Post Tagged with: "Lawsuit"

Proposed Hospitality Fee Lawsuit Settlement Taking Money from Taxpayers

November 14, 2019 7:18 PM
Proposed Hospitality Fee Lawsuit Settlement Taking Money from Taxpayers

The proposed agreement that county and city councils will be voting on to settle the hospitality fee lawsuit between the county and the cities will see money that should go to the benefit of the taxpayers instead going to pay attorney fees.

This is the first lawsuit settlement negotiation that I can remember where the injured parties, the taxpayers, were not even represented in the room.

In the case of the cities through three negotiation sessions, no elected officials from any of the cities, those elected to represent the citizens, could be bothered to be present. Several elected county council members attended each session.

The absence of city elected officials, especially mayors Brenda Bethune of Myrtle Beach, Marilyn Hatley of North Myrtle Beach and Bob Childs of Surfside Beach, the three cities at the forefront of the lawsuit, resulted in attorneys representing the cities to structure the settlement with no input of those elected to represent the citizens.

According to information received by Grand Strand Daily, the settlement will structure the lawsuit as a class action which will allow the attorneys representing the cities to split 33% of the settlement amount for themselves.

The reported settlement amount is the approximately $19.5 million revenue from the countywide 1.5% countywide hospitality fee collected within the respective city limits of the cities in the county from the time the bonds for the RIDE I program were paid off in February 2019 until June 30, 2019. That means the attorneys will split a cool $6.5 million from the settlement. In addition, those attorneys have already billed the cities a total over $750,000 in legal fees before the settlement is finalized.

County council member Harold Worley stated from the council dais that he would not vote to approve any settlement that gave $7 million taxpayer dollars to attorneys. Worley was speaking as the representative of county council District 1, which includes all of North Myrtle Beach. He believes that money should be spent for infrastructure improvements, public safety and like needs allowed by the hospitality fee law.

The $7 million will come out of the settlement amount for the cities. The county is only on the hook for approximately $350,000 billed by its attorneys.

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Horry County Council at Precipice of I-73 Decision Wednesday

August 26, 2019 3:29 AM
Horry County Council at Precipice of I-73 Decision Wednesday

Horry County Council will decide the fate of its Financial Participation Agreement with the South Carolina Department of Transportation at a specially called meeting Wednesday.

The agreement, which was signed by the county and SCDOT December 13, 2018, commits the county to provide up to $25 million per year for funding the Interstate 73 project.

The county does not have the money and the only sane step for council to take is to cancel the contract before it takes effect and SCDOT begins committing money the county does not have.

County officials planned to use revenue from a countywide 1.5% hospitality fee on prepared food and beverages, accommodations, admissions tickets and rental car fees to provide the $25 million per year.

However, that plan, hatched by former council chairman Mark Lazarus and former county administrator Chris Eldridge was fatally flawed from the beginning.

The countywide hospitality fee was enacted specifically, with the consent of the cities and a hard sunset provision, for the purpose of funding the short term projects listed in the Road Improvement and Development Effort report of October 1997 and approved by then Gov. David Beasley. I-73 was not included with those projects.

County council overstepped its bounds when it removed the sunset provision from hospitality fee legislation in April 2017 at the urging of Lazarus and Eldridge who specifically wanted to use the revenue for construction of I-73 when the RIDE bonds were paid off.

That first blunder was compounded by a second when the Lazarus/Eldridge tandem put a full court press on county council to provide up to $25 million of hospitality fee revenue for I-73 in July 2018 without consulting the cities.

A trifecta of blunders was completed when, one month before he left office, Lazarus effectively bullied council into contractually obligating itself to SCDOT for I-73 funding. This was only weeks after Hurricane Florence again demonstrated to county officials the desperate need for upgrades to roads and other critical county infrastructure already in place.

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Hospitality Fee Mediation Impasse Demands New Direction by Local Governments

August 13, 2019 4:00 AM
Hospitality Fee Mediation Impasse Demands New Direction by Local Governments

After two extended mediation sessions between representatives from Myrtle Beach and Horry County, it is obvious the two sides are at an impasse for any agreement with regard to the ongoing hospitality fee lawsuit.

This may have been the result the city was looking for from the beginning. According to sources familiar with the proceedings, not one elected council member from Myrtle Beach participated in either of the mediation sessions.

Horry County had several elected council members participate in the sessions. It is extremely difficult to come to any solution if those who will ultimately pass the legislation that would be needed to approve and institute the agreement do not participate in the process.

With a view to court decisions to date, Horry County cannot now nor hope in the future to collect a 1.5% countywide hospitality fee as it has since 1997 until challenged in court by Myrtle Beach.

