HAMPTON — Lawmakers have asked Gov. Henry McMaster to order an investigation into Hampton County’s precarious financial situation, saying county government is too broke to hire someone to find out how millions of dollars vanished from its coffers.

Members of the Hampton County legislative delegation told the governor in a letter dated Nov. 15 they were “exceedingly concerned” about the county’s financial situation. They cited pleas for help from concerned residents, increasingly dire warnings from county leaders and recent reporting by The Post and Courier’s Uncovered initiative about the county’s struggle to determine what happened to its money.

The Post and Courier of Charleston in 2021 launched “Uncovered,” a project to cast new light on questionable government conduct, especially in…

The county has acknowledged misspending at least $3.1 million from a penny-per-dollar sales tax intended for construction projects and $1.5 million from a fund restricted to fire expenses. Its former finance director said the money appeared to cover everyday expenses, papering over mounting deficits. But no one can say for sure how the funds were spent.

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“There appears to be a lot more to this issue than misspent funds. However, the county has no resources to determine culpability,” wrote state Rep. Bill Hager and Sens. Margie Bright Matthews and Brad Hutto.

The trouble is that South Carolina subjects its local governments to minimal oversight, Uncovered previously reported. The state’s watchdog agencies say they don’t have the jurisdiction to investigate counties and municipalities. And while the state employs forensic accountants for law enforcement, they only deal with suspected criminal acts.

The Hampton County delegation asked McMaster to refer the case to any of a litany of agencies: his office’s ombudsman, the state inspector general, the state treasurer, the S.C. Department of Revenue or the State Law Enforcement Division.

The Department of Revenue is said to be auditing the missing sales tax money already. But it isn’t clear any of the others have the authority to investigate.

“It doesn’t matter what agency. Find somebody to come down,” said Hager, R-Hampton, the county’s only resident lawmaker.

McMaster spokesman Brandon Charochak said the governor shares Hampton County lawmakers’ concerns. He said the governor would support legislation giving the state’s inspector general the authority and manpower to investigate problems in local governments. Currently, the inspector general can only look at state agencies and school districts.

The letter is not the first to request the governor’s intervention. Hampton County lawmakers asked for help getting someone to review the county’s books in 2020, and a group of concerned residents calling themselves Hampton County Citizens for Active Restoration asked for a forensic audit in 2022.

Each time, the governor’s office responded by saying the options were limited.

“State agencies and officials typically have limited, if any, authority to exercise general oversight over county elected officials,” deputy legal counsel Michael Shedd wrote the citizen’s group in February 2022.

He encouraged the group to call their lawmakers to ask for more oversight and keep pressing county leaders.

The legislative delegation said its latest request for help was prompted in part by a Hampton County Council meeting that two of its members attended earlier in November. At that meeting, Hampton’s new finance director said the county needed to slash spending to make ends meet. He called for a 9 percent budget cut countywide.

By the county’s next meeting Nov. 20, the assessment was even more dire. Bills were stacking up, and Penska said he had to wait to pay them because the county is essentially functioning paycheck-to-paycheck. It won’t be able to cover them until more residents pay their property tax bills in the next few months, he said.

A council member asked how much money was set aside to pay basic expenses like the power bill and payroll. If push comes to shove, he asked, could the county cover 30 days of bills? 60?

“To answer you quite frankly, we are late on our utility bills. And we are very low on cash. And no, we can’t guarantee that anybody’s going to get paid,” Penska said.

In the future, Penska said, the county needs to make a plan to repay the money it misspent and pay off the balances it owes contractors, the local school district and others. But for now, he said, the county would need to use debt to stay afloat.

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