By Paul Gable
A strong majority of Horry County Council was unwilling Tuesday night to vote for a significant increase in taxes and fees without hearing from county voters.
Council voted to defer second reading of the county’s budget ordinance until June 1. In the interim, county staff will be putting together two ballot questions, one for a countywide 2 mill tax increase and the other for an additional 2.5 mill tax increase and an addition of $45 in stormwater fees for the unincorporated areas of the county.
The questions will be put to voters throughout the county in an advisory referendum special election scheduled for August 17, 2021. Voters in the cities will only be voting on the countywide tax increase while voters in the unincorporated areas of the county will vote on both questions.
The basics of the budget now being held in abeyance calls for a 3 mill tax increase in the unincorporated areas of the county to add revenue for the operation of the county’s solid waste convenience centers.
County staff proposed budget enhancements (additions) Tuesday night that call for a further 2 mill tax increase countywide to pay for police, E911, EMS and court security additions of personnel as well as a pay increase for all county employees. In addition, staff proposed an additional 2.5 mill increase in the unincorporated areas of the county to fund increases in fire services and a doubling of stormwater fees in the unincorporated areas from the current $44.40 per year per household to $89.40 per year per household (a $45 per year increase).
If both questions are approved by voters, taxpayers in the unincorporated areas of the county will see a 7.5 mill tax increase plus a $45 fee increase on their fall tax bills. Taxpayers residing in the cities will see an additional 2 mills of county tax added to their tax bills.
Staff was also directed by council to determine if the increases could be offset somewhat with 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.
Growth and its impacts on infrastructure and services has caught up with Horry County, some may say surpassed. Numerous studies conducted throughout the United States over the years conclude that a growth rate of over 1.5-2 percent per year cannot be paid for by the new tax revenue generated by that growth. Staff said growth was estimated to be 5 percent this year with an average of 3.25 percent estimated over the next five years.
County government is now in a crunch, either raise taxes and/or find revenue to fund the needed increases to personnel and infrastructure or cut services.
Some of the problem stems from past councils over the last two decades who proudly announced year after year that there would be no tax increase when a small tax increase would have been justified to fund small increases in infrastructure and services. Those decisions can be at least partially blamed for the rather substantial tax increase now being proposed.
Even now when the growth being experienced throughout the county is straining county government goods and services beyond their limits, council members, with an eye on next year’s elections, refuse to vote for increased taxes without permission from the voters.
Voters throughout the county should pay close attention to this issue over the next several months to determine how tax increases will benefit them, or not as the case may be.
How many of those voters will cast ballots? Special elections rarely draw more than 10% of registered voters to the polls. August 17th will be just after the height of the tourist season and is also the day Horry County Schools students return for the new school year.
This is a decision that will affect 100% of the taxpayers and should not be left to 10% or less of the voters to decide.