By Paul Gable
Horry County Council will decide the fate of its Financial Participation Agreement with the South Carolina Department of Transportation at a specially called meeting Wednesday.
The agreement, which was signed by the county and SCDOT December 13, 2018, commits the county to provide up to $25 million per year for funding the Interstate 73 project.
The county does not have the money and the only sane step for council to take is to cancel the contract before it takes effect and SCDOT begins committing money the county does not have.
County officials planned to use revenue from a countywide 1.5% hospitality fee on prepared food and beverages, accommodations, admissions tickets and rental car fees to provide the $25 million per year.
However, that plan, hatched by former council chairman Mark Lazarus and former county administrator Chris Eldridge, was fatally flawed from the beginning.
The countywide hospitality fee was enacted specifically, with the consent of the cities and a hard sunset provision, for the purpose of funding the short term projects listed in the Road Improvement and Development Effort report of October 1997 and approved by then Gov. David Beasley. I-73 was not included with those projects.
County council overstepped its bounds when it removed the sunset provision from hospitality fee legislation in April 2017 at the urging of Lazarus and Eldridge who specifically wanted to use the revenue for construction of I-73 when the RIDE bonds were paid off.
That first blunder was compounded by a second when the Lazarus/Eldridge tandem put a full court press on county council to provide up to $25 million of hospitality fee revenue for I-73 in July 2018 without consulting the cities.
A trifecta of blunders was completed when, one month before he left office, Lazarus effectively bullied council into contractually obligating itself to SCDOT for I-73 funding. This was only weeks after Hurricane Florence again demonstrated to county officials the desperate need for upgrades to roads and other critical county infrastructure already in place.
The City of Myrtle Beach blew up the funding plan when it sued the county for a permanent injunction against continued collection of the 1.5% countywide hospitality fee after the bonds funding the initial RIDE projects were paid off in February 2019.
That lawsuit is continuing but a temporary injunction ordered in June 2019 is preventing the county from collecting hospitality fees within any of the cities in the county, seriously cutting revenue to the county.
The state and federal governments have never provided any significant commitment to funding for the I-73 project, yet both expected the county to commit this money every year.
The supposed benefits of I-73 to the area have long been propagandized and seriously overstated by a collection of special interests that wanted to see the road built for selfish reasons.
The county and its citizens have immediate, it could be argued overdue, needs for in place infrastructure upgrades that would be a much better use of any hospitality fee revenue the county will receive.
Kenny Rogers said in his song “The Gambler”, “You got to know when to hold ‘em, Know when to fold ‘em, Know when to walk away and Know when to run.”
The special meeting Wednesday will determine whether a majority of council is intelligent and perceptive enough to know it’s time to “fold ‘em” on I-73 and “run away” from that project for good.