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I-TEAM: Pandemic puts spotlight on struggling needs of Allendale County

Published: Apr. 26, 2021 at 5:06 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 26, 2021 at 5:57 PM EDT
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ALLENDALE COUNTY, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - Allendale County was already struggling to make ends meet even before 2020 but the pandemic put a spotlight on the county’s problems even catching the eye of Governor Henry McMaster.

State senators, county employees, farmers, and the superintendent of one of the lowest-performing school districts across the area are all demanding answers. They’re demanding the county treasurer explain why their tax dollars aren’t even covering the basics federal taxes and local school bills.

Fields of farmland leading into downtown could paint a picture of Norman Rockwell’s small-town America. Farmers like Angel Bradford will tell you the scenery is about the only peaceful thing in Allendale County.

“My grandfather started it in 1947. He had two mules and a plow,” said Bradford. “There is something not right.”

A trail of letters marked with state seals tells another story.

State Senator Brad Hutto wrote Governor Henry McMaster on December 10th with the subject line “Allendale County Treasurer (Urgent Request).” The letter raises multiple concerns over Allendale County’s finances. Audits show there is reason for concern.

“Allendale County has not timely completed this audit. Audit reveals a number of troubling findings,” South Carolina Department of Revenue writes in a letter to Governor Henry McMaster. “Payroll tax payments were not recorded correctly.”

I-Team’s Liz Owens found the county can barely pay its employees. “There is a deficit amount of $1342.46 needed for the payroll wire to be settled and transferred today,” writes the vice president of the local bank to county leaders.

Three months earlier, the School Superintendent of Allendale County Schools sent a letter too. She writes: “Allendale County continues to experience difficulties in receiving tax revenue in a timely manner from Allendale County Treasurer’s office….This unorthodox way of handling business by the county treasurer is preposterous.”

Concerned Citizens of Allendale County also sent a letter of concern. They write: “We are concerned that due to the lack of knowledge about our finances, our children ultimately suffer.” “We are concerned about the lack of financial knowledge about our county,”

For months, the people of Allendale County have asked the county council for answers and for months council has pointed the finger at the County Treasurer’s Office.

Rick Gooding is the chairman of Allendale County council. “Allendale County, we have been late every quarter getting the schools their tax money which they needed,” he told I-Team’s Liz Owens.

Finances are weighing down more than just the county. It is also weighing down the youngest and most innocent. The I-Team found the poverty rate among children in Allendale County is the highest in the state. They have the lowest access to broadband out of all 46 counties which makes at-home learning an even bigger challenge during the pandemic. They are also the only students in South Carolina to have the state seize control of their schools not once but twice due to underperformance. A shortfall despite nearly 80 cents of every property tax dollar allotted for the schools.

Liz Owens: “So where is the money at?”

Rick Gooding: “Good question. We don’t know.”

Liz Owens: “As an elected official I would think you all of you would have answers to that.”

Rick Gooding: “Council we get an expenditure report however we don’t get an income report we don’t know how much revenue we have coming in,” said Gooding.

Gerzell Chaney has served as the treasurer since 2003.

Liz Owens: “Why have you not been able to produce that?”

Gerzell Chaney: “It’s not that it hasn’t been produced and provided. County Council has had viewing of all accounts since October of 2014 and put themselves on every single account so they could have access to all the accounts.”

Liz Owens: “The County Council?”

Gerzell Chaney: “Yes. When I found out is when I received my bank statements in October of 2014.”

We fact-checked her and requested proof in an open records request. Chaney sent the I-TEAM these bank statements that show the name “H. Carl Gooding” present on a county account in October 2014. A statement from February of 2021 shows his name remains on the account, seven years later.

Carl Gooding is Rick Gooding’s father. His father is the former chairman of county council. His son is the current chairman. They currently serve on the council together and they also work outside of the council together. The father is the owner of the local radio station and the son is the owner of the local advertising company. The Goodings also run Cooterfest.

The I-Team did not find any laws or regulations prohibiting a council person’s name on a county bank account.

Liz Owens: “Do you think there is some questionable spending? Unwise spending?”

Gerzell Chaney: “I don’t know because I don’t do the expenditure side.”

The I-TEAM found the county went $100,000 over budget to build a park which is not in operation. We found Allendale County donates $30,000 to Denmark Tech that in turn pays Councilwoman Theresa Taylor $30,000 to recruit students. The county also agreed to pay the same council woman’s legal fees when she filed a personal lawsuit against her former employer, the state of South Carolina. It led to a consent order by the South Carolina Ethics Commission but her attorney bills are still going to Allendale County.

Recently, despite outstanding audits and bills, the county council voted lifetime health insurance benefits for themselves last year.

Liz Owens: “Do you think it was a good use of money?”

Rick Gooding: “Probably not I don’t think it is.:

Liz Owens: “Why did you vote for it then?”

Rick Gooding: “Not thinking. I just felt if someone had been putting up with all of Allendale all these years then might be a good idea to give them something at least get something you don’t get a lot from being on Allendale County council you get a lot of headaches.”

Bill Goodson returned to his home county after the council offered him the position of county administrator a year and a half ago. “You are right there is a lot of finger-pointing,” said Goodson. “The fact is we need out the treasurer’s office income from this county from last year. I need a report from her on my desk how much money she collects every month.”

The South Carolina code states: “The county treasurer may monthly report to the chief administrative officer of the county the amount of funds received” but Goodson says it’s never happened.

What is happening now is a forensic audit. “The forensic audit will reveal what’s going on my goal is how to get fixed it,” Goodson said.

Liz Owens: “How close is the county to being broke?”

Gerzell Chaney: “I don’t know.”

Liz Owens: “Wouldn’t you know as the treasurer?”

Gerzell Chaney: “Yes. I say I don’t know because I don’t know what steps have been taken on the administration side to re-coop the revenues that haven’t been sought after that I have said need to be sought after. I can say we are knocking on the door.”

Allendale County has lost more than money over the years. It’s lost jobs, population, and county personnel critically needed to maintain the books.

“Allendale County lacks qualified personnel to administer the accounting and financial needs of the county,” the South Carolina Department of Revenue wrote to Governor Henry McMaster in January of this year.

Liz Owens: “Is your office being made out the scapegoat?”

Gerzell Chaney: “I feel like…yes. We take a hit we take a lot of hits we have always taken a lot of hits.”

“It’s just very simple math revenue and expenses and the difference is raising people’s taxes or not raising people’s taxes. That’s why we have citizens involved right now,” the County Administrator told News 12′s Liz Owens.

“There are so many who are struggling in Allendale County,” Angel Bradford told News 12′s Liz Owens.

The people here can’t afford any more hits when their county is nearly broke, and they feel broken.

Governor Henry McMaster’s Office and other state departments are extremely interested in seeing the results of the forensic audit. A forensic audit differs from an internal audit in that the findings can be used as evidence in a criminal case. A company specializing in local government finance is conducting it right now.

The administrator told the I-Team if the accountants find anything criminal then they put the audit on pause and call county leaders. County leaders are then to notify South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.

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