Residents demand county council members resign after insurance, tuition payments

Residents packed the Fairfield County Council meeting Monday night
Residents packed the Fairfield County Council meeting Monday night

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, SC (WIS) - "It would behoove some of you to consider resigning your position now as your effectiveness and usefulness as a council is over," said one voter at a Fairfield County Council meeting Monday night.

"I have to ask you, what gives you the right to keep something that is not yours?" asked another voter of the council.

Voter after voter lined up Monday night and took shots at three of the seven members of Fairfield County Council.  They're angry after a Freedom of Information Act request uncovered spending by three council members that the state's top attorney calls a violation of the South Carolina constitution.

Council members earn $15,000 a year in salary.

But records show on top of that, Fairfield County Council Chairman David Ferguson, Mikel Trapp and Mary Lynn Kinley pocketed another $72,390 after they decided not to use the county's insurance plan. All three had insurance under their outside employers' plans.

County records show, instead of returning that insurance payment to taxpayers, the county cut all three monthly checks.

"I'm not a contentious person, I'm not here to have an argument with anyone," said county resident Bob Carrison. "I want things to be done right in Fairfield County."

Carrison drew up an agreement for the three council members who took the insurance payments. He passed the agreement out at the meeting Monday night, asking for Kinley and Ferguson to pay the money back. Carrison had one for councilman Trapp, but he didn't show up for the meeting.

"I would like this council to give that some consideration and in good conscience, sign these agreements and return that to the rightful owners--the tax payers of Fairfield County," Carrison said.

"This isn't a poor county, but we can't be wasting people's money. These are taxpayers' money--it's not money for council to just spend as they please," said Fairfield County Republican Party Chairman Kevin Thomas.

Thomas helped organize a group called Saving Fairfield. Their purpose is to see that Trapp, Kinley and Ferguson repay the checks they cashed, or else.

"We're not saying it's Republican's fault, it's Democrats' fault," said Thomas. "It's the elected officials' fault and they're the one's that's going to pay for that and they're going to pay by, 'You need to resign or we're going to run some people to replace them when the time's right.'"

"It's frustrating, we're getting angry," one voter told the meeting. "There's misinformation, there's rumor and we deserve, as stake holders, to have answers to every question."

"Mr. Ferguson, you resign," said another voter. "There is a vote of no confidence growing in this county. You do not have a vision, it's obvious the county is not going in the right direction and we would like for you to resign. We cannot afford you."

Fairfield County business and property owner Jimmy Ray Douglas wanted to see why county council was spending so much money, so he filed Freedom of Information Act requests with deputy administrator Davis Anderson.

Those spending records show Douglas just how much the decisions of the county council are affecting Fairfield County taxpayers.

"They're having to go up on the millage rate every year because of the way they spend money and that's the reason we're having to pay so much taxes," Douglas said.

The records show the spending on Mikel Trapp didn't stop with insurance payments.

County records show the county paid $26,806 in college tuition for Trapp. The money paid for Trapp's books, fees and tuition to Columbia College, a private liberal arts college for women.

Former administrator Phil Hinely approved the tuition spending and Trapp's handwritten notes on the reimbursement forms show he took out student loans, then asked the county to pay it off.

Douglas said county residents didn't know about the tuition expenses for Trapp until he got the financial documents.

"They didn't know about it until we did the FOI and we got that information and we let some people know about it and it spread pretty fast and they're really upset about it," Douglas said. "Just like the meeting we had last night, nobody liked it."

County spending records also show every council member gets a monthly check to cover their cell phones, mileage, computer expenses and office expenses. Each gets $195 for computer expenses, $210 for mileage, $125 for office expenses and another $265 for cell phones every month. They don't have to provide receipts for the money.

County taxpayers even paid for iPads for each council member and the council clerk.

It was these spending records that caused voters to pack council chambers Monday night. There were so many at the meeting, some had to sit in an overflow room.

"That gravy train needs to stop immediately," one voter told the council.

"It appears to me that you have been very busy enriching yourselves at the expense of the tax payer of Fairfield County," said another voter. "It's not what you were elected to do."

"Do the right thing," another voter told the council. "You have lost our trust. You should tender your resignation immediately."

Fairfield County Senator Creighton Coleman said current county spending is a burden for taxpayers.

"They've afforded it to this point, but they're struggling," he said.

Coleman and State Representative Douglas took a look at the council spending in April.

Eight years ago, Douglas said she went before Fairfield County Council and warned them about their spending. She was not an elected official then and she said the council ignored her.

"It was almost a complete, 'We're going to do our own thing anyway,' Douglas said.

Douglas said she and Coleman spotted the same problems eight years later and called the state attorney general's office for help.

"There is no question in that opinion that the improper reimbursements; insurance reimbursements and college tuition is improper," Douglas said. "It should not have occurred, it was a violation of the Constitution and in my opinion, the trust of the tax payers."

The attorney general's office issued the opinion last month, calling the $26,806 in college tuition paid to Councilman Mikel Trapp "suspect" and something Fairfield County had no legal right to do.

Trapp said he made arrangements to repay the tuition assistance and he is waiting to hear from his attorney regarding the cash payouts for insurance.

"After reviewing the premiums for supplemental insurance, the Administrator came to council with a request that they be given funds to buy their own supplemental insurance policies because it was so expensive for the county to purchase," Trapp said in a statement released to WIS. "The arrangement offered to us at half of what it would cost the county to insure us.  The insurance funding was approved without another option."

"As a benefit that already had been awarded to council members (Since 1999), we could not have supplemental insurance taken away," continued Trapp's statement. "We voluntarily joined in the phasing out of the policy and received cash payments to purchase an outside insurance. It was recently brought to the county's attention from an Attorney General's opinion that elected officials cannot receive cash payouts instead of insurance."

"Up until July 9, 2013, I was receiving Tuition Assistance through the Fairfield County's Tuition Assistance Policy offered upon approval to ALL county employees," said Trapp's statement. "It was recently brought to the county's attention from an Attorney General's opinion that elected officials cannot participate in the county's Tuition Assistance Program.  Therefore, as of July 9, 2013, I will no longer receive tuition assistance from the county, and arrangements have been made to repay all funds received."

The attorney general's opinion said the insurance payments to Trapp, Kinley and Ferguson were as wrong as tax payers paying for a councilman's education.

When WIS asked Ferguson about the spending at the meeting Monday night, he did not want to answer Jody Barr's questions.

"I don't have anything to say to you," he told Barr. "You are very disrespectful and I do not have anything to say to you."

When Barr asked Kinley about the insurance checks she cashed, Kinley responded, "I've already said what I thought in the paper, so whatever."

Barr asked Kinley if she would pay the money back and she replied, "I haven't decided. The county is still checking on that as a decision for us, it was not taken as just extra money, we took it in good faith, the administrator guaranteed us it was a fairer way--it saved the county money rather than paying $960 for a supplementary policy."

"Mr. Pope is having the attorneys to check everything out, so that's where we stand," she said.

When Barr told her the South Carolina Attorney General ruled that the expenses were a violation of the state constitution, Kinley responded: "It tells me that it's simply his opinion and that's why we're checking it out on the county's side."

Coleman said taxpayers have a recourse to get the money back.

"I suspect that the various council people who took this improper reimbursement, tuition payments, they have an option to pay it back and if they don't, they will be sued at some point," he said.

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