COPE – The Orangeburg County town of Cope will keep its town status – barely.

The S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office has confirmed the population of the town is 50, which is right at the minimum population needed for a town in South Carolina to maintain its incorporated status under state law.

The confirmed population does not include the addresses where Revenue and Fiscal Affairs could not verify whether there was a structure present, according to Shannon Wiley, the South Carolina Secretary of State Office’s general counsel and public information director.

Wiley said the Secretary of State’s Office received the address verification letter from Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Oct. 25 as well an affidavit from Cope Mayor Janet Joye.

Based on this information, Secretary of State Mark Hammond sent a letter to Joye the same day stating that “it appears that the population of Cope is over 50 inhabitants and that the S.C. Code of Laws … is not presently applicable.

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Cope developed around the railroad depot, which was built on land sold by Jacob Martin Cope.

“For that reason, our office will not remove the town of Cope from the listing of chartered municipalities at this time,” Hammond wrote.

“The Town Council and I are glad this issue is resolved,” Joye said in a statement.

“We are happy to be a town again,” mayoral candidate William Workman IV said, echoing Joye.

Workman previously expressed his desire for the town not to be taken over by the county.

“We prefer to take care of our own business,” he said.

The town’s small population was not much of an issue until Oct. 4, when Hammond sent Joye a letter warning her that the town would be disincorporated since the population fell below 50.

The 2020 census reported the town’s population as 37, a decline of 77 from the 2010 census. The town, according to the census, has the smallest population of any incorporated town in South Carolina.

Hammond’s notice followed a letter his office received from the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs office, which said the town’s “certificate of municipality must be automatically forfeited and void” as part of the state’s 1962 disincorporation law.

The law states “when following its incorporation a municipality’s population has decreased to less than fifty inhabitants, the certificate of the municipality must be automatically forfeited and void.”

Cope fighting to remain a town; population of 37 is too small to be SC municipality

Because the law does not specify how the population should be measured or the process used to forfeit the incorporation, the town immediately challenged the census count and the threat of disincorporation by conducting a face-to-face count of individuals living inside the city limits.

This effort resulted in a population count of 61 people, above the 50 required to remain incorporated.

The Secretary of State’s office and the RFA then began a process of verifying the addresses and determined the population was in fact 60.

Of these, the Secretary of State’s Office said four lived at an address outside the city limits and six were listed at various addresses that the RFA was unable to verify that a physical structure was present.

Of these six, one was living at an address with verifiable physical structure, but had a separate mailing address, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Sen. Vernon Stephens, D-Bowman jumped into action when he heard there was a possibility Cope would be no more as a town. Stephens represents the Cope area.

“I am more than happy that the decision has been reversed and that the town will remain Cope,” Stephens said. “The residents wanted to see their town remain as a town. To be able to identify with a municipality is important to them and the residents in the town and surrounding areas.”

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Stephens thanked those individuals he met with for helping with the process and the Secretary of State’s office expediting the process.

Stephens said the incident is a wakeup call to the importance of the census.

“We are going to be vigilant in the future of going back to the census and making sure citizens do that,” he said. “It is the patriotic duty to do such. This will send a lesson throughout the state of the seriousness of the census.”

Wiley said the office will review if any municipalities fall under the 50 threshold in the next census.

“However, the process under Section 5-1-100 may change if legislation is successfully passed to amend the municipal dissolution process,” Wiley said.

Cope would be in relatively uncharted territory if it ever did become disincorporated.

State officials say there is little to no statutory guidance on what would happen to services the town provides for its residents, what would happen with the taxes collected or what role the state would play in helping the town.

State officials say they do not have the statutory authority to “wind up” a town or dispose of its assets or liabilities.

Cope is not alone in seeing its incorporation status threatened.

Jenkinsville in Fairfield County had a population of 40, according to the 2020 census. There were 46 living in the town during the 2010 census. The town also got a letter of warning about its incorporation status.

It too challenged the census count and has since received confirmation from the RFA that the town’s population is over 50 and Jenkinsville will retain its incorporation status.

While both towns have been saved for now, it may not be the case in the future as population trends show the state’s urban areas are growing while its rural areas are hemorrhaging population.

Currently, South Carolina has 271 towns and cities and 14 have less than 100 people.

Govan in Bamberg County is the fifth least-populated town in the state with 56 people, according to the 2020 census. The town’s population at the 2010 census was 65.

Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.

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