I-TEAM: Bamberg County citizens say leadership, potential ballooning debt could spell trouble for county

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Monday, Sept. 30, 2019
News 12 at 6 O’Clock

BAMBERG COUNTY, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) -- If the scorched pieces of a once popular downtown building are any indication, business in Bamberg County seems to be charred with grief.

Just like that store which burned down nearly 7 months ago, an old framework is collapsing.

But a movement is rising.

"The people are tired of paying the high taxes. They're tired of having no grocery store in the community." John Gleaton said. "They're tired of having no businesses in the area. They're tired of being the highest unemployment in the state.

"All the things are finally resonating."

Bamberg County has population of 14,275. That's according to the most recent state population data. The same South Carolina report shows people are not coming, they're going. The county has experienced a dropping population since 1990.

"I think you can see it when you ride through,” Brad Hudson said. “Our town kind of looks like a mud puddle that's been sitting in the sun too long and it's drying up."

That's how Hudson describes the county he moved into 8 years ago. Hudson is now acting director of Concerns Citizens of Bamberg County. The group does what its name implies, address their concerns with county government issues. And a big issue for them is property taxes.

Hudson has watched people move out because he says they can no longer afford their property taxes.

We drove around a few neighborhoods, knocking on doors to find home owners. What we found instead were many home renters -- neighbors who told us in Bamberg it made more sense for them to rent instead of adding home owner property taxes.

But we did find Moye Sanders, a home owner and longtime resident of Bamberg. Sanders, on his front porch, has seen more than just people pack up and leave over his 35 years of living in town -- he has watched longtime businesses do it,too.

Sanders is among the many frustrated that major grocery retailers are ghosts in town.

It turns out, the last major grocery retailer within Bamberg city limits just closed its doors. The Bi-Lo lettering on the storefront is now faded, a reminder of its goodbye to Bamberg last year.

The chain grocery filed for bankruptcy. It was the last major one in the city.

"You got to drive 20 miles to get groceries," Sanders complained.

He makes the trek to either Barnwell or Orangeburg just to get his groceries for the week. It's a long ride, for the man who says he's tired of no change.

The quiet bustling of the community, the abandoned and tax delinquent homes in the neighborhoods, the empty storefronts on the streets, the county unemployment doubling the state's average -- these are all only symptoms of shrinkage in Bamberg.

But, the cause, if you ask the Concerned Citizens Group dim commitment in a once bright outlook for local government.

"County Council is working for Joey Preston, we as citizens feel, to be blunt,” Gleaton said.

"I believe and most citizens believe, we have an administrator that is running and making decisions for our county with very little input from our county council from our county council."

Administrator Joey Preston was hired in 2012 by Bamberg County. We requested his most recent contract. Turns out, it's actually not with him or even a person; instead the contract is with his company, Preston Consulting LLC, based out of Anderson County. It is a seemingly uncommon practice, so much so the Concerned Citizens filed a lawsuit.

The Concerned Citizens later dropped the suit. Hudson claims they did it thinking the county would give the administrator a contract with, well, the administrator, not simply a company owned by him.

When our I-Team requested the administrator’s contract, the county had not entered a new one with Preston. We filed an additional request within the last week to see if anything has recently changed. We are still waiting for the Freedom of Information Request to be fulfilled.

Before Bamberg County Administrator, Preston was the Anderson County Administrator. According to Anderson County records, he still has a home address there. Records also raise questions.

Preston worked as the Anderson County Administrator up until 2008. But legal woes seems to follow him well beyond then.

A June 2016 district judgment confirmed he owes more than about $1 million for his part in what the courts explained as an investment "Ponzi scheme" with a former Anderson County Councilman.

In another court judgment, we found he owes about $1 million back to Anderson County over a severance agreement.

When Preston resigned as Anderson County Administrator, he had a severance agreement for that total. But by 2019, the Supreme Court decided he owed that money back. The ruling cited that the original council vote to give him his severance did not have enough council members to officially approve such an agreement in the first place. Justices explained there was no quorum to vote, affirming the vote was null and void.

Hudson believes the former Anderson County administrator should not have been hired by Bamberg County.

"He had enough baggage in Anderson County that we should never have considered him,” Hudson said. "My personal opinion is and I don't know that I can trust his leadership based on the leadership he's shown in Anderson County."

Although the rulings on Anderson County are clear, there's growing concern the numbers in Bamberg seem obscure: debt numbers.

"I haven't gotten a clear answer on what the debt level for our county"

The new county audit reports total liabilities currently sit at $13 million, a drop from last year's $14 million.

Another look at the audit reveals something else too, a section that talks about Bamberg Facilities Corporation (BFC). It's only a brief section in the county audit, but it explains the corporation was created by the county itself, adding that the corporation finances projects by bonds.

The I-Team tracked down that corporation’s expense report. We were about to look at the numbers from 2011 through 2016. It shows, a massive jump in debt by 2016. Debt service in 2011 was listed as $1.2 million, but by 2016, it was $11.7 million.

So the corporation, which was actually formed by the county, owed at least $11 million in debt 3 years ago.

Could this possibly mean the very small Bamberg County actually owes a very big debt of at least $11 million from BFC plus the $13 million listed in the audit?

That grand total would mean at least $24 million, a debt total which does not appear to be in the audit.

It would explain a lot to Moye Sanders, giving him answers about the steady raise in taxes across the county. And sitting on his front porch, he's witnessed a lot of things. But says stability here is not one of them.

"I don't see any improvement around here," Sanders said.

It’s a concern John Gleaton shares.

"If we don't get debt under control, if we don't stop the bleeding of the county, they'll be nobody to look at anything in the county,” Gleaton said.

The I-Team reached out to Administrator Preston, the assistant in his office, as well as the Deputy Administrator while we were working on this story. We requested an interview to get clarity on taxes and money concerns. Calls and emails were not returned.

The I-Team reached out again today to see if the county would be able to clarify even though they did not return our previous attempts to reach them. The county has not yet responded.

We also sent new FOIA requests on records our team previously requested and received -- we did so just in case there's been any recent changes or updates to that information.

We are waiting for those requests to be fulfilled.

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