Cindi Ross Scoppe

A body blow to Richland County: SC high court orders adult supervision for penny tax

The SC Supreme Court dealt a body blow to the Richland County Council over the way it has operated the penny transportation tax program.
The SC Supreme Court dealt a body blow to the Richland County Council over the way it has operated the penny transportation tax program.

APPARENTLY some Richland County officials are trying to spread the fiction that they weren’t dealt a body blow last week by the state Supreme Court.

Taxpayers will be relieved to know that nothing could be farther from the truth.

The high court did indeed rule that the County Council had illegally used money from the transportation penny sales tax to pay for some things it described as “administrative costs” that were not in fact administrative costs.

I suppose that if you want to quibble and stretch you might be able to convince yourself that the court did not specifically say that it was illegal to pay a member of the Columbia City Council $38,000 to learn how to do his job. And to pay two PR businesses $50,000 a month to do things the county’s public information office should have been able to do. And to spend a half million dollars to create a small-business development program that applies to all sorts of county contracts, not just those related to the transportation program. As by law all transportation-tax money must.

The court just said the Revenue Department had “correctly” charged that the county was spending money illegally. And then listed all of those expenditures. And then noted that the department had “presented a compelling prima facie case” that some expenditures were illegal. And then issued an injunction.

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Cindi Ross Scoppe

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FROM 2016: Is county spending road money legally? Wisely? The jury’s still out

FROM 2016: If we’re paying contractors to learn their job, what else are taxpayers funding?

FROM 2015: How Richland County Council misled public & invited corruption in transportation penny program

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The injunction — effective immediately — orders the county to adhere to the Revenue Department’s “guidelines for determining whether expenses are properly allocable” to the penny tax revenue.

The court went so far as to order the lower court to issue its own injunction as well, so it would be easier to enforce it “in the event of any alleged violation of the injunction.” The court did not specifically order the county to repay the money that had been spent improperly, although it made a point of noting that the lower court has the authority to do that. And ordering the lower court to make the county repay any additional money that was spent improperly during the appeal.

I can’t help being relieved to know that there are going to be some grownups looking over the county’s spending.

I do share Chief Justice Don Beatty’s concern, in his partial dissent, that the three-justice majority might have just handed the Revenue Department more power than the law gives it, by allowing it not just to challenge spending it considers unlawful but also to essentially dictate the terms of future spending. And I do recall that the department was reckless in the way it initially handled this whole matter — or at least in the way it talked about the matter — throwing around all sorts of innuendo of criminality without providing evidence of any.

But honestly, even as someone who believes passionately that local governments should have broad authority to act without state interference, I can’t help being relieved to know that there are going to be some grownups looking over the county’s spending.

Not all of it, of course. The County Council still has control over property taxes and restaurant taxes and all sorts of other revenue the county collects.

It still has the ability, unsupervised by grownups, to sell prime real estate at a ridiculously low price without marketing it, or even announcing that it was on the market, as it did with the former sheriff’s department site on Huger Street.

It still has the ability, unsupervised by grownups, to hire a new transportation director with absolutely no experience in transportation.

It still has the ability, unsupervised by grownups, to hire a new transportation director with absolutely no experience in … wait for it … transportation.

It still has the ability, unsupervised by grownups, to spend $1.2 million to renovate its own meeting and office space, and then announce less than four months later that it’s relocating its chambers and the whole complex, bulldozing the adjacent building (to build a new courthouse) and turning the just-renovated space into a ceremonial courthouse.

And to secretly concoct a plan to move some of its offices to a nearly abandoned mall — which might be a good idea, but for the “secretly” part, which applies not just to the specific property being purchased but also to the whole plan. And to wrap it all up with a gaudy “Richland Renaissance” bow that also covers such dubious projects as a business incubator, a critical care medical facility (don’t doctors usually build those?) and, my personal favorite, a competitive aquatics center.

For which the cost is at best speculative. And no funding source has been identified. And about which it agreed to hold a legally required public hearing only after one of my colleagues in the news department kept hounding the county.

But I digress.

The county refused the Revenue Department’s repeated demands that it develop its own guidelines for what it could and couldn’t spend transportation tax money on.

The county, having refused the Revenue Department’s repeated demands that it develop its own guidelines for what it could and couldn’t spend transportation tax money on, will now have to abide by the Revenue Department’s guidelines.

Which, if we’re lucky, will include “don’t use the transportation program as a slush fund to pay for a program to help local businesses that ought to be funded with regular tax dollars whose use is not strictly limited by state law.”

And “don’t pay two public relations companies to do PR for a program that ought to just be, without being promoted.”

And “don’t use the transportation tax money to pay elected officials to learn how to do jobs that you will then pay them for doing — after paying people who know what they’re doing to teach the elected officials how to do those jobs.”

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.

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