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County of Florence and Florence County Council v. West Florence Fire District

Supreme Court of South Carolina

March 7, 2018

County of Florence and Florence County Council, Respondents,
v.
West Florence Fire District, purported to have been created by S.C. Act No. 183 of 2014, the West Florence Fire District Commission, purported to have been created by S. C. Act. No. 183 of 2014, David Brown, Dustin Fails, Linda Lang Gipco, Richard Hewitt and C. Allen Matthews, each in his or her purported official capacity as a member of the West Florence Fire District Commission and the State of South Carolina, Defendants, of whom West Florence Fire District, purported to have been created by S.C. Act No. 183 of 2014, the West Florence Fire District Commission, purported to have been created by S. C. Act. No. 183 of 2014, David Brown, Dustin Fails, Linda Lang Gipco, Richard Hewitt and C. Allen Matthews, each in his or her purported official capacity as a member of the West Florence Fire District Commission are Appellants. Appellate Case No. 2017-000693

          Heard December 13, 2017

         Appeal from Florence County J. C. Nicholson, Jr., Circuit Court Judge

          Blake A. Hewitt, of Bluestein Thompson Sullivan LLC, of Columbia and Wallace H. Jordan, Jr., of Florence, for Appellants.

          Steve A. Matthews, of Haynsworth Sinkler Boyd, P.A., of Columbia and D. Malloy McEachin, Jr., of McEachin & McEachin, P.A., of Florence, for Respondents.

          Attorney General Alan Wilson and Deputy Solicitor General J. Emory Smith, Jr., for Defendant, State of South Carolina.

          HEARN JUSTICE

         In this declaratory judgment action, Florence County challenges the validity of the West Florence Fire District, arguing that it violates this Court's decision in Wagener v. Smith, 221 S.C. 438, 71 S.E.2d 1 (1952) and conflicts with the state's constitutional provisions concerning special legislation and home rule. See S.C. Const. art. III, § 34, and S.C. Const. art. VIII, § 7. The circuit court held in favor of Florence County on all three grounds, and the West Florence Fire District appealed. We affirm on Article VIII, section 7 grounds.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Prior to 2014, Florence County (the County) operated several special tax districts to fund fire protection services provided by not-for-profit fire departments. Each district implemented its own capital expense programs and bore responsibility for its own expenditures. To fund these services, the County assessed a millage rate based on ad valorem property taxes within each district, resulting in different millage rates between districts. For example, shortly before the County restructured the districts, residents in West Florence were taxed at a rate of 8 mills while Johnsonville residents were taxed at a rate of 40 mills.

         In 2014, in an effort to reform the method for financing fire protection services, the County hired a firm to analyze and recommend improvements to the existing scheme, one of which was to consolidate the districts into one district to achieve a more equitable millage rate scheme and to ensure adequate funding. Under the consolidated district, the County planned to assess a unified rate and provide more administrative oversight in an effort to lower millage rates for many residents, cut the insurance premiums for the district, and enact a more equitable funding scheme. However, while the proposal expected to curtail the high millage rates for many residents, the rate in West Florence would nearly triple.

         The County conducted public hearings and, over the course of a few months, garnered enough public support for the consolidation proposal. However, residents of West Florence, upset about their increased millage rate, looked to their representatives in the General Assembly for help. In response, the General Assembly passed Act No. 183 in the spring of 2014 (the Act), creating the West Florence Fire District which encompassed part of Florence County-mainly West Florence-and a negligible portion of Darlington County that consisted of the right-of-way along a one-mile stretch of Interstate 95 and three small parcels of land adjacent to the interstate.

         The General Assembly explained the purpose of the Act, stating:

[T]hat a certain portion of Darlington County primarily consisting of Interstate 95 from the Florence County line northward to Exit 169 in Darlington County is presently served by fire departments in Florence County because no fire department in Darlington County provides service to this area. This therefore presents concerns for the safety and well-being of citizens residing and traveling in this area in addition to placing additional burdens on fire personnel in Florence County which are called on to provide fire service in this area. The General Assembly has therefore determined to create a joint county fire district in the same manner other joint county fire districts have been established pursuant to this chapter, consisting of areas in two counties, to solve this problem, and to provide fire service to all areas of the district on the most economically feasible basis possible.

S.C. Code Ann. § 4-23-1000 (Supp. 2017) (emphasis added). When the County challenged the constitutionality of the Act, the General Assembly reacted by passing an amendment (Amended Act) that: (1) clarified the precise boundary of the district; (2) added part of a neighborhood in Darlington County[1] to the district; (3) transferred property from the prior district to the West Florence District; and ...


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