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Is your neighborhood safe? How about your tap water? Here’s how to see for yourself

The S.C. DHEC permit affixed to the entrance of La Mexicana restaurant in Bluffton indicates the establishment received an A rating during its most recent inspection.
The S.C. DHEC permit affixed to the entrance of La Mexicana restaurant in Bluffton indicates the establishment received an A rating during its most recent inspection. jkarr@islandpacket.com

The truth is out there.

Want to know why there were all those cop cars in the neighborhood the other day? Is that new restaurant safe to eat at? Does your tap water look or taste funny?

Fortunately, all of these answers can be found through a public records request. South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act (sometimes called FOIA) requires all records generated by the government, with some exceptions, to be released to anyone who asks for them.

Technically, the request can be informal and made over the phone or email. However, if you want a more formal approach, The Student Press Law Center has a tool that allows you to generate a Freedom of Information Act request. You just need to have some basic information about what information you’re seeking and how to contact the agency.

There is no one clearinghouse to request data from a state agency or local government, so it is often helpful to call a government agency beforehand and ask what is the best way to submit the request.

Once your request is filed, the agency has 10 business days to reply to your request to acknowledge it was received. Then, the agency has 30 calendar days to fulfill the request, according to state law. Agencies are also allowed to charge you for the cost of paper and labor if your request takes more than half an hour, so try to keep your request specific if you don’t want to pay.

Now that we have the basics down, here are a few examples of what important information is available publicly:

Police activity in your neighborhood

When it comes to crime, there is an easy way to find out exactly what is happening in your neighborhood. Every time somebody tells police they believe a crime has been committed, police create an “incident report” to document that alleged crime. Lucky for you, those incident reports are public record.

To get the reports, you’ll first need to narrow down the area you want to search. For example, instead of asking for all incident reports in Downtown Columbia, you may want to ask for all incident reports from Main Street or from 111 Main Street, 112 Main Street and 113 Main Street. You’ll also need to decide the time frame of your request. Do you want all reports this month? This year? The last three years? Make sure to note that in your request.

You can also request the officer narrative (a detailed description of what the officer saw), witness statements and a list of collected evidence. However, police can withhold some of this information for several reasons, including if the information releases the identity of a confidential source or discloses a law enforcement technique that might help a criminal avoid conviction.

Once you know exactly what you want, you can contact your local police or sheriff’s department and ask the best way to submit an FOIA request.

Restaurant Inspections

Your favorite restaurant may have an “A” in the window now, but past inspections may not have gone so well.

Restaurant inspection reports, created and maintained by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, are posted publicly online for anyone to browse.

Searchers simply need to enter the name of a restaurant and hit “go” to see inspections dating back to 2016.

You can also narrow down your search by entering a city, street name, county, date or grade.

The State also does a periodic roundup of the worst restaurant inspection offenders.

State employees salaries

The governor may be the state’s executive, but he is far from the highest paid public employee in South Carolina. University officials, athletic coaches, agency officials and others make more than the governor’s $106,078 salary, state records show.

The salaries of all government officials who make more than $50,000 per year is public record. After all, you’re the ones paying them.

Payroll records are housed at the S.C. Department of Administration, but The State did the hard work for you. The State has published searchable databases for state employee salaries, Lexington and Richland County school districts salaries, Lexington County government salaries and Richland County government salaries.

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Drinking water violations?

Flint, Michigan, is far from the only town where drinking the water can lead to vomiting, brain damage or rotting teeth. More than 90,000 S.C. residents, primarily in rural areas, drink water from systems that have failed annual inspections, according to a recent article from The State.

Those in charge of the water systems don’t always inform the public if the water contains harmful contaminants, the article also found. The State created a database to let you search for water quality inspection reports dating back to 2013.

The Freedom of Information Act allows you to dig even deeper. For example, you can also request full inspection reports using the order number listed in our database or copies of all alerts sent out to the public.

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Value of nearby homes

Whenever real estate is sold, the county tax assessor’s office records the amount that for which that house was sold. That information helps a government figure out how much property tax to charge you. Sale of nearby homes has a direct effect on the value of your home, so it’s important to know how much your investment is worth.

These public records are available online. To find them, type in a search engine something to the effect of “Richland County assessor search” and it should take you to a page where you can search by address or street name. The assessor’s office will show the most recent sale price for the home, the amount it was sold for previously, the date of sale and the property’s owner.

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