Municipal Government in the Palmetto State

By Charlie B. Tyer


Introduction: Cities, Suburbs and Towns

Most South Carolinians today live in an urban environment. That doesn't mean, however, that they live in a city. So, let's start with nomenclature. To understand local government, one needs to grasp the distinction between a number of words. A list of such terms is provided in Figure 1.

In South Carolina, no legal distinction is made between a city, municipality or town. Thus, the terms can be used interchangeably. That is not the case in all states, however. Our cities have a long history, dating back to 1783 when Charleston was incorporated and 1791 when Camden was created. (See Table 1) Today, we have 269 incorporated cities in our state. Most of these are small, with only 56 being over 5,000 population. (See Table 2) In fact, 90 percent of South Carolina's cities have less than 5,000 people living in them. (See Table 3)

Like many other states, South Carolina began as a rural state with farming as the primary economic activity. But, like others, it has changed. Today farming is not the predominate occupation, and most people do not live on farms or even in rural communities. Rather, they have moved to urban settings. These, however, may take various forms. Some people live in cities. Others live in towns away from the larger cities. Still others, increasingly more and more of us, live in suburban communities on the periphery of a city. Our community may or may not be organized as a city government.

It can be confusing. Perhaps a family lives in a suburban setting on the periphery of a city, like Columbia. We'll call the family Dick and Jane Smith. Their mailing address is Columbia, but they are not citizens of the City of Columbia. The United States Postal Services determines where post offices will be located. The address Dick and Jane use refers to their post office, not where they live. In this case, the Smith's live in an unincorporated part of a county, but near a suburban city, Irmo, which is a city government, but is called a "town." Ironically, though, most of the people who have "Irmo" as a mailing address do not live in the legal limits of the town. The Smith's may receive some services, such as water and sewer service, from the City of Columbia. But their other services come from their county government. They think of themselves as Irmo residents but cannot vote in that town's elections, nor do they receive any services from that government. This brief, yet accurate example, ilustrates in one small way how confusing local government is to many people. It also illustrates the importance of understanding the distinctions between the terms listed in Figure 1.

Municipal governments are a vital part of grass roots government in South Carolina as in the United States as a whole. Thus, let us move beyond terminology now and begin to explore how cities come into being, how we influence them, and what exactly they do.

Becoming a City

How does a person become a citizen of a particular city? Leaving aside moving into the city limits, there are basically three ways: incorporation, annexation and consolidation.


The term "incorporation" refers to the legal process of forming a city and gaining the authority that a city can exercise over its citizens, such as taxation, regulation and provision of services. State law governs the incorporation process. Prior to 1895, cities were created by a special legislative act of the General Assembly. After 1895 incorporation was by general law under procedures established by the legislature. In 1975 the Local Government Act (or Home Rule Act) modified the process slightly in an effort to discourage the creation of paper towns. Paper towns is a term that refers to cities that provide little or no services, and are often created in a defensive gesture aimed at avoiding annexation by a neighboring, larger city.

Paper towns are by definition limited service cities, meaning they provide few typical city services to their citizens. All limited services cities are not necessarily paper towns, however. Rather, they may be limited in services due to the availability of services from other governments, or overlapping governments which make it difficult to provide citywide services. Hilton Head would be an example of such a city. Other limited services cities may be that way due to their extremely small size, or due to changing times and decreased need for their service, but an inability to eliminate the city entirely. An example of this type of city would be Irmo.

Today South Carolina law requires that an area considering incorporation must have a population density of at least 300 persons per square mile, with some exceptions made for coastal areas. The area should not be within five miles of an existing city, unless the existing city has already refused to annex all or part of the proposed city.

The proponents of incorporation must conduct a service feasibility study to examine the needs of the community and identify how a proposed city would meet those needs. The study should specify what services a city would provide and how funds would be raised to pay for those services. This would include identifying specific tax rates on property and businesses so citizens can know how they would be taxed under the proposed city. The law requires that at least one public meeting be held on the incorporation proposal and feasibility study. In addition, efforts should be made to gather the opinions of a broad range of area residents on the proposal.

After these steps have been taken, a petition is filed with the South Carolina Secretary of State. It must include a specific proposal of the geographic limits of the proposed city and show the area's population. The petition must be signed by at least 50 voters and 15 percent of the property owners in the area proposed for incorporation. Once the petition is certified as being correct, the Secretary of State appoints election commissioners who will conduct and oversee an election to determine if incorporation occurs. The residents of the proposed area then vote on several questions. First, should the area incorporate? Second, what name will the proposed city use? Third, what form of government will it use? (See Figure 2)   Fourth, what election procedures will the city use?    (See Figure 3)    And, fifth, the length of terms for city council and the mayor.