The simple way out of this mess is for both sides to step away from the legal process. Myrtle Beach and the other cities can collect the revenue from the new hospitality and accommodations taxes they passed earlier this year and spend that money as they choose.

Likewise, Horry County could continue to collect either the 1.5% hospitality fee it now receives from the unincorporated areas or choose to pass new ordinances under current state law for hospitality and accommodations taxes. The county could then spend those proceeds on the projects they need locally.

There is one possible perceived obstruction from the walking away process. Included in the initial lawsuit filed by Myrtle Beach is a claim that the countywide collection of the hospitality fee has been illegal since January 1, 2017 and that the county should refund the approximately $60 million collections from that date amount to.

Several considerations seem to make this claim spurious.

Those refunds cannot go to the cities. If taxes are collected illegally the refunds must go back to those who paid them, in other words the consumers.

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I-73 Funding, the County’s Hidden Objective in Hospitality Fee Squabble

July 22, 2019 3:40 AM
I-73 Funding, the County’s Hidden Objective in Hospitality Fee Squabble

Hidden beneath an ever rising pile of complaints, answers, motions, injunctions and exhibits in the City of Myrtle Beach v. Horry County lawsuit regarding the 1.5% countywide hospitality fee is the determination of a core group of county council members, county senior staff and special interests to retain sufficient funding for the construction of Interstate 73 in the county.

This has been the objective since April 2017 when former council chairman Mark Lazarus convinced council to remove the sunset provision from the county’s hospitality fee ordinance. Lazarus’ stated purpose at that time was to provide funding for I-73.

The month after Lazarus failed to retain the Republican nomination for council chairman, he conducted a special meeting of council to dedicate the revenue from the 1.5% countywide hospitality fee to the I-73 project.

At that meeting, council approved two resolutions, 82-18 and 84-18. Resolution 82-18 dedicated up to $25 million of the revenue from the countywide hospitality fee to the I-73 project. Lazarus tried for the entire amount of revenue, approximately $43 million, but was argued down by council member Harold Worley who was holding out for $18 million to be dedicated to public safety and infrastructure needs within the county.

However, under county ordinance, all the revenue from the 1.5% hospitality fee collected by the county is placed into a special road fund. Resolution 84-18 directed county staff to prepare an ordinance amendment to allow that revenue to be spent on roads, public safety and infrastructure.

The ordinance amendment dictated by Resolution 84-18 has never been prepared to this day. County staff, with the unspoken agreement of a majority of council, ignored the will of council expressed in Resolution 84-18 so the revenue from hospitality fees cannot be used for public safety and infrastructure other than roads.

During a budget workshop in late November 2018, Lazarus led council in approving entering into a contract with the South Carolina Department of Transportation, called the I-73 Financial Participation Agreement, for the county to commit up to $25 million per year for funding the project.

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Another Hospitality Fee Filing, Another Email, More County Lunacy

July 2, 2019 1:21 PM
Another Hospitality Fee Filing, Another Email, More County Lunacy

The City of Myrtle Beach filed a supplemental memorandum Monday in support of its lawsuit against Horry County’s continued collection of hospitality fees.

Leading the memorandum is an affidavit by North Myrtle Beach City Manager Michael Mahaney providing evidence of the county’s continued collection of the hospitality fee in the City of North Myrtle Beach after June 21, 2019, and supporting a June 26, 2019 motion by Myrtle Beach for the county to show cause why it was not in contempt of a temporary restraining order issued by Judge Seals on June 21, 2019 prohibiting same.

Included in the filing was an email originated by attorney Henrietta Golding who is representing the county in the lawsuit.

The email appears to have evolved out of the string of emails that were the subject of several media stories yesterday. The email that appears to have started the string was sent by former county council chairman Mark Lazarus to Golding.

In her email, Goldings criticizes the judge and the temporary restraining order the judge issued against the county for having “many errors”; states, “This is solely the fault of Myrtle Beach” and appears to discuss the county’s strategy in moving forward by saying the county will try to get a “supersedeas” and saying “if the county took steps to suspend the ordinance (creating the hospitality fee), then probably create legal issues detrimental to the county.”

Golding’s email was sent to Lazarus, county council members Johnny Vaught, Harold Worley, Tyler Servant and Dennis DiSabato, interim administrator Steve Gosnell, county attorney Arrigo Carotti, North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley, Mahaney and Surfside Beach City Manager Dennis Pieper.

The choice of recipients is confusing as Golding only represents six – the four council members, county administrator and county attorney. Lazarus has no official position with the county since his term ended December 31, 2018. Hatley, Mahaney and Pieper support the position of Myrtle Beach that the county has been illegally collecting the hospitality fees since January 1, 2017 when the original sunset provision of the county hospitality fee ordinance expired.

