Richland County to comply with the state, correct "erroneous" penny tax spending

RICHLAND COUNTY, SC (WIS) - They talked with a team of half a dozen attorneys behind closed doors for almost two hours and, when they returned to face the public, Richland County Council members made a promise.

"I just hope that we gain the public's trust that we're doing the right thing and these Richland County council members are doing whatever is necessary to keep the public's trust that we're doing what we're supposed to do," said Councilman Norman Jackson.

Councilmembers said compliance is the goal – compliance with the South Carolina Department of Revenue (SCDOR) which has said for years that the county is misspending some of the money it's collected through its transportation penny tax program, which was approved by voters back in 2012 to improve roads, build greenways, and more.

"We told the public that we'd use only transportation money – the penny tax money – for transportation-related projects," Jackson said. 

The South Carolina Department of Revenue has said the county is illegally misusing some of the funds on a small business program (called the Small Local Business Enterprise program), on a mentor-mentee program, and on a couple "public information" firms. Days ago, the state supreme court seemed to agree in an order that told the county to get its act in order or stop spending the billions of taxpayers' pennies.

After the rare Friday night council meeting, most council members seemed to leave satisfied after voting on a measure to suspend the problem programs (the small business program, the mentor program, and the public relations expenditures) until the county can figure out the proper way to fund them. The suspensions will likely last for about two to three weeks.

"I want everything right," Councilman Jackson said. "I want to make sure that Richland County Council adheres to the supreme court's decision."

However, one councilman, Jim Manning, left noticeably upset.Manning voted 'no' to the temporary suspensions because he felt the county council didn't have all of the necessary information it needed to make an informed decision, including a copy of the ordinance that established the penny tax in the first place.

"Are you confident in the county's leadership on this issue?" WIS asked him.

"Oh, not at all," he answered. "Because there were questions asked in the public session and we don't get the answer."

Manning also noted two occasions in executive session where council members and staff discussed topics that legally should have been talked about in front of the public.

Meanwhile, Richland County pointed out that it's spent $242 million in penny tax funds and so far only one-percent of that was spent "erroneously."

One percent of $242 million is roughly $2.4 million. Jackson told WIS the county should reimburse any of the funds it improperly spent.

"On Friday, County Administrator Gerald Seals presented to Council a financial plan to remove the offending expenses, placing the County in legal compliance with the Court's ruling," the county wrote in a statement released after the meeting.

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