By Paul Gable
Mickey James, President of the Myrtle Beach Chapter of the NAACP and member of the COAST RTA board of directors, blasted Horry County Council Tuesday night for its stinginess toward the transit authority’s funding needs.
“No other agency receives the type of challenge and scrutiny (for funding) from this council,” during a presentation to council Tuesday night. “The bar for COAST is always higher.”
The question of funding from Horry County was supposedly decided in November 2010 when Horry County voters passed an advisory referendum, by an over 60 percent margin, to provide approximately $1 million in county funds to COAST on an annual basis. The referendum question was non-binding, but it was decisive.
COAST general manager Myers Rollins had told council that the authority needed dedicated funding from the county in order to provide an acceptable level of service. Council member Gary Loftus, with the support of a majority of council, challenged Rollins to prove to council that funding the authority was an issue with Horry County voters.
“With only 16 weeks to the election, you set us up for failure,” said James. “Our general manager became the public face of the case for public transportation. Over 60 percent of the voters approved the funding, but that wasn’t enough.”
James went on to describe council resistance to honoring the $1 million in funding during last year’s budget debate because it included a .3 mil tax increase.
James told how, during that debate, Loftis went so far as to say that maybe the voters did not understand what they were voting for.
Council member Bob Grabowski said the increase was very minor compared to the benefit the people of Horry County would receive. Grabowski went on to say it would be irresponsible not to fund COAST when it is desperately needed for the community.
“In the two years I have been on the COAST board, I have come to understand that for thousands of Horry County residents public transportation is a lifeline to jobs, school and doctors visits among other things,” James said.
COAST ridership has increased significantly in the past several years. Last year it was up 29 percent to 723,000 passengers, according to Rollins. In the eight months reported for the current fiscal year, ridership has increased another 25 percent and is over 600,000 passengers already.
In contrast, the county provides $1.8 million per year to the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation, under terms of a contract between the county and the corporation.
Council chairman Tom Rice led the charge to fund the economic development corporation despite dismal results from it over the years.
Would some of that have to do with the fact that Doug Wendel is Chairman of the Executive Board of MBREDC and finance chairman of Rice’s campaign for the 7th Congressional District seat?
Last year, Rice said new MBREDC CEO Brad Lofton had promised to bring in 500 jobs during the first 18 months of his (Lofton’s) contract. One year later, only one deal has closed. That was with historic underachiever AvCraft for a “promise” to bring 150 new jobs to the county over the next five years, most after year three. To date, AvCraft hasn’t added any permanent jobs to the just over 50 it brought to Horry County in 2004.
Word has it that Lofton will announce closing a call center deal next week for 90 immediate jobs. This appears to be another warmed over deal that was originally planned over two years ago (before Lofton arrived), but fell through. At that time, it was supposed to bring 200 jobs.
But MBREDC is guaranteed to get its $1.8 million again in Fiscal Year 2013, which begins July 1, 2012. COAST, on the other hand, will have to make its case to council again and again, over the next several months, to get only 55 percent of that amount, yet it provides considerably more value to Horry County citizens on a day-to-day basis.
Everyone agrees economic development and public transportation are both necessary for Horry County. The treatment of the two agencies’ requests for public funds, however, has been decidedly different.
COAST had to overcome the Lymo scandal of 2004, but has developed into a solid public transportation agency under Rollins guidance and a newly appointed board of directors.
MBREDC still has to prove it can do the same in its newly reorganized state, but it continues to receive almost twice the amount of funding from the county? Why?