By Paul Gable
Horry County Council again dodged making a definitive decision on the I-73 contract with SCDOT at its special meeting Wednesday.
Instead of voting to cancel or go forward with the contract, council voted to defer a final decision until the end of the year.
In the meantime, council has asked the cities to step up with funding for the project or the county would be forced to cancel the contract by December 31, 2019.
In simple terms, the county does not have the ability to fund the up to $25 million per year currently promised in the contract. SCDOT has asked for $12.5 million in the first year, but plans to bond against $25 million per year in future years.
The City of Myrtle Beach continues to cloud the truth by saying the county can fund the contract with its hospitality fee revenues from the unincorporated areas. This is not true.
With the county now banned from collecting a 1.5% hospitality fee, the municipalities and the cities collecting their own hospitality and accommodations taxes, the county has no more than approximately $10 million it can designate for I-73.
In order to reach the $25 million per year called for in the SCDOT contract, Myrtle Beach would have to pledge approximately the same as the county, $10 million per year, and North Myrtle Beach, Surfside Beach, Conway, Loris, Aynor, Atlantic Beach and Briarcliff would have to combine to make up the remaining $5 million.
I don’t believe any of that is going to happen. Not only would the cities have to pledge the funds each year, there would need to be an intergovernmental between the county and the municipalities formalizing those commitments and each party would need to sign the contract with SCDOT.
Those are the details of what needs to happen to keep the SCDOT contract alive. However, there are other details that make keeping the contract more disturbing.
SCDOT and U.S. Rep. Tom Rice said an approximate $348 million grant from the federal government for I-73 hinges on keeping the commitment of $25 million from Horry County in place.
Gov. Henry McMaster added that grant request, at the urging of Rice last year, to his Hurricane Florence relief request. So, while home and business owners throughout this area remain seriously out of pocket from the flooding experienced in Horry County last year, the governor and congressman are requesting hurricane relief funds for building a new road.
And none of that money will come to Horry County. The $348 million Rice and McMaster are counting on will be used to construct I-73 in Marion, Dillon and Marlboro counties, according to sources familiar with the SCDOT overall plan. Horry County is expected to fund the entire cost of building I-73 to the county line by itself while any federal money goes to other counties.
The state, meanwhile, has not pledged any money for construction of I-73. Even if the county contract remains in place and the state receives the grant money from the federal government, something I don’t believe Rice can deliver, it is not enough to fund the entire cost of completing the road from I-95 to the coast, somewhere around $1.5 billion presently.
Virtually all discussion about the contract decision was done in executive session under the guise of receiving a legal opinion and briefings. I can’t imagine more than 20 minutes, of the 1 hour 40 minutes council spent behind closed doors, was about legal matters.
County council evidently is willing to attempt anything to keep alive the commitment of $25 million per year of tax dollars to the state but they are either afraid and/or ashamed to discuss it in open session. This is not the open, transparent government council chairman Johnny Gardner promised during his campaign last year.
Meanwhile, the county needs to seriously upgrade its stormwater management, improve and upgrade the roads that flooded the past several years, increase public safety services throughout the county to give coverage to the rapid development council is approving and pray another Hurricane Florence event does not hit the county for years to come.
County citizens have never voted in a referendum to build I-73. They have never truly been asked to weigh in on the project. But, maybe the referendum will be held at the ballot box next spring.
Five council members who voted to keep the contract alive, Gary Loftus, Cam Crawford, Dennis DiSabato, Paul Prince and Danny Hardee, all will be up for reelection next year. The citizens will have the opportunity make their voices heard through the ballot box.