If a majority of the voters approve incorporation in the election, the Secretary of State issues an incorporation certificate which becomes effective when the first city council is elected. (Communities which incorporated in the 1990s include Reidville in Spartanburg County and Rockville on Wadmalaw Island in Charleston County.) This certificate can be revoked if the population of the city drops to less than 50 people, or if a two-thirds majority of the voters in a city vote to surrender the certificate. (Only one community in recent years has dissolved itself.) In some cases, the Secretary of State can revoke a certificate if it is determined that a city has failed to provide any services, collect any taxes, or conduct city elections. 1


A second way property can be brought within a city or people become citizens of a city is by way of annexation. This is a legal way of adding land that is contiguous to a city to it thereby expanding the city.     South Carolina provides three methods of annexation: the 100-percent petition method, the 75-percent petition method, and the petition/election method. 

The 100% petition method provision stipulates that any area which is contiguous to a municipality may be annexed by the filing of a petition signed by all the property owners in the area. The annexation is completed upon Council’s adoption of an annexation ordinance. The 75-percent method provision is similar except that the petition must be signed by at least 75-percent of the freeholders who own 75-percent of the assessed valuation of the real property in the area. The annexation too is complete when the Council enacts an ordinance declaring the area to be annexed.

In 2000, the General Assembly passed a law reinstating the petition/election method of annexation that a U.S. District Court previously had ruled unconstitutional. The petition/election method begins with a petition of 25% of the electors living in the proposed annexation area. The election is held only in the area proposed to be annexed. If a majority of the votes cast by the electors in the proposed annexation area is in favor of the annexation, the Council may approve an ordinance annexing the area. However, this may only be done following a 30-day period during which the results of the election are published in a newspaper of general circulation – that is unless 5-percent of the electors within the entire municipality request that an election regarding the proposed annexation be held citywide. If 5-percent of the city electorate request a citywide election and a majority of the city voters are in favor of the proposed annexation, the council may proceed with final reading on the ordinance to annex. However, if a majority of the votes are against the annexation in either case, the issue is effectively tabled. When using this method there are opt-out provisions for certain agricultural real property and for real property whose assessed value is 25-percent or more of the total assessed value of the real property of the proposed annexation area.

The prohibition of strip annexation is a further limitation place on South Carolina municipalities. Previously, cities were allowed to annex public right-of-way to establish contiguity with target properties and facilitate their annexation. Gross abuses of this provision of annexation law, resulted in a ban of this tactic. Essentially, the law reads that for every linear foot of public right-of-way annexed a municipality must annex adjoining property. This effectively prevents municipalities from reaching out and grabbing properties of interest through road or other right-of-ways without first annexing property fronting those right-of-ways. Clearly, the limitations placed on municipalities by South Carolina annexation law are detrimental to the sustained fiscal viability of cities – as outward growth is in all practicality severely constrained.  (See Figure 4) Because South Carolina is covered by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, any annexation must also be approved by the United States Justice Department.


The final method by which a person could become a citizen of a particular city is through consolidation. South Carolina's Constitution (Article 8, Section 8) permits governmental consolidation, or the merger of existing jurisdictions. This may refer to the consolidation of cities and a county, or to two or more cities merging into one city.

City-county consolidation was authorized by a 1972 amendment to the state's Constitution. In 1992 the legislature passed an act providing the means to consolidate cities and a county. Few attempts have been made, however, to consolidate cities and counties in South Carolina. Richland County and Columbia was the last in 1994 to consider merger but the effort failed. As in the nation as a whole, city-county consolidation remains an attractive idea but is seldom successful today.

A few cities, however, have consolidated into one government. Recent examples would include Batesburg and Leesville in Lexington County joining to form one city, Batesburg-Leesville. In Spartanburg County, Pacolet Mills and Pacolet merged to form one city government. Such mergers are not frequently accomplished.

