Horry County sued by county treasurer for funding and control of business licenses

Chris Eldridge walks into the interview room with the Horry County Council in Conway on Tuesday, May 15, 2012.
Chris Eldridge walks into the interview room with the Horry County Council in Conway on Tuesday, May 15, 2012. jblackmon@TheSunNews.com

Horry County Treasurer Angie Jones filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Horry County over the funding for the treasurer’s office and to gain control of the county’s business license department.

The suit was filed by Jones in her capacity as Horry County treasurer and as an individual against Horry County and Chris Eldridge in his capacity as county administrator.

The lawsuit says Jones’ office processes over 600,000 tax notices and $500 million in tax refunds each year, but her office has “historically been understaffed” by the county with 13 employees covering four offices.

When she took office in July, Jones said, there were almost $2 million in tax refunds that hadn’t been sent out.

According to the suit, Jones’ employees have not been able to take lunch breaks because no other employees were available to replace them, and three satellite offices are now closed from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. in order for employees to eat lunch.

In the suit, Jones asks the county to “immediately fund her office as long as her requests are reasonable and necessary,” citing state law that “vests in elected officials the authority to employee and discharge the county personnel within their departments.”

Jones has made repeated requests for additional funding, according to the suit that says the funding for her office could be obtained through fees collected for tax collections.

In an Aug. 1 email to Jones’ attorney Gene Connell, Horry County attorney Arrigo Carotti said Jones’ office was sufficiently funded.

In previous interviews with The Sun News, Jones has said her operations budget was cut after she was elected in November but before she took office in July. Assistant county administrator Justin Powell confirmed to The Sun News last month that the operations budget for the treasurer’s office was cut at the request of the former treasurer, Roddy Dickinson.

In addition to staffing, Jones is asking for a court order to put the hospitality fees and business license departments back under the authority of the treasurer’s office, which the suit says is part of Jones’ constitutional duties as treasurer.

The suit claims that control of the business license department was taken away from the treasurer’s office without her knowledge after she was elected and that the county does not have legal standing to alter the duties of the treasurer under South Carolina state law.

County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said Jones knew that the county was moving those departments under the county’s finance department.

“The only comment I’ll make on it is it’s a shame that she would take those actions against the county and against the taxpayers of Horry County,” Lazarus said. “It’ll all be brought out in court and the process that we went through when we took over the hospitality fees and business license.”

In an emailed statement, Jones said she was trying to do the job she was elected to do.

“It may not bother Mr. Lazarus that these citizens have to stand in [two to three-hour] hour lines just to pay their taxes,” she said in the statement. “It may not concern him that [three] locations are closed for lunch from [1p.m. to 2p.m.] It may also not concern him that the citizens have to wait hours for a returned call. This is what I call a shame. This office belongs to the citizens of Horry County and I assured them in my campaign I would make this office more efficient and they would determine how I achieved this.”

Jones said that if a judge ruled that she had to pay for attorney fees, the money would be coming from her personal account and not tax dollars.

Council Vice Chair Johnny Vaught said that he wished Jones and the county could have “amicably” settled their disagreements.

“I think she got a rough deal from the previous treasurer,” Vaught said. “I think she is a good treasurer. I hope we can come to some kind of middle ground. I don’t know what that is, and at this point, it’s out of my hands. She’s doing what she feels she has to do.”

Jones’ filing included a motion for an expedited hearing because her suit deals with issues that affect the public.

Horry County public information specialist Kelly Brosky said in an email that “The county has received the complaint filed by Angie Jones and will respond appropriately and in due course to the allegations, by way of the litigation process.”

Carotti and Eldridge did not immediately answer requests for comment.

Christian Boschult: 843-626-0218, @TSN_Christian