Public Monies, Chambers of Commerce and South Carolina Supreme Court

February 5, 2018 8:03 AM
Public Monies, Chambers of Commerce and South Carolina Supreme Court

It has been nearly four months since the South Carolina Supreme Court heard arguments in the DomainsNewMedia.com v Hilton Head – Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.

The question before the court deals with whether the Chamber of Commerce is a public body and subject to the provisions of the S. C. Freedom of Information Act.

The Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce (MBACC) filed an amicus curiae brief to the S. C. Supreme Court supporting the Hilton Head – Bluffton Chamber of Commerce position.

A Circuit Court judge in Bluffton County ruled in favor of Plaintiff DomainsNewMedia.com finding the Chamber is a public body within the definition of the law.

Actually, the law is quite straightforward. Section 30-4-20 of the S. C. Code of Laws defines a public body subject to the Freedom of Information Act as, “…any organization, corporation, or agency supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds…”

The Hilton Head – Bluffton Chamber of Commerce receives accommodations tax money from the towns of Hilton Head and Bluffton as well as Beaufort County. The Chamber is the designated marketing organization for these governmental entities to expend the tax funds collected for tourism promotion.

The Chamber claimed before the Court that being the designated marketing organization for those public agencies did not negate its status as a private non-profit corporation not subject to FOIA.

The Chamber does provide a marketing budget and quarterly and year end reports for the public money to the governments involved.

In answer to a question from Justice Few about how a member of the public could find out specific information about the line items in the Chamber’s budget, the attorney for the Chamber suggested they would have to file a FOIA request with the town, who would then go to the Chamber for the specific information.

The argument was not that the public did not have a right to the information, it just didn’t have the right to request the information directly from the agency expending the funds, which is ridiculous.

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NMB Takes Proper Approach to Tourism Development Fee

February 1, 2018 4:39 AM
NMB Takes Proper Approach to Tourism Development Fee

North Myrtle Beach is to be commended on taking what many consider the proper approach to deciding whether to institute a tourism development fee (TDF) in the city.

City Council decided it was appropriate for the residents of North Myrtle Beach to decide whether a TDF is to be collected. Therefore, a referendum on whether to approve the TDF is scheduled for March 6, 2018 in a stand-alone vote.

The role of the city ends with the decision to hold a referendum. No government body, personnel or equipment may be involved in the campaign, according to state law. Individuals who are government personnel may only support or oppose the referendum question on their own time outside of government facilities and not as part of their official duties.

State Law Sec. 8-13-765 states in part, “No person may use government personnel, equipment, materials, or an office building in an election campaign,” and “This section does not prohibit government personnel, where not otherwise prohibited, from participating in election campaigns on their own time and on nongovernment premises.”

If approved, the TDF is a one percent fee charged on all purchases in the city to which state sales tax applies. Items such as food, rent/mortgage and medicines are exempted.

If approved, 80% of the revenue collected from the fee will be given to a marketing organization, usually the local Chamber of Commerce, to promote tourism from out-of-area locations. The remaining 20% goes to the city for things such as owner-occupied property tax rebates, public safety, parking and other infrastructure or similar types of city expenses.

From statements made recently to media, it appears the city will use the state mandated minimum (4% of the total revenue) to apply to property tax rebates to owner-occupied properties. The remaining 16% of revenues will be used for other city initiatives.

This approach is the best because it shares the benefits of the fee to the largest number of citizens, rather than keeping it for just a small percentage of the population.

A significant portion of the revenue will come directly from tourists and the city’s portion of the revenue can offset some of the costs to the local economy from the tourism industry.

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Horry County Treasurer Request Nixed by Administrator, County Council

January 25, 2018 5:00 AM
Horry County Treasurer Request Nixed by Administrator, County Council

A request by Horry County Treasurer Angie Jones to have county administrator Chris Eldridge sign off on an addendum to a contract with a county software supplier was shot down at Tuesday’s regular meeting of county council.

Jones made a presentation to county council about a new service the Treasurer wanted to institute in Horry County. The service would provide taxpayers who pay vehicle taxes in person at the Treasurer’s Office or one of the satellite offices with a new vehicle registration and decal for the license plate when the payment is made.

A convenience fee of $1 would be added to the vehicle tax notices to add this service.

According to Jones presentation, this service is already in place in 32 of the 46 counties in South Carolina and the $1 convenience fee is established by the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles.

After Jones presentation, council chairman Mark Lazarus called for Horry County staff to address some issues with allowing the Treasurer’s Office to offer this convenience.

Eldridge moved to the microphone to speak for the staff. He began his remarks with the statement, “Of course there is litigation going on currently between the Treasurer’s Office and Horry County Council.”