Forms of City Government

The Local Government Law of 1975, otherwise referred to as the Home Rule Act, gives cities a choice of three forms of municipal government. These are the Mayor-Council, Council and the Council-Manager forms of government. In all three forms, however, the voters elect a mayor at-large and a city council. The duties and powers of the mayor and council differ depending on the form of government, as we shall see below. 2

Mayor-Council (or Strong-Mayor) Form

The Mayor-Council form of city government is the most popular among South Carolina's cities with approximately 160 of the 269 cities (59%) adopting this form. (See Figure 5) Under this form, a mayor and a city council of at least four members are elected by city voters. The council is responsible for deciding what services the city will provide, how much will be spent on those services and how money will be raised by taxes and other sources of revenue. It adopts annually a budget for the city. What makes this form of government unique is that the mayor is the city's chief administrative officer or chief executive. He or she is responsible for day-to-day oversight of city departments, hiring and other personnel actions, and the preparation of the annual budget which is presented to the city council. Yet, at the same time, the mayor also sits on the council as one of its members, albeit the presiding officer. As such, the mayor can vote on measures before the council just like any other member of the council. Thus, the mayor acts in a legislative capacity as well as the executive. Certain duties, executive in nature, are clearly assigned by state law to the mayor though. The mayor and the council may, if they both agree, hire a city administrator to act in a role similar to that of city manager discussed below. The administrator's duties are not prescribed by state law, however, and are what the mayor and council mutually agree upon.

Council (or Weak Mayor) Form

The Council form of city government is the second most popular in terms of adoption. ( See Figure 6) It is also the most flexible form since it allows for a great deal of variation depending upon the wishes of the council. In its basic form, the council form is one in which the mayor is elected at-large but is mostly a symbolic official without any substantial executive power. The mayor does preside over the council meetings and votes, but has no more formal power than any other member of the city council. Hence, the term "weak mayor" which refers to a lack of formal executive authority. This does not preclude the mayor from exercising "informal" authority, however, and having a great deal of influence with the city council or other city staff. Formally, though, executive and legislative power is lodged in the mayor and council jointly in this form of government. There is no separation of powers between the executive and the legislature since the council as the legislature has both types of power. Thus, this form is truly unique.

The flexibility found within the Council form of city government is that the council may by ordinance, or even by custom, delegate power to the mayor, a city administrator, or another employee, thereby altering the way the government operates. (A council cannot delegate its legislative powers, however.) Thus, someone other than the council could be delegated the power to prepare the city's budget, or supervise employees, for instance. As noted already, a city administrator may be hired by the council. And, indeed, many cities with the council form of government do exactly that. In these instances, the city administrator's authority may vary from city to city, unlike the city manager who has powers clearly specified in state law which are uniform across the entire state.

Council-Manager Form

The third form of city government available and used in South Carolina is the Council-Manager form. (See Figure 7) It is a more recent form which sprang from the Progressive Era as a reform to city government. There are about 27 cities in our state that use this form.

Like the Mayor-Council form, the manager form also has a chief executive, but this time the executive is not elected, but rather appointed by the mayor and council and serves at their will and pleasure. There is still a mayor, with the mayor presiding over the council's meetings and voting as other members. For symbolic purposes the mayor may still perform some duties like his or her strong-mayor counterpart. Formally, however, the mayor is a weak-mayor. Again, though, it is important to note that informal power may exist and a number of mayors in manager cities have been noted for their strong personalities and leadership on key issues.

Administrative duties in this form of city are assigned to the city manager. (See Figure 8) The intent of the form of government is that the mayor and council would hire a professional to manager the city. By law the council is not supposed to interfere with the day-to-day operations of the city or its employees, such as giving instructions to employees or department heads. But, the council can set policy for the city departments, and it is still charged with adopting the annual budget. What we find is a separation of powers, somewhat like in the strong-mayor cities, between executive and legislative powers, except that in this instance the executive is not an elected official.

With the exception two of our larger cities, Charleston and North Charleston, every city of any size in South Carolina has adopted the council-manager form of government with only one or two exceptions.

Popular Influences on City Government

Citizens and voters of a city can influence their city government in a number of ways. Note that we used two references--citizens and voters. All citizens of a city may not be registered to vote, and if registered may not vote. The percentage of eligible voters who typically vote in city elections is usually small--under 15 or 20 percent. Some observers think this is due to the fact that many city elections are isolated elections meaning they are held on dates other than the November general election date. Others disagree, or have reasons for wanting to avoid using the general election date. South Carolina law, however, allows cities to designate their own election date for city elections, unlike other local governments in the state, and as a result city elections are held throughout the year.

