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Two class-action lawsuits have been filed -- one in Orangeburg County and one in Bamberg County -- claiming the counties' road maintenance fees are illegal and asking the governmental bodies to refund residents the road fees paid.

The eight-page Orangeburg County lawsuit and 17-page Bamberg County lawsuit both cite a recent South Carolina Supreme Court ruling in Greenville County stating that that county's road-user fees are illegal.

The lawsuits claim Orangeburg and Bamberg counties' road-user fees are similar to Greenville County's and should also be ruled illegal.

In the Greenville County case, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that the county's road fees are not legal because they are actually taxes, not fees, and must get legislative approval.

The court ruled that a fee must provide a unique benefit to the people paying it that is different from the benefit the general public receives.

In Greenville County’s case, people who paid a road fee received no greater benefit than any other non-Greenville County person who used the same roads.

The Orangeburg and Bamberg class-action lawsuits claim county residents should be refunded the collected fees and a 10-time multiplier penalty should be paid to residents, per 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 Nov. 1 in the Orangeburg County Court of Common Pleas.

The plaintiff's attorneys are William Lewis of the Richardson & Thomas firm of Columbia, Davis Price of Greenville and the Hodge & Langley Law firm of Spartanburg.

The county is in the process of responding, Orangeburg County Administrator Harold Young said.

Young and the county have defended its road-user fees.

Young said in October 2021 that the county's fee has withstood scrutiny for over three decades confirming its legality. Orangeburg County’s road and bridge maintenance fee is used for the maintenance of paved and dirt roads.

Orangeburg County’s road-user fee has been in place since June 15, 1987. It brought in about $3.4 million during the 2020-21 fiscal year for road and bridge maintenance.

In June, Orangeburg County Council adopted the fiscal year 2021-22 budget, which included an increase in its road and bridge maintenance fee from $45 to $50 a vehicle.

Orangeburg County Council has gone on record asking lawmakers to take the necessary steps to allow it to continue collecting user fees that fund public safety and infrastructure projects.

T&D Region counties have approved a S.C. Association of Counties resolution that states the counties are in favor of the proposed road fee.

Orangeburg County officials say if the road-user fee is deemed illegal, they would consider other sources of revenue within the county’s budget or possibly look at reduction of services in an effort to avoid tax increases.

"It is a $3 million hit to the budget," Young said.

Young said he believes the county's road fees pass muster because they were imposed before 1997 as the law notes that these fees are valid “unless repealed by the governing body.”

Young said the county will go through the legal process and will make decisions according to how the court rules.

Bamberg County

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 lawsuit was filed Dec. 2, 2021, in the Court of Common Pleas 15th Judicial Circuit.

The attorneys for the plaintiffs in the Bamberg County suit are Speights and Solomons LLC; Galvin Law Group LLC, and Savage Royall and Sheheen LLP.

Bamberg County's road-user fee brings in $390,000 annually and, like Orangeburg County's, is about $50 a vehicle.

Preston earlier this year said he believes the county can “demonstrate that our property owners do indeed derive some greater benefit" from the fee than others.

“In my view, Bamberg County can meet this exemption standard, mainly due to the fact that our road system is mostly non-paved (dirt) roads, and the non-paved roads are mostly used by folks who own property on those roads, and who live on those dirt roads,” Preston said.

Preston said the loss of the fee would "have a substantially negative impact on Bamberg County's citizens."

"With that said, Bamberg County is not situated like South Carolina's other counties and we believe the county's road-fee ordinance will be upheld due to those differences."

Lawsuits

The lawsuits are asking the courts to declare the road fees "invalid and improper," and that residents recover monetary damages for "the invalid and illegal retention of road fees."

The class-action lawsuits list four causes of action against the defendants.

1. Unjust enrichment: "Defendants, despite being on notice of the invalidity of this road fee have to date failed to refund plaintiff and the class members the money improperly taken for the road fee."

"Defendants retention of the road fees is inequitable and accordingly defendants are obligated to pay damages," the lawsuit states.

2. Violation of state law: This cause of action specifically cites Young and Stokes and Johnson and Preston as overseeing the collection and retention of fees and cites state code that the officials are "liable to forfeit ten times the amount so improperly charged."

"Any illegally collected fees should be returned and a ten-time multiplier penalty should be paid to the plaintiff and each member of the class," the lawsuit states.

3. Violation of due process of the state constitution in that residents were deprived of property without due process of law by having to pay the monetary fees.

"Plaintiff and the class members have cognizable property interest in their money that they were forced to give to defendants to the illegal ordinances," the lawsuit states.

4. A request for a declaratory judgment from the court that the road-user fee is unlawful for reasons articulated in the Greenville court decision and that the defendants owe the plaintiff refunds with interest.

The lawsuits cite the state Supreme Court's June ruling in Greenville as declaring an "almost identical road maintenance fee" as illegal.

"Upon information and belief, defendants have refused to return the ill-gotten fees despite the illegality of the road maintenance fee as detailed in the Burns decision," the suit states.

Calhoun County

Calhoun County currently does not have a road-user fee.

County Council gave first reading this summer to a road and fire fee to help offset the rise in operations and maintenance costs from the two departments. That decision has been put on hold as a result of the Greenville ruling.

Elsewhere

In Greenville County, the county had to pay about $130,000 in legal fees following the lawsuit, which was settled in October.

The county chose not to refund the $30 million in its collection of the fees, but rather to use the money for needed road maintenance.

As a result, a class-action lawsuit has also been filed by a Greenville County citizen requesting the county pay residents the collection fees and face a penalty.

Several class-action suits have been filed across the state against a number of counties with road-user fees requesting the same.

Some counties facing lawsuits are Aiken, Beaufort, Charleston, Florence, Georgetown, Horry, Pickens, Richland, Sumter and Spartanburg, according to the South Carolina Association of Counties.

The Town of Hilton Head Island and the City of Aiken are two municipalities facing lawsuits, according to the South Carolina Municipal Association.

This article originally ran on thetandd.com.

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