companies. And some will have to decide whether to enter into the utility business as a provider of service rather than to remain just a consumer if it appears to be in their citizens best interests.

Performance Measurement

Recent years have seen performance measurement generate a great deal of interest in government at all levels. While the idea of measuring performance is not new, it has moved to the forefront in the 1990s. Many reasons account for this. Devolution of authority from the federal level to states and localities is one of the more important influences. This movement has focused attention on states and local governments as never before in recent decades. Along with devolution has also come a decline in federal financial assistance to lower governments, thereby placing a strain on their budgets. "Doing more with less" has become a commonly heard slogan among local government officials.

Citizen expectations have also changed, however, in the latter part of the 20th century with citizens scrutinizing services and tax bills. Privatization and contracting out have been proposed increasingly as ways to control costs in government. Contracting in particular has introduced competition in many governmental entities as government employees strive to compete with private service providers by raising their performance standards. Couple this with the fact that many citizens perceive government as wasteful and inefficient, and performance measurement becomes critically important as local governments strive to serve their citizens.

The desire to improve performance can be seen in local governments initiating programs to examine their services and interject competition where possible. It is also seen in programs to set benchmarks for services in order to provide a method of comparison with others doing similar things.

Technology and Local Government

Personal computers and the development of the Internet have had a dramatic impact on local governments in South Carolina as in the nation as a whole. Personal computers have put computing capability in the hands of most any user today at a modest cost. Large main frame computers are no longer required to do sophisticated computing. From simple letter preparation, to maintaining large data files on citizens, to advanced applications like geographical information systems (GIS), local governments are finding many and varied uses for computers.

GIS systems, are an example of how computer technology can help local governments make decisions to better serve their citizens. These systems can be used to do such things as find the most efficient routes for garbage trucks, the optimal location for a fire station in order to locate a facility within a specific distance from homes and businesses, and to forecast the effects of development on stormwater runoff in order to set development standards and plan ahead for storing or retaining rainwater runoff to avoid flooding of roads and homes. (See article on Stormwater Management and Lexington County innovation.)

The Internet is one of the most important technological developments in this century. Local governments, like private businesses, are learning to use this new technology in a variety of ways. Many have developed home pages in order to communicate with present and prospective citizens, businesses and others. Again, use of the Internet can vary from simple information sharing, to allowing users to apply for licenses over the net or other permits rather than make a trip to a government office. E-mail, or electronic mail which travels over the Internet, is changing the way government officials communicate with one another, as well as how citizens can interact with the government. (Visit some of the sites of cities/counties/cogs with a home page.)

Whether used for government operations or for education, technology is changing the way governments conduct their business. It also constantly raises new issues that impact upon local government, from revenues to regulation to employee training and recruitment of employees.


Local governments in South Carolina are many and varied. They provide the most essential of services, from public safety to education, libraries, parks and recreation to water and sanitary sewers. We rely on them more than we do on the state and national government on a day-to-day basis. Yet, they are often obscure and unfamiliar to us. Ironically, they are also the most available for us as citizens to influence. This series of publications is intended to help readers understand local government in South Carolina in order that they might participate in the process of self-government.


1 The exact number of local governments may vary depending upon the source one uses for information. School districts and counties are easily identified, and for the most part cities as well. The number of cities listed here comes from the 1997 South Carolina Statistical Abstract published by the State of South Carolina. The Municipal Association, however, identifies 270 cities. The greatest discrepancy is with the number of Special Purpose Districts. The number used here comes from the South Carolina Statistical Abstract. However, in 1985, the South Carolina Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations suggested there might be as many as 300 districts. See Identifying Special Purpose Districts in South Carolina (Report of the South Carolina Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, Columbia, South Carolina, November 1985). The South Carolina Secretary of State's office, charged with periodically registering districts, identified 166 in 1992 that had registered with the state. See Report of Special Purpose Districts, 1992 (Report by the South Carolina Secretary of State, Columbia, South Carolina).

2 The U. S. Bureau of Census reports that 267 South Carolina Special Purpose Districts carry out a single function and 24 have multiple functions. The single largest function they carry out is fire protection, followed by soil and water conservation and housing and community development and water service. The largest number, 117, are within one county, and 14 are within two or more counties. Eight districts have boundaries coterminous with two or more counties, 77 are coterminous with one county and 42 with a city. Some districts did not report this information. See 1992 Census of Governments, Vol. 1, Government Organization (Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1992).

3 See Terry Christensen, Local Politics: Governing at the Grassroots (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1995).

4 Ibid., pp. 119-145 for a discussion of reform consequences.

5 Alan A. Altshuler and Robert D. Behn, eds. Innovation in American Government: Challenges, Opportunities, and Dilemmas (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1997) identifies these innovation categories.

6 See, for example, the Winter 1997 issue of Popular Government magazine published by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Institute of Government (vol. 62, no. 2). It contains several articles on privatization and performance measures. Two of these articles were reprinted in the South Carolina Policy Forum magazine, published by the Center for Governmental Services, Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, University of South Carolina in its Spring 1997 issue (vol. 8, no. 2). See also, David Ammons, "Taking a Pragmatic View of Privatization," The South Carolina Policy Forum, vol. 9, no. 1 (Winter 1998): 20-29 (reprinted from Popular Government, vol. 63, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 29-35. Both the North Carolina the South Carolina Institutes maintain web sites which the reader may wish to consult. and

7 For a history of urbanization in the United States, see Levy, John M. Contemporary Urban Planning, 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice Hall Pub. Co., 1997), pp. 7-62.

8 See Charter Form of Government for South Carolina's Counties (Columbia, South Carolina: South Carolina Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, February 1993).

9 These U. S. Supreme Court cases may be researched via the internet by visiting the following site and searching for the cases by name and year:





Figure 1&2

Local Governments in the United States
















Special Districts




School Districts










Figure 2

Local Governments in South Carolina
















Special Districts




School Districts









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