Thus, voting is one of the primary ways citizens can influence their government. Indeed, for most citizens it is the only contact they have with their city. Voting and elections are not the only ways citizens can influence their city, however. Some citizens are appointed to serve on citizen committees, boards or commissions as volunteers who deal with various issues. Still others may volunteer to assist city departments or programs. And, some citizens attend public meetings, perhaps even speaking out at public hearings, writing letters or making phone calls to city officials to express their opinion on issues. The most common method of participation, however, is still voting in elections to elect city council members and the mayor, or to initiate, approve or disapprove a specific policy or decision affecting the city.

City Elections

Unlike counties, cities in South Carolina have a number of methods to choose from for electing their city council and mayor. (See Figure 3) These are provided for by state law. The city council is responsible for selecting the method of election each city will use. Residents of the city may petition to change the method used also.

A number of decisions have to be made when a city decides how to elect its governing body. First, what type of election will be held--partisan or nonpartisan? Second, how will candidates be nominated? Third, how will council members be elected? Fourth, what length of term will be used for the mayor and council?

The answer to the first two questions is typically found when the first question is resolved. Elections can be partisan or nonpartisan. Partisan elections are those in which candidates run as members of a political party (or as an independent). Thus, party affiliations are actually shown on the ballot. And, political parties typically have some role in determining who will run for office under their banner. Typically this is through a party primary election. So, if a city decides to use partisan elections, generally the candidates will be selected in party primary elections held prior to a general election. If a nonpartisan election is used, typically there is no primary. Candidates can simply file a form and pay a fee to have their name placed on the city ballot and then run for a council seat or for mayor. In short, there is no nomination process.

Beginning in the Progressive Era, local government reformers in the United States pushed for nonpartisan elections in order to reduce the influence of political parties and partisan politics in local government administration. The result of that reform idea can be seen in states like South Carolina in which the majority of cities today use nonpartisan elections. Thus, the reform tradition remains popular in our state.

The third decision is whether city elections will be from districts or wards, or at-large, or some combination. Districts or wards are geographic areas within the city which elect a council member. An at-large arrangement is one in which all the voters of the city can vote for all the candidates for council. Mayors are always elected at-large in South Carolina. Cities may decide to use a combination of at-large election and districts which gives them considerable flexibility. Recent years have seen many cities with diverse populations switch from at-large to district elections as a result of federal civil rights laws and pressure from civil rights activists and federal officials concerned about minority representation.

The final decision concerns the length of office term. The choice: two or four years. If four year terms are chosen, they are staggered so that every two years some of the council are due for election. No more than half of the council can be elected at any time. This does not include the mayor, however, so when his or her seat is up for election, there is a majority of the council being elected. Two year council terms are not staggered and the entire council and mayor are elected at one time.

The responsibility for conducting city elections is usually placed in a municipal election commission appointed by the city council. This body consists of three members who cannot hold any other elective office. Their job is to assure that elections are held properly, to appoint poll managers, prepare ballots, distribute them, count them and certify the results of each election. They also conduct hearings on election results if necessary. They may hire additional workers to assist them as necessary. If a municipal election commission is not appointed, the county election commission usually assumes this duty.

Initiative and Referendum

Another way citizens can influence their city's programs and policies is through the initiative and referendum. Both of these direct democracy devices were promoted during the Progressive Era as ways to allow citizens to have more influence over their government. States in the western United States in particular adopted these ideas and have used them extensively, although opinions vary regarding whether they have worked as intended. South Carolina law allows the use of both devices but in a restrictive fashion.

The initiative is a device that allows citizens to initiate or propose a law (called an ordinance at the local level of government) or policy. In South Carolina, at least 15 percent of the registered voters who voted in the most recent city election must sign a petition which includes a proposed ordinance or policy. The signatures and voting status of those who signed the petition is certified by the municipal election commission. Once this is done, the city council must consider the proposed ordinance or policy. If they reject the ordinance or policy, or adopt it in significantly different form than proposed, the measure is then put before the city's voters in a special election not less than 30 days or more than one year from the council's action.

While it might appear at first glance that this device would be widely used by citizens with an interest in particular subjects, in fact it is rarely used in South Carolina. This is probably because state law says that the initiative cannot be used for ordinances that call for spending money or setting taxes. Thus, the application of the idea is very restrictive when these subjects are excluded.

The other direct democracy device is the referendum which allows citizens to vote on whether to approve or disapprove a specific policy proposal. In South Carolina, two types of referenda are available to the citizenry--bond referenda and advisory referenda. State law in South Carolina restricts local governments to a certain level of debt without citizen approval through a referendum. (The debt limit or ceiling is eight percent of assessed property values in a city or county.) Thus, if a city wanted to borrow more than it's debt ceiling allowed the council to approve without voter input, the city would have to hold a bond referendum and give the voters an opportunity to express their opinion. The results would be binding.

