By Paul Gable
One of the most important items Horry County Council will study at its budget retreat next week is future funding for the Horry County Police Department.
Council chairman Mark Lazarus recently directed county staff to study the possibility of establishing a special purpose tax district for police funding, similar to the method in which the Horry County Fire Department is funded.
The results of that study are expected to be ready for the Horry County Council budget retreat.
Police funding, and public safety funding in general, came under the microscope when Horry County Council began looking at the cost to taxpayers for overtime and paid days off for county employees.
However, police funding falls into a unique category in the overall Horry County tax scheme. For that matter, Horry County is the only one of the state’s 46 counties to have both a police department and sheriff’s department.
HCPD was established over 50 years ago, for reasons both political and otherwise, to take over the general policing duties in the county from the sheriff’s department. The sheriff’s department is funded by county wide millage and the same funding mechanism was used for HCPD.
County wide millage is paid on all taxed property within the county regardless of whether it is located in incorporated or unincorporated areas of the county.
But, in 2004, an Horry County magistrate judge ruled HCPD officers may not enforce municipal ordinances and they may not enforce county ordinances within municipal boundaries. Therefore, HCPD effectively may not operate within municipalities without being requested and accompanied by municipal officers.
This is not the case for sheriff’s deputies. By state law, the sheriff’s department may operate county wide to enforce the law whether in municipalities or not.
Therefore, Lazarus’ directive to county staff is especially important.
If county police can effectively operate only in the unincorporated areas of the county, why should city taxpayers help fund HCPD when they are also paying to fund municipal police?
The real question, however, is has HCPD outlived its usefulness and should it be disbanded with all policing duties and personnel rolled back into the sheriff’s department?
According to several sources I have spoken to, funding HCPD from only millage in the unincorporated areas of the county would result in a tax increase of up to 20 mills for those property owners in the unincorporated areas. But, millage would be reduced for property owners in the incorporated areas by up to approximately 9 mills.
As you can see, the issue is much more complicated than just overtime and days off.