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Did Richland penny group pay a secretary $52,000? No, but they told council they did

The group of companies being paid millions to manage Richland County’s penny sales-tax funded transportation program has misrepresented to county leaders at least one of the salaries it pays its employees — by at least $22,000 a year.

The companies, collectively known as the Program Development Team, or PDT, are paid about $6 million a year to manage the county’s $1 billion transportation penny tax program. They are asking Richland County leaders to approve pay raises of more than 10 percent for their employees.

County Council members are weighing those raises based on the salaries that were presented to them, which indicate that 20 PDT employees are now being paid a combined $1.93 million a year. A document from the PDT asked that the salaries be increased to a combined $2.16 million.

But at least one of the salaries provided to the county was wrong. Instead of being paid $52,000 a year, the former executive secretary told The State she only received $30,000.

PDT officials acknowledge the numbers are way off.

Even though PDT officials have been aware that inaccurate salary information was provided, multiple council members say they were not made aware of the inaccuracies and have not been provided corrected information as they consider whether to allow the PDT’s pay raises.

The discrepancies raise a trust issue between the county and the PDT, several County Council members told The State.

“This (mistake) is only for one person. My question now comes up: What else is inaccurate, to the tune of how many thousands of dollars?” Councilman Bill Malinowski said. “And can we now trust you in the future for the information you’re providing to us?”

“In the two months since this information has been provided, no steps have been taken to remedy the inaccuracy,” Councilman Seth Rose said. “Even more worrisome is, what other numbers are inaccurate that are being provided?”

In documents submitted in July to County Council members, the PDT claimed to pay its secretary more than $52,000 a year, which is substantially more than the average secretary earns in Richland County.

But the woman who worked as the PDT’s secretary for nearly three years says she was never paid more than $30,000 a year.

“We provided inaccurate information to the county,” said David Beaty, program manager for the PDT. The salary information provided to County Council members was pulled from the wrong section of the PDT’s contract with the county, he said. Some salaries were represented higher than they actually are, and some were represented lower, he said.

To council members’ concerns, Beaty responded, “We acknowledge that incorrect information was provided, and we hope to address it in the near future.”

The salary documents that were given by the PDT to County Council name Felicia Robinson as the secretary earning $52,000 a year.

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Robinson — who, since being hired, got married and now goes by Felicia Clark — was never paid $52,000, she told The State. She quit working for the PDT more than a year ago, but the PDT still lists Felicia Robinson by name in the salary documents given to the council.

The PDT secretary position was her first job out of college, Clark said. For about two and a half years, she managed the front desk in the PDT’s Arbor Lake Drive office, she said.

Her original 2014 employment offer from Brownstone Construction Group — one of the three companies that comprise the PDT — says she would earn $30,000 a year, plus mileage reimbursement, a $60 monthly phone allowance, health and dental insurance coverage and a 401K plan after one year of service. She was to be an executive assistant managing the penny sales tax office.

Clark provided that offer letter to The State, along with copies of her W-2 income tax statements for 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, which confirm that she was paid a maximum of $29,996 in 2016.

Clark quit working for Brownstone and the PDT in March 2017. Another secretary has been hired in her place, Beaty said.

Clark reached out to The State newspaper after reading The State’s reporting from July of this year on the PDT’s request for pay raises. The State’s article reported — based on the documents provided by the PDT to County Council — that the PDT secretary earned $52,187 a year.

“People need to know where their money is going,” she said.

At the time of The State’s reporting in July, Beaty declined to comment on the PDT’s salaries and request for raises “because it’s a contractual matter with the county,” he said.

On Friday, Beaty said the salary information that was presented to County Council was pulled from the wrong section of the PDT’s contract with the county. He said he did not know whether any of the salaries were presented exactly accurate.

“What we pay individual people is confidential and proprietary,” he added.

Asked whether County Council members were aware that they had been provided incorrect information, Beaty said he did not know. And asked whether the salary information had been corrected to County Council members, Beaty said he was “not certain.”

When contacted by The State Friday, multiple County Council members said they had not been provided any other information from the PDT that would contradict the documents that reflect the $52,000 secretary salary.

“Certainly, I am concerned whether it was correct information reported,” Councilman Paul Livingston said. “If the numbers are incorrect, I need to know why they’re incorrect and what’s that based on. ... I’ll be looking forward to more specific and detailed answers.”

“I don’t have any document that says that’s been corrected,” Councilman Greg Pearce said. “That’s very interesting.”

“Someone needs to answer some questions,” Councilwoman Dalhi Myers said. “I don’t have enough information to weigh in, but I’m going to get some information.”

Richland County’s 20-plus-year, $1 billion transportation improvement program, which is funded by a 1 percent county sales tax, has been fraught with controversy ever since county voters narrowly approved it in 2012.

County leaders struggled in their process of awarding a $30 million management contract to the group now known as the PDT, which consists of HDR (formerly known as ICA Engineering), M.B. Kahn Construction Co. and Brownstone Construction Group. The group’s five-year contract with the county pays them roughly $6 million a year to manage the penny tax program. That does not include the actual cost of building roads and other transportation projects.

That contract expires next year, and County Council members soon will consider whether to award it again to the same group, open the contract for other companies to bid on, or pursue some other option.

“In my mind, inconsistencies like (the PDT salary reporting), if proven true, will have a lot of bearing on whether I would support re-hiring them,” Malinowski said.

In 2015, the state Department of Revenue plunged the penny tax program into deeper controversy when it audited the program and subsequently alleged inappropriate spending — including hundreds of thousands of dollars that were spent for public relations and a mentorship program — and possible corruption in the program, according to revenue officials.

A drawn-out dispute between the county and the Department of Revenue landed in the state Supreme Court. In March 2018, the high court cited “dubious” spending in the penny program and ruled that penny sales tax money must be spent only and specifically for transportation-related projects.

Prior to that ruling, a 2017 independent audit of the penny tax program warned the county that “all program expenditures may not be properly accounted for.” Auditors from the Elliott Davis Decosimo firm said the structure of the penny program does not have “sufficient internal controls” to make sure the PDT’s actual expenses match the money the county is spending. The auditors recommended that the county’s and PDT’s expenses be matched up on a monthly basis.

Rose said he suggested the county make changes as early as 2016 to improve the accountability of the penny program, but he was not supported by fellow council members.

“I attempted to modify the PDT contract and implement numerous safeguards, and they were shot down by council,” Rose said.

For all its controversy, the penny tax has paid for dozens of transportation-related construction projects across Richland County since the tax started being collected in 2013, including at least seven intersection improvements, widening Bluff Road, a major transformation of Greene Street on the University of South Carolina campus, the Lincoln Tunnel greenway, more than two dozen sidewalks and nearly three dozen dirt road pavings.

The actual costs of many projects have turned out to be far more than the estimates, to the tune of $100 million. County leaders are now considering how to make the program financially feasible for its duration.

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