In some instances the initiative and the referendum can be combined. This would involve debt again. If the citizens object to a decision of the city council to enter into debt or borrow money (even though it may not exceed the city's debt limit), they can initiate a petition to call for repeal of the debt. Once more, 15 percent of the voters who voted in the last city election must sign the petition calling for repeal of the debt. If the petition is certified by the city's election commission, the city council must then either revoke the debt or hold a bond referendum within 30 days to a year after the council's decision. The decision of the voters is once more final.

The other type of referenda is advisory only, as the name implies. An advisory referenda can be initiated by the voters themselves using the approach outlined above, or by the city council itself. The results of the referendum, however, are not binding on the council. It is not uncommon for cities to use this device to get public input when the council is confronted with a decision that they feel is controversial or they are unsure of exactly how the public feels on an issue.

Providing City Services

South Carolina's cities provide an array of services to their citizens, and sometimes to people who live outside their city boundaries as well. It is important to remember, though, that each city is different and specific services may not be offered by all cities or in the same way. Moreover, as a state of small cities and towns, size affects the ability of a city or town to offer certain services.

The most frequently provided city services are police and fire protection, followed by water service and garbage collection, building code enforcement and sewage treatment. Probably half or more of South Carolina's cities provide these services. Once past these, however, a great deal more variation exists. Some cities provide recreation and leisure services, planning and zoning, school crossing guards, parking garages, libraries, jails, road construction and maintenance and emergency medical services to name a few service options. The mix, as one might suspect, depends on the needs of the community and its ability to afford to provide a service.

Oversight of a city's services may vary depending on the form of government used by the city. In the council-manager form of city government, the city manager is the primary person responsible for administration of city services on a day-to-day basis. In the strong-mayor form of government, it is the mayor. In the council form, it may vary depending on how the council wishes to operate. The latter two forms of government may hire a city administrator whose administrative duties will depend on the individual city. The duties of the city manager, on the other hand, are stated in state law and do not depend on the individual city council's preferences.

In general, the organizational structure of South Carolina cities is streamlined, resembling a pyramid with neat and clean lines of authority. (Counties, on the other hand, are not streamlined, having numerous elected department heads and fragmented organizational structures with competing authority.) Some cities, however, do have unique organizational features created prior to Home Rule which persist. A notable example are the cities with Commissions of Public Works (CPWs). These are entities which deal with utility services, such as water and sewer services, and which are governed by an appointed commission. The city council appoints the commission, but once appointed the CPW is virtually autonomous from city oversight and management.Yet, the CPW is a part of the city. Only a handful of cities in South Carolina have such entities today, but they are a marked deviation from the typical structure of most cities.

In the process of administering a city's services, whoever has oversight responsibility will have to deal with the need for management. Good management is built on a number of bases--including skills in budgeting and financial management, personnel management, planning and other functions as needed.

Managing a City

Financial Management

Budgeting, managing revenues and expenditures, managing cash, purchasing, and protecting the city's assets through risk management are typical functions of financial management. State law requires that every city adopt annually a budget which balances. The budget provides an estimate of revenues the city expects to collect from all sources, and indicates how it intends to spend the money.

The annual budget covers a 12 month period known as a fiscal year. For most cities this is the same as the state's fiscal year--July 1 through June 30 of the following year. A few cities, however, define their fiscal year differently, which the law allows. Developing a budget can take several months each year. It usually involves city department heads, the city's executive (mayor, manager, administrator or council depending on the form of government), and city staff. Estimates are prepared of expenditures for the coming year, needs are identified, priorities established, and revenues estimated. All of this is discussed, put into a document that can be given to the city council, and communicated to the public.

The city council must adopt the budget by local ordinance each year. Ordinances are adopted at the municipal level by either two or three readings, depending upon local preference. The law also requires that a public hearing be held on the annual budget before it is adopted. Every budget is composed of revenues and expenditures.

Revenues. Revenues are simply the money the city collects through taxes, charges and fees, fines, grants, investments, licenses and other means to operate the city. Specific sources of revenue can vary from city to city, as well as the degree of reliance upon different sources. Typical sources of revenue that cities rely upon in South Carolina, however, include the following: property taxes, business licenses and permits, fees or charges for service (such as garbage collection), fines and forfeitures (such as parking and traffic fines), aid from other governments (such as the state or federal government), and in some cases a local sales tax. Unless authorized by the state legislature, a city cannot use a revenue source of its own choosing. Thus, South Carolina cities cannot levy a local income tax, or a payroll tax, or levy a sales tax other than currently authorized by state law.