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Time to End the County’s Hospitality Fee Lunacy

July 1, 2019 11:11 AM
Time to End the County’s Hospitality Fee Lunacy

Events occurring over the last week served to magnify the need for the county and the cities to get past the lunacy that has developed over the county’s efforts to continue collecting a countywide Hospitality Fee that is in all likelihood now illegal.

Myrtle Beach initially filed a lawsuit against the county “for itself and “similarly situated plaintiffs” on March 21, 2019 stating its claims against the county’s continued collection of the hospitality fee and requesting a temporary restraining order on the county’s continued collection of the fee while the case was being litigated.

After District Court Judge Seals issued a temporary restraining order on the county’s continued collection of a 1.5% hospitality fee within the City of Myrtle Beach and “similarly situated plaintiffs”, on June 21, 2019, the cities expected the county to stop collecting the fee within their jurisdictions.

Last Tuesday, the county dashed those expectations by sending out an email announcing it would only stop collecting the fee within Myrtle Beach and would continue to collect it in the other cities in the county as well as the unincorporated areas.

This led to outrage from North Myrtle Beach officials who called the county’s continued collection of the fee within their city “illegal.” In addition, Myrtle Beach filed a new motion requesting the county be required to show cause that it was not in contempt of the judge’s order.

With the angry rhetoric flying, a special meeting of county council was called for June 29, 2019 at which council was expected to vote on a recommendation to suspend collection of the fee within the cities until the lawsuit was settled.

Instead, council convened, immediately went into executive session where, according to sources with knowledge of the discussion, county attorney Arrigo Carotti and attorney Henrietta Golding, representing the county in the case, urged council to “stay the course” and continue collecting the fee in the other cities until ordered not to by the Court. In addition, the attorneys reportedly told council the judge had used the wrong standard of review in making his ruling. Golding filed a request for reconsideration of the ruling and was prepared to take the issue to the S. C. Supreme Court where, she told council, she expected the restraining order would be overturned.

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Horry County and Illegality are Becoming Synonymous

June 27, 2019 10:44 AM
Horry County and Illegality are Becoming Synonymous

For the past week, Horry County and illegal have been combined in local media headlines about several issues..

Wednesday was a banner day for the county in such actions. Not only did Jay Bender, the preeminent legal authority on the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, say county council conducted an illegal executive session but also lawyers for the City of Myrtle Beach went to court requesting the judge to find the county “in contempt of the authority of this Court” for apparently violating a court order issued last Friday with respect to the county’s continued collection of the Hospitality Fee.

The actions that led to executive session were well orchestrated. After council member Johnny Vaught made the motion to go into executive session, council chairman correctly called it out of order because no executive session was listed on the agenda. County attorney and council parliamentarian Arrigo Carotti jumped up to say under Robert’s Rules of Order, a motion for executive session was proper.

What Carotti never addressed were the requirements of the FOIA law, which made executive session illegal in this case, according to Bender’s statement. Shouldn’t the county attorney and parliamentarian have addressed those requirements before ruling executive session legal?

As Bender pointed out, this is at least the third time this year Horry County has not adhered to FOIA requirements. Unfortunately, the FOIA law has no teeth. There are no consequences for the county if it chooses to ignore the law, which it does when necessary.

While Vaught stated some reasons for executive session that sounded shaky at the time, he accomplished his goal in keeping the interviews of candidates for the administrator position out of the public eye.

I submit Vaught did not want the public to be able to compare the candidates’ respective presentations, especially make comparisons with his chosen candidate Steve Gosnell. In that Vaught was successful even if it took an illegal executive session, which Carotti ruled appropriate, to accomplish it.

The Hospitality Fee issue is one that could affect the county significantly. Last Friday, Judge Seals ordered a temporary restraining order, which prohibits the county from collecting hospitality fees within the at least the city limits of Myrtle Beach and quite probably in any of the incorporated municipalities.

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County Response to City Lawsuit Follows Recent Pattern

April 23, 2019 7:56 AM
County Response to City Lawsuit Follows Recent Pattern

Horry County’s response to the lawsuit over hospitality fees filed last month by the City of Myrtle Beach follows a pattern the county has used in recent years when it is challenged in court.

That pattern is to launch a subjective attack on the opponent rather than argue objective facts of the case.

The county claimed SkyDive Myrtle Beach committed 112 safety violations and was running an unsafe operation at Grand Strand Airport. To date, neither the county Department of Airports nor the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to produce documentation of even one safety violation but SkyDive Myrtle Beach has been closed down since 2015.

The county claimed Horry County Treasurer Angie Jones mismanaged her department and fired employees in order to provide openings for political allies. The county’s counterclaim called for Jones to personally bear responsibility for any shortfall in her department funding, of which there was none.

