Lawsuit challenges Richland Co.’s $6M road maintenance fee

Published: Jul. 26, 2021 at 8:26 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 26, 2021 at 11:53 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The way Richland County pays for its road maintenance is being challenged in state court.

Two Richland County residents, Martha Mitchell and Philip Washington Farey filed a lawsuit on July 9 asking a judge to find Richland County’s road maintenance fee invalid.

They also request refunds (with interest) for themselves and thousands of individuals/entities which own registered vehicles within the county.

If successful, the lawsuit would dismantle an estimated $6,000,000 in FY2022 funding for county road maintenance. It’s collected in $20 increments during vehicle registration.

It’s unclear how much money a refund program would cost the county.

Plaintiff attorney Ross Appel sent the statement: ”Richland County’s ‘road maintenance fee’ violates South Carolina law. Our lawsuit seeks to recover all illegally collected monies since the program’s inception.”

The lawsuit references a late June South Carolina Supreme Court Decision which invalidated a road maintenance fee in Greenville County.

RELATED STORY | SC Supreme Court ruling calls into question local government ‘user fees’ for services

The court found the Greenville County feepayers were not getting different benefits than members of the broader public. As a result, the court ruled the fees were taxes.

Most taxes cannot be implemented unless authorized by the General Assembly.

The ruling only immediately impacted Greenville County. However, in a concurring opinion, Justice John Kittredge wrote in part:

“Local governments, for obvious reasons, want to avoid calling a tax a tax. I am hopeful that today’s decision will deter the politically expedient penchant for imposing taxes disguised as ‘service or user fees.’ I believe today’s decision sends a clear message that the courts will not uphold taxes masquerading as ‘service or user fees.’ Going forward, courts will carefully scrutinize so-called ‘service or user fees’ to ensure compliance with section 6-1-300(6).”

The ruling did not mandate refunds.

The Richland County Council called a special meeting for Tuesday, July 27 where the council and Acting County Attorney Elizabeth McLean will review the fee ordinance and the lawsuit in executive session.

Richland County Council Chairman Paul Livingston said the money is needed.

“It is very important. You’re talking about road paving, you’re talking about potholes, you’re talking about dealing with major traffic jams. It’s important to Richland County,” he said.

He said if the fee is invalidated, the county could replace the money from the general fund. Livingston said those funds may come from increased property taxes, but the situation remains unclear. “How it will impact taxpayers at this point I cannot tell you. It may that be we can figure out some other kind of way to use some current funding to do that. I don’t know, but we have to assess how we’re going to fund taking care of our roads and bridges,” he said.

Richland County is one of several Midlands counties grappling with the consequences of the State Supreme Court ruling.

PREVIOUS STORY | Midlands county leaders faced with fallout of state Supreme Court ruling

Tim Winslow is the Executive Director of the S.C. Association of Counties, and said administrators across the state have begun reviewing their finances.

However, he cautioned against the Greenville ruling being seen as universal. “Each county ordinance needs to be determined by its’ own fact situation. Greenville’s was written differently than say Florence or Richland or Lexington,” he said.

He said his association is pushing for legislative action, where lawmakers would OK road maintenance fees. WIS reached out to several members of the Richland County Legislative Delegation, who said those talks have not yet gained traction.

Lawmakers return to the statehouse in January.

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