Some cities also provide what are referred to as utility services, meaning they provide electric, gas, water or sewer service to customers or citizens inside or even outside of the city. Because they services have a business-like character they are budgeted and accounted for differently than general city services. Thus, they are grouped in a set of accounting funds known as proprietary funds or enterprise funds. These are distinguished from general revenues, such as the property tax, which are placed in a general fund. Sanitation services, if paid for by a fee rather than the property tax, are usually placed in a proprietary fund.

Money that is raised locally by a city is referred to as own-source revenue. In the mid-1990s, 43 percent of cities own-source revenue came from the property tax, a percentage which has steadily declined in recent years due to the unpopularity of the property tax. (See article -The Property Tax: Why it Persists.) This has resulted in cities searching for alternate sources of revenue to reduce their reliance on the property tax. Of all the revenues that cities collect, their own-source revenues in the mid-1990s accounted for 82 percent of their revenue. This figure has been increasing for many cities as federal and state aid has declined and local governments have had to rely more on their own resources to provide services. (See Chart 1: Own Source Revenue)

Revenues that are not own-source include grants and aid from the state and federal government. Federal grants have declined significantly in recent years but continue to provide some aid to some cities. Most federal funds tend to be for specific purposes, such as Community Development Block Grants and Housing and Urban Development Grants. State aid tends to come mostly from state-shared revenue, of which the largest component is the Local Government Fund. This fund is not less than 4.5 percent of the state's general fund revenue from the previous fiscal year and is apportioned by formula to cities and counties and then by population based on the last census. This aid is used to support general spending by cities and is not tied to any particular program. The accommodations tax is another state-shared revenue that can be significant for cities which attract tourists. Cities on the coast obviously may collect large sums from this source, while inland cities may collect no revenue from it at all.

Other revenue sources exist as well, such as interlocal revenue when one city contracts with another local government to provide a service. The most common contracts are cities contracting fire service to portions of a county or other cities. Another source of revenue may be interfund transfers when a city transfers money from enterprise funds to their general fund. Thus, revenue sources can be complex and budgeting in a city varies greatly in its difficulty depending upon the specific revenue mix it has access to and the resulting flexibility in apportioning costs of city services.

Expenditures. Cities raise money in order to spend it on services for their citizens. The typical city spends more than half of its general revenue on wages and salaries of its employees, followed by about a third of the remaining revenue on city operations. The remaining expenditures, which are small in the aggregate, go for capital purchases [or expensive items that usually last longer than a year, like a fire truck] and for land and construction.

Five functional areas account for nearly 90 percent of city spending in South Carolina. These are public safety, administration, environment and housing, recreation and culture, and transportation. Of these, two--public safety and administration--account for about 60 percent of all city general expenditures. Thus, it would fair to characterize most cities as providing basic, essential services that people need in an urban setting. The majority of their general government expenditures reflect this with them devoting $6 out every $10 to fire and police services and city administration to support public safety and the remaining city services.

(See Charts 2 and 3. Examples of innovation in budget and finance can be found in Rock Hill and Myrtle Beach.)

Cash and Risk Management and Procurement. Cities, like other organizations in the private sector, also have to manage the revenue that they collect by placing it in banks, and investing it temporarily until it is needed in order to produce additional revenue through interest income. In addition, cities have to try to minimize employee accidents and injuries, and safeguard city property and assets to reduce the likelihood that they will be lost, stolen or damaged. They also have to buy materials and supplies to carry out their operations and services, which means they want to try to follow sound, professional purchasing or procurement policies in order to assure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. These functions are also a part of financial management and require training and expertise. This is one of the reasons cities often hire professional managers or administrators.

Personnel Management

Cities are labor intensive, meaning they depend upon people to provide most of their services, rather than technology or other equipment. Public safety and administration are the functions that overall employ the over 70 percent of city employees, followed by a number of other areas. (See Chart 4)

Like most any organization, cities depend on their employees to provide services and solve problems. Thus managing human resources, or personnel management, is important if employee talents and abilities are to be used effectively and efforts coordinated to assure that goals and objectives are pursued as intended by the city council.

Managing people in a work force has become much more complicated today than it was in the past. Some of this is due to federal and state laws, and court decisions, that deal with employment issues. These interrelationships illustrate also how local governments are bound up in an intergovernmental web of relationships which govern how they administer their workforce and services, and on what they must expend money. Some brief examples of actions at the federal and state level that impact cities will help illustrate this point.

