Op-Ed: Condition of courthouse isn’t just a county issue

The Herald-Journal published my op-ed on the condition of the courthouse:

The problems with state legislators failing to fully fund the local government fund in accordance with state law reached a new low last week.

Legislators in Columbia have voted since 2009 to override the current law and fund the local government fund (LGF) at less than the amount required. Last week, word leaked out that Rep. Brian White, chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, unveiled a plan at the House GOP Caucus meeting to completely eliminate the LGF.

Spartanburg County’s elected leaders, County Council and our legislative delegation, have been leading the charge on this issue because we see the problems caused by this shortsighted policy.

The purpose of the LGF is to help local governments offset the cost of state mandates. Many officials in Columbia campaign against unfunded federal mandates from Washington, but the same officials ignore the unfunded mandates they are creating in Columbia. These state mandates require counties like Spartanburg to provide resources for state agencies or state functions in addition to the county’s role as a local government handling local issues.

Taxpayers paid money to Columbia in the form of state taxes to fund these services. When the legislators do not send this money back to the counties, your county tax dollars are diverted away from county functions like roads or parks, or even tax reduction, to pay for state functions.

These mandates add up to real numbers. In fiscal year 2014, Spartanburg County’s revenue under the statute should have been $13 million. If the legislators had followed the law, county taxpayers would have still been forced to come up with an additional $1.3 million to cover state mandates. Instead, the revenue from the LGF was $10.4 million, and county taxpayers were forced to come up with $3.9 million to pay for state-mandated functions.

Another issue in Spartanburg County has been in the news a lot lately: the courthouse. I recently had an opportunity to tour the courthouse and see the situation: leaks and water damage, mold and pest problems, and space issues. I believe we need to put all options on the table and fully discuss them to find a responsible solution to the problem.

This is an important issue to me, not just as an incoming County Council member or a member of our local bar, but as a resident. The courthouse is not just a place where guilty verdicts are handed down but also where victims of crimes receive justice. Family court is not only where marriages end in divorce but also where couple come to grow their family through adoption. Probate court is not only where loved ones come to probate a will but also where young couples come to start their journey together by applying for a marriage license. The local courthouse is part of the heart of our community.

Unfortunately, the issues at the courthouse tie directly into the state mandates.

I was disappointed to hear the opinion of some state officials recently that the courthouse is just a county issue. It is not. Every department in the courthouse is either a state agency or a mandated function from the state. Under the mandates, our county is required to provide the resources for this facility.

For example, some of the largest groups in the courthouse are our circuit courts and judges, family court and probate court. These are essential functions of our government and should receive adequate resources to meet their needs. These departments are not county agencies but part of our state judicial branch. State statutes require the county to provide physical facilities, salaries for personnel, and equipment and supplies for these state departments. The LGF is intended to offset this cost.

Of the $14.3 million Spartanburg County paid in net expenditures on state-mandated functions, close to $8 million, or 56 percent, was related to judicial functions housed in the courthouse. It would be hard to argue that the state does not have in interest in solving the facility issues with the courthouse.

The LGF alone certainly did not cause the problems at the courthouse. However, when the county is placed in the position of allocating shrinking resources among state as well as county agencies, it exacerbates the problem.

I believe county officials from across the state and state leaders need to have a serious discussion about potential reforms to the state-county mandates and the LGF. Balancing the state budget on the backs of local taxpayers and governments is not the conservative approach.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to working with our county administration, departments, other elected officials and taxpayers to come up with a long-term solution for the courthouse facility. I hope our state officials will partner with us to solve this problem.

Justin T. Bradley is an incoming Spartanburg County Council member from District 2.