By Paul Gable
Horry County began its budget process for Fiscal Year 2020 with its fall planning retreat November 28th.
This was the beginning of what could prove to be a very interesting budget year.
Incoming council chairman Johnny Gardner pledged on the campaign trail, “Public Safety Priority One Day One” as his approach to the county budget process.
County staff heard a portion of that message. The early budget outline includes an additional approximately eight million dollars for public safety. That addition is based on what staff believes can be used from excess hospitality fee revenues after Ride I bonds are paid off early in 2019.
However, despite a county council resolution to use approximately $18 million from those revenues toward public safety, infrastructure and areas like recreation, staff has held firm to the $8 million it proposed last July.
Additionally, council directed staff to prepare an ordinance amending current county code pertaining to the funds received from what is known as the 1.5% portion of hospitality fee revenue that currently goes to pay off the Ride I bonds. Currently all of that revenue is deposited in a special road fund per county code.
To date, staff has not presented an ordinance amendment to change that designation to include public safety, infrastructure, recreation and the like.
This avoidance of acting on a resolution designating the will of council can only be attributed to at least certain members of county senior staff continuing to desire that all of the Ride I 1.5% money go to I-73, which was initially proposed to council.
Therein lies the basic contradiction in the county budget process – council directs, but staff does what it wants to.
There are many needs throughout the county, with public safety only being the most obvious one, where the 1.5% hospitality fee revenue could be used with a little initiative.
County staff had no problem finding a quick $12 million from excess Ride II revenue to purchase swamp land off of International Drive in the fall of 2017 when that purchase was desired. It would be nice if staff brought the same sense of urgency to the basic needs of the county.
And it’s not just use of hospitality fee revenue that hinders spending on public safety and other basic needs in the county.
There are sacred cows in the budget, which apparently have a ‘hands off’ label when the budget is considered.
The most glaring of these is the $1.3 or so million spent each year on the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation, which manages to spend that money with little result. The performance of the EDC since its latest iteration in the 2010-11 time frame has been considerably less than impressive.
That $1.3 million can be better used to fund additional police officers or EMS personnel in addition to the already proposed $8 million public safety additions.
Funding of the EDC and several other ‘sacred cows’ in the annual budget should be considered only after basic needs of the county in public safety, infrastructure, recreation and other basic county services are sufficiently funded.
A focus on funding basic county needs first is what is needed from council in the coming budget year. The form of county government under which Horry County operates is that council sets policy and staff carries it out, not the other way around.