In 1964 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act aimed at combating racial discrimination, but included in it a prohibition against sex discrimination as well. With subsequent amendments, a number of protections have been extended to Americans to try to protect them against unlawful discrimination based upon race, color, religion, national origin or sex. Other federal laws have aimed at assuring equal pay for equal work for men and women. In 1967 Congress dealt with age discrimination in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act for people over age 40. In 1973 it passed the Rehabilitation Act dealing with physical or mental handicap discrimination. Other disabilities were addressed in the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. More recently, in 1993, it passed the Family and Medical Leave Act dealing with employees who need extended leave to deal with serious personal or family medical conditions.

All of these statutes apply to local governments. Thus, managers and supervisors today have to be aware of employee rights and employment rules, or risk legal challenges. It is not only federal laws that affect local government, however. State laws do also. South Carolina, for example, has statutes that deal with worker's compensation claims and whistleblowing [allegations of inefficiency, fraud, waste or abuse by an employee that are made public]. But, it is not just legislative bodies that impact upon personnel management. The courts do as well. Federal courts, for example, have interpreted the Civil Rights Act of 1871, section 1983, to mean that a state [which includes its local governments] cannot deprive a citizen of his or her rights whether they derive from the United States Constitution, statutes, or agency rules. Thus, citizens have a right to sue a local government for certain infractions of the law regardless of what state law says.

Another example of judicial decisions that impact local government, but this time from the state level, concerns the notion of employment-at-will. Historically, South Carolina has been considered as employment-at-will state meaning that either the employer or the employee could end an employment relationship for any reason, good or bad. The at-will doctrine can be abolished entirely, as some states have done, or exclusions created by legislation and court decisions. The federal laws noted above, for example, are exclusions to the at-will doctrine and apply nationwide. In South Carolina, the State Supreme Court has significantly amended the doctrine by a decision know as the Springs case in which it said that employee handbooks could constitute a contract between employee and employer thereby establishing rules the employer must comply with before an employee can be disciplined or dismissed. 3

Thus, managers in government today must be aware of a complex body of rules, laws, court decisions and regulations that deal with employee rights and procedures. This is much of what personnel management means today. In addition, of course, it involves very traditional but necessary knowledge of such things as how to recruit and train employees, how to set wages and salaries, and how to evaluate employees in order to provide feedback and help improve their performance. These skills and abilities are just as necessary in a city today as they are in a private business.


Increasingly cities in South Carolina are concerned with planning for their community, particularly in areas that are growing rapidly like coastal counties, and the midlands of the state. When local governments use the word "planning" they are usually talking about physical, land-use planning. A land use plan for a city shows different uses of land now, and projected uses in the future. [Such uses might include single-family residential uses, multi-family residential uses, intense commercial, light commercial, industrial uses, and so forth.] These uses are designated as zones, hence the term zoning. By using zoning, cities attempt to influence what use can be made of property in different parts of the community. The idea is to separate uses that conflict, such as a large factory or industry being adjacent to a residential neighborhood.

State law authorized cities to plan in South Carolina earlier in this century. Indeed, in order to engage in zoning, a city must have a land-use plan. In 1994 the state legislature passed the Comprehensive Planning Act which replaces all previous local planning acts in 1999. The 1994 Act basically establishes a uniform set of rules and guidelines for local government planning. Local governments are authorized to engage in planning for many purposes, including preservation of historic areas and buildings. Much planning activity today focuses on growth and its impact on local government. Cities can plan alone, or they can joint with their county and engage in joint planning. In addition, cities can participate in some regional planning efforts by working with councils of governments which are multi-county voluntary organizations that engage in some planning and try to foster cooperation between local governments.


South Carolina's cities are an important part of the local government landscape. Of the nearly 3.5 million people who live in South Carolina, an estimated 1.4 million lived in cities in 1994. The vast majority of these are small cities or towns. If we expand our perspective to urban areas, which include cities and unincorporated urban areas on their fringe, many more people live in an urban environment. These people often interact with cities by commuting to work in a city, or shopping there, or visiting them.

Cities are important because they provide the basic, day-to-day services we need to live together. City government is also accessible for most people. One can visit City Hall, easily attend a city council meeting, speak to a council member, and deal face-to-face with city employees. At the same time, cities are one actor in a complex intergovernmental web of governments--federal, state and local--that are mutually dependent upon one another.