Actually, the litigation is Angie Jones, Individually and as Horry County Treasurer v. Horry County, a body Politic and Chris Eldridge, in his capacity as Horry County Administrator.

Eldridge went on to say the request was a budgetary issue and if council wants it done, “it isn’t that much.” He would prefer to see it go through the normal budgetary process and would not support the $1 fee.

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Fixing the Damage Caused by the Myrtle Beach DRC

January 14, 2018 4:30 AM
Fixing the Damage Caused by the Myrtle Beach DRC

A sometimes heated public input session at last week’s DRC (Myrtle Beach Downtown Redevelopment Corporation) board meeting highlighted the agency’s confusion about its status and the responsibility it has to the public.

The DRC likes to tout itself as a private corporation and some of its recent moves, such as secretly purchasing properties in the Superblock until outed by local media, speak to that attitude.

 However, South Carolina law is clear that the DRC is a public body and, as such, owes the citizens full transparency of its actions.

The DRC was created by Myrtle Beach city ordinance and is funded from the parking fees collected from meters and lots on city property. The city set up a $10 million line of credit from a local bank for the DRC to purchase properties. Money to pay back draws on this line of credit comes from the parking fee revenues.

Among those entities defined as a public body subject to the S.C. Freedom of Information statute are “any organization, corporation, or agency supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds․” S.C.Code Ann. § 30–4–20(a). 

 In a July 17, 2013 decision (DiSabato v South Carolina Association of School Administrators), the S. C. Supreme Court held, “When a block of public funds is diverted en masse from a public body to a related organization, or when the related organization undertakes the management of the expenditure of public funds, the only way that the public can determine with specificity how those funds were spent is through access to the records and affairs of the organization receiving and spending the funds.”

The parking fees, themselves, are a problem. They appear to violate deed restrictions included when Myrtle Beach Farms transferred company owned land to the city along the oceanfront.

This violation not only applies to parking areas charging fees along the Golden Mile, but also to the many areas in the south end of the city where parking fees have been charged for a number of years.

One of the deed restrictions states, “…property shall not be used for commercial purposes by any person, private corporation, municipal corporation or agency of government.”

If parking fees are collected, the revenue is dedicated to the DRC and the DRC uses this revenue to purchase property, how can the collection of the fees not be considered “for commercial purposes?”

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Attorney for Angie Jones Hits Core of County Lawsuit Argument

January 8, 2018 8:08 AM
Attorney for Angie Jones Hits Core of County Lawsuit Argument

Gene Connell, attorney for Treasurer Angie Jones in her lawsuit against county government, hit at the core of the county’s argument in its answer and counterclaim to Jones’ complaint.

In a Motion to Strike certain portions of the county answer, Connell wrote, “…such allegations have nothing to do with the case, nor with Jones’s request of this court and are only meant to defame and/or to be scandalous to the Plaintiff,” and addressing another allegation “Defendant only seeks to impugn the Plaintiff’s character.”

These statements hit at the basic core of the county’s argument. Certain members of county staff and county government have become imperious in their attitudes toward disagreement, criticism and anyone who dares to challenge them.

Connell is correct in that the county has ignored the essence of Jones’ complaint and has chosen to seek revenge on her for filing the lawsuit by attacking her personally.

‘Attack’, ‘revenge’ and ‘fake news’ have quickly become a staple part of political lexicon in America today to the detriment of American style government and the citizens it is supposed to serve.

Many of our supposed leaders forget they were elected to serve, not anointed to rule.

Frankly, all Jones is attempting to do is attain enough employees to provide the level of service the citizens of the county expect and deserve.

According to state law, employees of the Treasurer’s Office and level of service fall only in the purview of the county treasurer.

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New Year Brings New Hope and New Challenges

January 2, 2018 5:49 AM
New Year Brings New Hope and New Challenges

A New Year traditionally brings with it new hope and positive feelings about the year ahead.

Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus commented in a Facebook post on New Year’s Day about making 2018 a year of positivism. I hope Lazarus is able to achieve that positivism in county government.

This year will be interesting with three new members recently elected to Myrtle Beach City Council, including a new mayor, and seven council members up for re-election for Horry County Council including Chairman Lazarus.

But it takes more than hopes and feelings to achieve positive results in government. It takes hard work, transparency and proper goal setting to get the most “bang” for each “buck” collected from the taxpaying public.

Both Myrtle Beach City Council and Horry County Council have been lax in this area in years past.

Maybe the most important thing both councils have to remember is the citizens elect them to make decisions that benefit the community as a whole. Council then directs staff to carry out these decisions.

Too often, this process has become muddled with certain council and staff members working behind closed doors to benefit special interests at the expense of the general public. This is at least part of the reason Myrtle Beach has three new members of council.

Below are just a few of the actions by city council that the public voted against in November:

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