In its answer to the city’s lawsuit, Horry County claims Myrtle Beach has mismanaged its budget for years and “now attempts to circumvent state law to shore up its own finances.”

Obviously the county’s claim that the city has mismanaged its budget is a subjective political one as well as being erroneous. One guide to effective budget management is bond rating. The city’s bond rating is AA, the same as the county’s.

On the basis of the city’s original complaint and the county’s response, the city appears to have the better legal argument to this non-lawyer observer.

The county’s claim of budget mismanagement on the part of the city appears to have no more validity than the false allegations of wrongdoing made by county attorney Arrigo Carotti and former administrator Chris Eldridge against Chairman Johnny Gardner. The county’s tendency to create a narrative then try to claim it as fact is too repetitious to be accidental, but it is not a legal argument.

The city’s initial act to claim all hospitality fee revenue collected within the city limits and the county’s attempt to extend a countywide 1.5% hospitality fee collection ad infinitum are the starting point of this dispute. The cities of North Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach followed Myrtle Beach’s lead with new hospitality fee ordinances.

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County Says No to Secret Negotiations on Hospitality Fees

March 29, 2019 8:30 AM
County Says No to Secret Negotiations on Hospitality Fees

Horry County Council members have given a resounding NO to holding secret negotiations with representatives from the municipalities about hospitality fees and possible funding for I-73.

The City of Myrtle Beach proposed discussions behind closed doors by sending a confidentiality agreement to the county and the other seven municipalities in Horry County. The city is trying to couch any discussions on hospitality fees as a resolution conference with regard to the lawsuit it recently filed against Horry County over the subject. The city said S.C. Rules of Procedure Section 408 applies to the discussions.

In the very best interpretation of the city’s position, this is a stretch.

The city filed its lawsuit against the county claiming the county’s continued collection of the 1.5% portion of the hospitality fee beyond January 1, 2017 is illegal. The complaint was structured in a way that a class action lawsuit (municipalities v the county) could be requested.

However, to date no other municipality has joined the lawsuit and no judge has certified a class action.

Therefore, any negotiations that includes representatives from other than Myrtle Beach and Horry County couldn’t truly be considered a dispute resolution conference as it would include third parties not currently included in the lawsuit.

More importantly, any discussions about dividing public tax revenues or spending public tax dollars for public projects by public agencies should be held in the open.

What appears to have happened is Myrtle Beach jumped the gun on the hospitality fee issue. It hurried a city ordinance through two readings in order to capture all hospitality tax, 2% on just prepared food and beverages, allowed under current state law, collected by the city to remain in Myrtle Beach tax coffers.

Myrtle Beach next filed its lawsuit against Horry County claiming the original hospitality tax ordinance passed by Horry County with consent of the cities in late 1996 expired on January 1, 2017. The original ordinance placed a 2.5% tax on all accommodations, prepared food and beverages and tickets sold within the county. Of that, 1.5% collected countywide was specifically designated to pay off the bonds for the Ride I projects.

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Horry County’s Embarrassing Special Meeting

March 26, 2019 10:12 AM
Horry County’s Embarrassing Special Meeting

Horry County Council proved during its special meeting last night it doesn’t need the county administrator or attorney to embarrass the county. Council did a fine job embarrassing itself on its own.

Two key items were up for a vote last night – not to renew the administrator’s contract upon its April 21, 2019 termination and termination of the financial participation agreement between the county and SCDOT for the I-73 project.

Council kicked both votes down the road.

There may have been some justification for not voting on the administrator’s contract because council chairman Johnny Gardner was contacted by an attorney representing administrator Chris Eldridge yesterday morning requesting negotiation of an exit package for Eldridge.

Gardner said he believes agreement can be reached on a termination package so Eldridge will depart county employment within two weeks.

Delaying cancellation of the I-73 agreement, however, is an entirely different story.

There is no benefit to the county and its citizens of keeping an agreement in place, the funding for which is a great mystery at this point.

However, the Myrtle Beach Chamber and its cronies were in full lobbying mode yesterday to keep the financial participation agreement in place.

Those council members, I’m thinking here of council’s Deep Six in particular, who are much more inclined to listen to the special interest lobbyists at the expense of the citizens of the county fell right in line.

Council member Harold Worley, the apparent leader of the Deep Six, was reportedly in favor of cancelling the financial participation agreement at the end of last week. Monday night, Worley was the foremost proponent from the council dais in maintaining the agreement and negotiation with the county’s municipalities on a new split of hospitality tax revenues.

In the past few weeks, Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach have all passed ordinances whose sole purpose is to capture all hospitality tax revenues collected within their respective corporate limits.

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