Richland Co. taxpayers paid more than $62k in salaries & benefits for councilmembers who routinely missed meetings

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Published: Feb. 4, 2022 at 7:35 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 4, 2022 at 7:49 AM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Richland County financial records show thousands of taxpayer dollars went to a current and a former county councilmember in salary and benefits while those councilmembers regularly missed council meetings over the last two years.

2021 county records show taxpayers paid a total of $39,366.42 (comprised of his councilmember salary and contributions to his benefits) for District 6 Councilman Joe Walker III through Nov. 5, 2021.

A December 2021 WIS investigation found Walker did not attend more than half the county council’s meetings through November 9, 2021.

In 2020, taxpayers paid $22,739.22 for former District 7 Councilwoman Gwen Kennedy’s councilmember salary and benefit contributions combined.

County records show Kennedy also missed more than half of the meetings studied in a WIS investigation.

She also used the highly-scrutinized purchasing card system during that time.

WIS studied 2021 county records, and they do not show Walker using the system.

Councilmember attendance at meetings

A WIS investigation in December studied council attendance in 2020 and 2021 after a viewer reached out expressing concern about Walker’s presence at council meetings.

From the beginning of 2021 through Nov. 9, 2021, Walker missed 20 of the 36 meetings studied.

Records show he missed votes in another four meetings.

In 2020, Kennedy missed 22 out of the 39 meetings WIS studied. Additionally, there were three meetings where her partial absence led to missed votes.

WIS tallied Walker missed 221 votes and Kennedy missed 352 votes in the meetings studied.

You can find a breakdown of their attendance compared to their counterparts here.

Walker’s compensation

As part of the December story, WIS submitted a Freedom of Information request with Richland County for his taxpayer-funded compensation.

A paystub for the pay period ending on November 5, 2021 shows taxpayers had paid Walker $15,725.10 in salary to that point in 2021.

An SC Association of Counties report shows Richland County Councilmembers are paid $17,777 a year in salary.

The majority of Walker’s salary went to paying deductions for income taxes, Medicare, the state’s retirement plan, child life insurance, health insurance, dental insurance, and vision insurance.

After those deductions, Walker’s take-home salary was $5,349.27 through Nov. 5, 2021.

However, taxpayers also paid thousands for Walker’s benefits. Those included payroll taxes, Medicare, retirement, health, dental vision and life insurance.

Those taxpayer-paid contributions to his benefits added up to $23,641.32.

Those benefits combined with his salary resulted in the $39,366.42 all told. That number drops to $28,990.59 with deductions incorporated.

Richland County produced no documents showing Walker used a “p-card” for any purchases from 2018 through 2021.

Additionally, the county’s procurement card register shows no purchases either.

Richland County produced no documents showing Walker used a “p-card” for any purchases from 2018 through 2021.

Additionally, the county’s procurement card register shows no purchases either.

Meeting minutes published since WIS aired the original investigation (Dec. 9, 2021) found Walker has not missed a meeting nor a vote since the story aired.

In the December investigation, he told WIS his salary went to pay his insurance premiums. He did not reference any taxpayer contributions to those policies.

WIS contacted him about this story and he texted back a statement which reads in part:

The above statement regarding my salary is exactly as I stated when you interviewed me previously. The monthly payment on the $17,776.20 salary would be ~$1,485 a month, instead, it pays the health insurance premium and the little bit left (i think $400 or so) gets deposited.

Also: Your using the meetings as the sole denominator for our compensation is flawed. The numerous hours outside of our meetings that i dedicate to our county, district and constituents far outnumber those spent in our standing general session meetings. If you are doing a compensation calculation, surely it’s calculated on total hours worked, correct? Your calculus is not only flawed, it leans intentionally towards representing a false narrative, a slanderous one.

The work of county council members goes far, far beyond the regular meetings and includes countless hours of preparation and reading, countless hours of community and constituent engagement. I’m a county council member 100 percent of the time, especially in public. The volume of reading alone is enormous to understand complex issues. I would never take this job for the salary. The hours are too insane and the time away from family is too significant to work so much for so little pay. This is a true sacrifice for me. I lose money doing this!

WIS requested documentation from Walker on the hours spent outside of council chambers in service of his district. He has not provided any documentation, stating WIS should ask all council members to provide that information.

Walker said WIS should study salaries, insurance, p-card spending, council educational accounts and discretionary district spending accounts, and out-of-meeting time investment of other councilmembers.

WIS submitted Freedom of Information requests in relation to councilmember use of discretionary funds and education funds.

Richland County keeps a running register of P-card purchases, but its 2020 data is not published. WIS submitted a Freedom of Information request for the information.

Kennedy’s compensation

A county paystub for the pay period ending on Dec. 18, 2020 shows Kennedy’s 2020 salary to that point was $17,776.20. She also earned a bonus for longevity of service, resulting in an additional $355.55.

All told, her salary for 2020 to that point was $18,131.75

Taxpayers also paid $4,607.47 for her benefits, including federal income tax, Medicare, retirement, dental insurance, life insurance and vision insurance for Kennedy.

The total taxpayer expense (salary and benefits) for Kennedy over the period added up to be $22,739.22.

The deductions for Kennedy were more significant than Walker’s.

They include payments for Medicare, federal income tax, state retirement and dental insurance.

Additionally, her pay was deducted $10,500 over the course of 2020 for bankruptcy.

The resulting take-home salary was $4,572.42.

The combined take-home salary and taxpayer contributions to her benefits (after deductions) add up to $9,179.89.

Kennedy also frequently used the county’s purchase card system.

A June 2020 WIS investigation found she spent $1,001 so far that year on gas and food.

She did repay some gas purchases.

Publicly available p-card records did not show any p-card purchases in November or December 2020.

The website has since been updated, removing those reports. WIS has submitted a Freedom of Information request for all 2020 monthly reports.

The county’s response to WIS’s FOIA request for Kennedy’s compensation included p-card reports for January and for a portion of late February/March 2020. They show $228.92 and $249.53 respectively.

Attempts to arrange an interview with Kennedy were unsuccessful.

Attendance requirements

On the issue of attendance, Richland County Council policy only states: Each member shall be within the Council Chambers during its meetings unless excused or necessarily prevented. The Chair, if notified prior to the meeting, may excuse any member from attendance at meetings of the Council and its committees for any stated period upon reason shown, and such excused absence shall be noted in the minutes.

Richland County Council Chair Overture Walker did not return requests for comment on this story.

Similarly, Richland County does not have an ordinance compelling council attendance nor creating consequences for lack of attendance.

After quantifying Walker and Kennedy’s earnings, WIS reached out to the State Ethics Commission and the S.C. Attorney General’s office, which both declined to comment.

Attempts to arrange an interview with South Carolina Association of Counties Executive Director Tim Winslow were also unsuccessful.

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