Budgets and Politics Don’t Mix

By Paul Gable

Horry County Council will begin its two day budget retreat today at the Government and Justice Center in Conway.

Originally scheduled for a two day meeting in Pinopolis, which has been the county’s traditional budget retreat site, it was moved back to Conway after a series of phone calls last week to council members. One wonders if this move has more to do with the flagging Tom Rice for Congress campaign than anything to do with the county budget.

Local media will almost certainly attend the meeting in larger numbers and for greater periods in Conway. One hopes Rice doesn’t intend to use the budget retreat as a stage to attempt to get two days of free media advertising for his campaign. We don’t need political posturing, the budget is serious business.

Getting away to a setting like the Santee Cooper Complex in Pinopolis allowed council members to be somewhat removed from the constant distractions of their daily lives. It provided a better opportunity to concentrate specifically on the county budget for several days.

Meeting in the Pinopolis setting gave council members time in the evenings to speak informally among themselves and county staff to clarify budget requests. Meeting in Conway will actually result in less time spent on budget consideration by council members

There was a time when council considered the budget line by line with each county department head appearing before council to justify his or her budget requests and discuss the reasons behind them. This was a particularly effective method during the time that Chad Prosser was county council chairman.

This process began to lag under the chairmanship of Liz Gilland and has virtually disappeared in Rice’s two years as chairman.

Instead of council giving direction to staff on budget preparation, especially as it pertains to individual department requests, staff now prepares an overall budget recommendation that will be presented to council during the afternoon of the first day of the retreat. After several more presentations on special funds and without much discussion of the recommended budget, council is scheduled to vote on first reading of the budget ordinance at the end of the afternoon of the first day.

Council has yet to hear personally about two major budget requests for this year – one from the fire chief and one from police chief. Both want more money for their department, one is asking for a tax increase to provide it.

Much of council’s knowledge about these requests has been from media reports after the respective chiefs aired the requests in public. This is bad government. The elected body charged with spending the public’s dollars for budget requests should at least hear presentations about them in person.

The fire chief wants a 4.5 mill increase in taxes in the unincorporated areas of the county to fund new fire equipment and additional personnel. The police chief wants an additional $1 million in the department budget to fund more police officers. There has been no justification provided to council directly on why these requests are needed or important.

Nowhere on the two day agenda for the council budget retreat can I find where either of these chiefs will be personally presenting their requests formally to council or, more importantly, be forced to justify them before council members.

I daresay, department heads requesting council to raise taxes and increase spending in an election year during the worst economic times since the Great Depression is a bit much, even with this group.

I do, however, see a presentation by John Napier listed on the agenda with no explanation of what it is about. Napier has acted as an adviser and major contributor to the Rice campaign since its beginning last fall. Napier and his partner Don Fowler also have acted as lobbyists for the county to obtain federal funding for the airport expansion and other county projects.

Why is Napier’s appearance so important to be a separate presentation item while the fire chief and police chief budget increase requests are not?

Another discussion item is the Horry County Solid Waste Authority’s government mandated monopoly control of waste disposal in the county. We know the SWA is the only private, non-profit, public benefit corporation in the state to have its budget included as a section of the county’s budget, but forcing council to hear their flow control propaganda every month or so is too much.

Why is the county general fund budget given so little time and consideration by county council? The budget should be the most important agenda item the council discusses each year. It is how our tax dollars are spent.

At the end of this budget retreat, council will be know very little about how or why over a hundred million dollars of taxpayer money is being spent from the general fund during the next budget year. Surely the budget is important enough to spend more time than a couple hours each day for two days on how and why the county’s tax dollars are spent.

Rice’s time is heavily spent trying to rejuvenate a flagging campaign for congress. Maybe he is tired from running to Hartsville, Florence, Marlboro, Darlington, etc., trying to raise money and convince people to vote for him. Maybe he is too tired to go to Pinopolis and spend several days concentrating on county business.

Maybe it’s more important for him to be in close proximity to the Coastal Uncorked event in Myrtle Beach this week – an event funded by his friends and donors at the Chamber and attended by his buddies and donors from the Dunes Club card room. Clinking glasses with them at night may be more important than the county budget.

We are told these donors have been maxed out individually so the campaign is now in the process of setting up a committee to raise soft money donations to be used swarming the air waves with Rice ads over the next six and one-half weeks. Oh boy.

Whatever! Consideration of the county budget obviously runs a poor second to the campaign in demands for Rice’s time. This is bad government!