The quality of life we enjoy is to a large extent dependent on a city. And, of all local governments, cities are perhaps some of the easiest for citizens to influence by the simple act of voting. Yet, citizens also seem uninformed about their city government, how it is structured and run and what exactly it does. The challenge is clear. Citizens can make a difference in their community if they become knowledgeable and participate in their city government. To do that, they need to also understand what their city is and how it operates. This publication has hopefully contributed somehow to that goal.




1 See Sherrill, George R. and Robert H. Stoudemire. Mu nicipal Government in South Carolina.  Columbia,
        S. C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1950.

2 For further information on the forms of municipal govern ment and their powers see Bates, Roy D. Forms          and Powers of Municipal Governments. Columbia, S. C.: Center for Governance, Institute of Public Affairs,          The University of South Carolina, 1997. See also, South Carolina Code of Laws, Sec. 5-5-10.





Figure 1

Key Terms

County A form of local government created by most states to carry out duties such as law enforcement, taxation, elections and maintenance of vital statistics. They may contain several cities.
City or municipality A legally established, or incorporated local government created to provide urban type services to people who live close together.
Neighborhood A part of a city with its own distinct identity, but without its own government.
Central city The dominant city in an urban area, usually the largest, oldest and most diverse.
Suburb A community of people who live near a city, typically with lower densities than in a city, which may or may not be organized as an independent city government.
Rural People who live in relative isolation in the countryside, often with farming as a major occupation.
Town Traditionally a self-contained urban community with a small population, usually some distance from the nearest city. It may have its own government, or be a city in legal terms, or be unincorporated. In some states towns and townships are forms of local government distinct from cities.
Metropolitan Area An urbanized area with more than one city (or town) and often more than one county that has social, economic and cultural connections, but without a single government of its own.
Adapted with revision from: Christensen, Terry. Local Politics: Governing at the Grassroots. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1994, p. 34.



Table 1

Early South Carolina Cities


Year Incorporated



































Source: Sherrill, George R. and Robert H. Stoudemire (1950). Municipal Government in South Carolina. Columbia, SC: USC Press.



Table 2

South Carolina Cities by Population Size

Population Range



Less than 1,000



1,000 - 2,499



2,500 - 4,999



5,000 - 9,999



10,000 - 24,999



25,000 - 99,999



100,000 +





Table 3

S. C. Cities, 5,000 Population or More, in 1990










North Charleston

Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester











Rock Hill



Mount Pleasant









Myrtle Beach



Goose Creek

Berkeley, Charleston


Hilton Head Island












North Augusta






















Lexington, Richland






Anderson, Pickens


West Columbia







Greenville, Spartanburg























North Myrtle Beach


















Forest Acres






Lake City


















Moncks Corner














Figure 2

Forms of City Government

1.Council (Weak Mayor)

2. Mayor-Council (Strong Mayor)

3. Council-Manager


Figure 3

Methods of Elections Under the Local Government Law

Members of the council are elected at-large in the city. If there are five council seats to be filled, the five candidates receiving the highest vote totals are elected.

Members of the council may be elected from single-member districts (wards) in the city. The city council divides the city into districts or wards along neighborhood lines or established county or state lines. The candidate with the greatest number of votes from the district or ward is elected and represents the ward.

A combination of the above two forms in which some members of council are elected at-large while others are elected from single-member districts or wards may be used.

Council members may be elected at-large, but they must be residents of a particular district or ward. All citizens in the city vote for the council member from each ward, in contrast to having each ward elect its own council member.

Members of the council are elected at-large, with some required to be residents of particular districts or wards and the rest having no residence requirements. Whoever receives the largest number of votes for the seat is elected.


Figure 4

Methods of Annexation in South Carolina


Majority Petition and Election

·          25 percent or more of the electors in an area contiguous to a city can petition city council to hold an annexation election

·          City council certifies the petition, and the county election commission conducts an election

·          A majority of citizens in the proposed area must approve the annexation; if five percent of the electors in the city petition the council, an election must be held there as well and approved by a majority of voters

Petition and Ordinance

·          75 percent of the landowners owning at least 75 percent of the assessed value of property in the area to be annexed petition city council for annexation

·          Council certifies the petition and passes an ordinance approving the annexation

Special Situations

·          If an area is limited to property already owned by the existing city, city council can annex the area by simply passing an ordinance approving the annexation





Figures 4,5, 6, 7 and 8 are not included.  See the pdf file.



Chart 1

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Chart 2 & 3

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Chart 4

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