Horry County sues casino boat for not paying passenger fees

Horry County is suing the operator of a casino boat based in Little River for breach of contract.

County officials say the SunCruz boat failed to make payments to the county for passenger fees during the months of August and September of this year.

The county takes in $7 per passenger, instead of collecting taxes based on the boat's revenue.

The suit that was filed last week asks for $165,000 in back payments, plus legal costs.

"We tried to work out those issues, but unfortunately, we had to go the judicial route and a lawsuit was filed last week," said Horry County Spokesperson Lisa Bourcier.

SunCruz issued a response to the lawsuit Wednesday. "SunCruz is surprised and disappointed that the county has chosen to litigate rather than to negotiate," said Robert Weisberg, a member of Aquasino Partners of South Carolina, LLC, which runs the SunCruz boat.

Weisberg said when they became aware of illegal gambling operations in Little River last summer, they met with county officials. Weisburg said the county told them they were approving licenses for the businesses.

"We made it clear then that we expected them to stop issuing licenses and shut them down or we would be forced to seek some form of relief. Weeks ago, and with no relief forthcoming, our representatives began engaging in negotiations. Frankly, this lawsuit was a total shock."

The only type of licenses the county issues are business licenses, not gambling licenses, said Bourcier.

"A lot of current businesses have current licenses, but tend to stick some of these illegal machines in their businesses," said Bourcier. "We've been able to look into that and seize that property...Over the last couple of months, we have taken a lot of law enforcement issues when it comes to illegal gambling. They've become very creative over the last couple of years in the forms of computers, online gaming as well as the old fashion poker machines," said Bourcier.

The county is doing as much as they can to enforce the laws on illegal gaming, she added.

"We have seized lots of equipment in the county," said Bourcier. "We have arrested several individuals as well, and a lot of those cases are in magistrate court as we speak."

Weisburg brings up another issue in his statement, saying, "SunCruz has maintained from the start that the County's $7/passenger fees are unfair and illegal." Weisberg continued. "But we acted in good faith and in the best interest of our employees, customers and community, continuing to pay these excessive fees every month even as the recession deepened. Unlike our competitor, a smaller operation based in Florida, we're based right here in Little River. We've paid more than $1.3 million just for the right to operate a completely legal business. But at this point, illegal, land-based gambling is competing directly with us 24 hours a day and it is taking a severe toll."

"Times are tough on the Grand Strand, yet we're being treated differently than any other businesses, many of whom are our business partners. Just imagine the impact on area theaters, waterparks, hotels, restaurants or attractions like the SkyWheel if they were forced to absorb an additional fee of $7/guest."

"We are expected to follow the rules and we've been proud to do so," he concluded. "At the same time, we expect and deserve that state and local government will protect us from those who don't follow the rules. At the very least, on behalf of and in fairness to our employees and customers, we expected a level playing field. Instead of getting that, we got a lawsuit."

But the two issues of illegal gambling and the company failing to pay their fees to the county are separate from one another, and Suncruz is in breach of a contract they agreed upon with the county, said Bourcier.