By Paul Gable
Horry County officials again put a negative spin on comments about the Horry County Treasurer’s Office in a story by a local news outlet this week.
The story questioned Treasurer Angie Jones hiring of former Horry County Clerk of Courts Melanie Huggins-Ward to clear up the backlog of tax refunds owed to Horry County taxpayers.
The issue dates back to July 6, 2017, three days after Jones took office. Jones requested the county contract with Huggins-Ward for a part-time position to work on the refund backlog.
Assistant County Administrator Justin Powell responded by saying Jones was $20,591.72 over budget based on proposed salaries. He also included the following statement: “It is my understanding it is financially favorable to her (Huggins-Ward) to work as a contractor rather than as an employee because it prevents her pension from being cut off after earning $10,000 with the county. Human Resources is contacting the South Carolina Retirement System and IRS this morning to ask their opinion on the use of a contract to circumvent the SCRS earnings limitations on retirees. The last thing any of us wants is the appearance of an attempt to “game” the Internal Revenue Code or laws governing the South Carolina Retirement System.”
County officials made certain this email was included in documents provided to the media outlet. Of course, the comment about ‘gaming the system’ was jumped all over.
It appears this was the intention of county officials all along, because an email to Jones from Horry County Human Resources Director Patrick Owens bearing the same July 6, 2017 date was not included, but contained the following suggestion:
“FYI – Denise asked me to email you this services contract. Another idea that may be worth checking – You may want to check with IHT, the Temp agency we use. Have Melanie sign up with them and then hire her through the agency…If they can work out the salary you want, it would be easier than a contract…”
The option suggested by Owens is the one which has been used by the Treasurer’s Office with Huggins-Ward for the past nine months.
And Huggins-Ward is not the only temporary employee used by the county from this agency. According to information received by GSD, numerous departments in county government have hired back retired employees through the same Temp agency.
Furthermore, the dreaded contract method that Powell wanted to so diligently check with the South Carolina Retirement System and the IRS is also used by the county. According to information provided to GSD, the head of Code Enforcement has been contracted by this method since retiring seven years ago. Budget and Human Resources are two other departments in which retired employees have been hired back with contracts since Chris Eldridge has been the administrator.
Eldridge was quoted in the media story as saying, “I have no intention of approving an independent contractor to get around the earning limitations (for retirees).”
Therefore, it must be for other reasons that the above mentioned retiree independent contractors have been approved on Eldridge’s watch. It was also a different reason (tax refunds due county citizens) that Jones hired Huggins-Ward in the first place.
County officials can’t have it both ways here – using independent contractor and/or temp agency solutions for hiring back retired employees whenever and wherever they please while attempting to paint Jones and, by extension, Huggins-Ward in a negative light for doing exactly the same thing.
Interestingly, it was only eight days prior to the story that Jones made her budget presentation to the Horry County Administration Committee. During that presentation, the Treasurer specifically referred to the position held by Huggins-Ward and that she would need that position filled at least for one more year.
Despite, Eldridge, Powell and council chairman Mark Lazarus being in the room during Jones’ presentation, no mention of ‘gaming the system was made by any of the three.’
Yet, eight days later it becomes a topic in the news.
One must wonder the reason why county officials wanted part and only part of the story out? Is this merely a continuation of attacking Jones whenever possible as has been the county’s position since she filed suit to gain control over her department staffing and budget?
Or is it something deeper? Numerous sources from within county government have told GSD that Eldridge and Lazarus confer on virtually everything – “Joined at the hip” is the term most commonly used. This includes such issues as spending nearly $12 million of public tax dollars to purchase swamp land off International Drive.
In this writer’s opinion, it can be concluded both were involved in deciding what information and documentation was provided to the media outlet for the Jones/Huggins-Ward story.
Why the information provided to the media was cherry-picked to be so negatively slanted toward both Jones and Huggins-Ward is more difficult to comprehend.