Two class actions have been filed – one in Orangeburg County and the other in Bamberg County – claiming county road maintenance charges are illegal and asking government agencies to reimburse residents for the charges of roads paid.
The eight-page Orangeburg County lawsuit and the 17-page Bamberg County lawsuit both cite a recent decision by the South Carolina Supreme Court in Greenville County, stating that the highway user charges of this county are illegal.
The lawsuits claim that the Orangeburg and Bamberg County road user charges are similar to those in Greenville County and should also be declared illegal.
In the Greenville County case, the SC Supreme Court ruled that county road charges are not legal because they are in fact taxes, not fees, and must obtain legislative approval.
The court ruled that a royalty must offer a unique benefit to the people who pay it that is different from the benefit the general public receives.
In the case of Greenville County, the people who paid a road tax did not receive a greater benefit than anyone outside of Greenville County who used the same roads.
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The Orangeburg and Bamberg class actions claim that county residents should be reimbursed for fees collected and that a 10-fold multiplier penalty should be paid to residents, according to state law.
The Orangeburg County lawsuit was filed on behalf of Orangeburg County resident Carroll Brown.
Orangeburg County Administrator Harold Young, Orangeburg County Treasurer Matt Stokes, Orangeburg County Council and Orangeburg County are listed as defendants. The lawsuit was filed on November 1 in the Orangeburg County Court of Common Pleas.
Counsel for the plaintiff are William Lewis of Richardson & Thomas of Columbia, Davis Price of Greenville and Hodge & Langley Law of Spartanburg.
The county is in the process of responding, Orangeburg County Administrator Harold Young said.
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Young and the county defended its road charges.
Young said in October 2021 that the county charges have withstood scrutiny for more than three decades, confirming their legality. Orangeburg County Road and Bridge Maintenance Fees are used to maintain paved and dirt roads.
The Orangeburg County Road User Charges have been in place since June 15, 1987. They raised approximately $ 3.4 million in the 2020-21 fiscal year for road and bridge maintenance.
In June, Orangeburg County Council adopted the 2021-2022 fiscal year budget, which included an increase in its road and bridge maintenance costs from $ 45 to $ 50 per vehicle.
Orangeburg County Council has formally called on lawmakers to take the necessary steps to allow it to continue to collect user fees that fund public safety and infrastructure projects.
Counties in the T&D region have approved a resolution from the SC Association of Counties that says counties support the proposed road charge.
Orangeburg County officials have said that if road user charges are found to be illegal, they will consider other sources of revenue in the county budget or perhaps consider cutting services to avoid disruptions. tax increases.
âIt’s a big blow to the budget of $ 3 million,â Young said.
Young said he believed the county road charges were sufficient because they were imposed before 1997 because the law says the charges are valid “unless they are revoked by the governing body.”
Young said the county will follow legal process and make decisions based on the court’s decision.
The Bamberg County lawsuit was filed on behalf of Sarah Kandy Yearry. Bamberg County Council, Bamberg County Administrator Joey Preston and Bamberg County Treasurer Alice Johnson are listed as defendants.
The Bamberg trial was filed on December 2, 2021 before the 15th judicial circuit of the Court of Common Pleas.
The attorneys for the plaintiffs in the Bamberg County lawsuit are Speights and Solomons LLC; Galvin Law Group LLC and Savage Royall and Sheheen LLP.
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Bamberg County road user charges bring in $ 390,000 per year and, like those in Orangeburg County, are about $ 50 per vehicle.
Preston said earlier this year that he believed the county could “demonstrate that our landowners are indeed getting more benefits” from the fees than others.
âIn my opinion, Bamberg County can meet this exemption standard, mainly due to the fact that our road network is mainly made up of unpaved (dirt) roads and unpaved roads are mainly used by owners of these. roads, and who live on those dirt roads, âPreston said.
Preston said the loss of the fee “would have a drastically negative impact on the citizens of Bamberg County.”
“That said, Bamberg County is not located like other counties in South Carolina and we believe the county’s traffic charge ordinance will be upheld due to these differences.”
The lawsuits are asking the courts to declare the road charges “invalid and inappropriate” and that residents recover damages for “the invalid and illegal withholding of road charges”.
The class actions list four causes of action against the defendants.
1. Unjust enrichment: âThe defendants, although having been informed of the invalidity of these road costs, have so far not reimbursed the plaintiff and the members of the group the money unduly taken for the costs of roads â.
“The defendants’ withholding of road charges is unfair and, therefore, the defendants are forced to pay damages,” the lawsuit said.
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2. Breach of State Law: This cause of action specifically cites Young and Stokes and Johnson and Preston as overseeing the collection and withholding of fees and cites state code that officials are “responsible for lose ten times the amount so unduly invoiced “.
“All charges illegally collected should be refunded and a ten-fold multiplier penalty should be paid to the plaintiff and each member of the group,” the lawsuit said.
3. Breach of due process of the state constitution in that residents were deprived of property without due process by having to pay monetary fees.
“The plaintiff and the class members have a recognizable property interest in their money which they were forced to give to defendants with illegal orders,” the lawsuit said.
4. An application for a declaratory judgment from the court that the right to use the highway is illegal for the reasons set out in the Greenville court decision and that the defendants owe the plaintiff repayments with interest.
The lawsuits cite the state Supreme Court’s decision in Greenville in June, declaring that an “almost identical road maintenance charge” is illegal.
“On information and belief, the defendants refused to reimburse the ill-gotten costs despite the illegality of the road maintenance costs as detailed in the Burns decision,” said the lawsuit.
Calhoun County currently has no road user charges.
The county council gave a first reading this summer a road and fire charge to help offset the increased operating and maintenance costs of the two departments. This decision was put on hold following the Greenville decision.
In Greenville County, the county had to pay about $ 130,000 in legal fees as a result of the lawsuit, which was settled in October.
The county chose not to reimburse the $ 30 million in its fee collection, but instead to use the money for necessary road maintenance.
As a result, a class action lawsuit was also filed by a citizen of Greenville County asking the county to pay residents the collection fee and face a penalty.
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Several class actions have been filed statewide against a number of counties with highway user charges that are asking for the same.
Some counties subject to lawsuits are Aiken, Beaufort, Charleston, Florence, Georgetown, Horry, Pickens, Richland, Sumter and Spartanburg, according to the South Carolina County Association.
The town of Hilton Head Island and the town of Aiken are two municipalities subject to lawsuits, according to the South Carolina Municipal Association.