By Paul Gable
Two weeks after voting to defer second reading of the county budget for fiscal year 2021-22, Horry County Council will again consider second reading at its regular meeting Tuesday night.
How to pay for growth and who should pay for it will again be at the center of the council’s considerations.
Council rejected a staff proposal for a 2 mill increase in the county general fund, a 2.5 mill increase in the county fire fund, a 3 mill increase in the county solid waste convenience center fund and a $45 per year increase in the county stormwater fee two weeks ago.
According to several sources, county staff has come up with four possible options for council consideration Tuesday.
At one extreme is the proposal that council rejected. At the opposite extreme, reportedly is a small tax increase to help the convenience center fund.
The answer will probably lie somewhere between the two extremes.
While there is no doubt that the rapid growth currently being experienced and expected to continue in residential construction is straining county resources, the question of raising taxes on every taxpayer in the county to fund increased goods and services is a sticking point.
This is especially true when considering the hospitality fee money that was freed up with the settlement of the lawsuit with Myrtle Beach (approximately $26 million), with the money coming from the federal government American Rescue Plan (approximately $34 million per year for two years) and from impact fees should the council pass an impact fee ordinance after its scheduled June 10, 2021 workshop on impact fees.
It’s difficult to raise taxes when there is a spare $60 million in the bank with another $34 million promised next year and a new potential revenue resource from impact fees.
Here is where the discussion comes down to who is calling the shots in the county. County staff constantly warns against spending what it calls one-time money such as the hospitality fee and federal government money on recurring expenses such as funding increases for police and fire personnel.
There is nothing wrong with that logic in static times. However, staff reportedly has designs on the entire $60 million one-time money available this year for its own ‘wish list,’ another way of saying increase the size of the bureaucracy.
The bureaucrats, starting with county administrator Steve Gosnell and working down through virtually the entire county senior staff, appear perfectly happy to spend the one-time money on their own preferred projects and raise taxes on the citizens to pay for necessary increases in goods and services.
Council should seriously consider using the one-time money as a bridge to ease the strain on county infrastructure and services until something like impact fees can be enacted and begin to generate new revenue.
Impact fees will again be a controversial subject for council to enact. If impact fees are seriously considered after next week’s workshop, the development community and its cohorts will probably rise up in their indignation with predictions of the vast recession impact fees will cause in the building industry.
This has been the general line developers and realtors have taken in the past and they are not known for their ingenuity. The argument is ridiculous, however. An impact fee increase of say $2,500-3,000 per new residence will not stop building in this county. The cost of lumber has increased considerably more than that amount over the past year and new home construction has increased over that time.
There is absolutely no reason that those new residents to the area who are effectively causing the strain on county infrastructure should not share in the cost of upgrading and improving that infrastructure.
The large tax increase proposed by staff at the last meeting of council. 2 percent countywide and 7.5 percent plus $45 per residence in the unincorporated areas, is unreasonable considering the possible alternatives to just raising taxes.
This, however, is a decision that council must make. The possibility of shifting the decision to raise taxes to the voters through an advisory referendum, as proposed at the last meeting, is nothing other than council shirking its duties or cowardice, if you prefer.
The 12 members of council are elected to make tough decisions, not just easy ones. The number one priority each year of any local government is to pass a budget which serves the needs of the citizens without being oppressive.
If the current 12 member county council is incapable of making those decisions, the citizens can and should make changes at ballot box beginning with any council member who would vote to conduct an advisory referendum.