Horry County Council Rejects I-73 Funding

By Paul Gable

By a 6-5 vote, Horry County Council, at its regular meeting Tuesday night, rejected a proposal to dedicate $4.2 million per year for 30 years from hospitality fee revenue to the construction of Interstate 73.

The margin was one vote, but it wasn’t that close. It was a clear demonstration that six members of council are solid in their determination to vote in the interests of the citizens not special interests.

The vote was a clear defeat for council members Johnny Vaught and Dennis DiSabato, the two on council who drank the Chamber Kool-Aid and spearheaded the effort to dedicate funding to I-73. It wasn’t their idea, but Vaught and DiSabato agreed to ‘carry the water’ for the Chamber and its cronies in this latest effort to obtain local funding for the road. They spilled most of that water.

The question now is, have Vaught and DiSabato destroyed any hope for the Chamber to secure local funding for its pet project?

The effort to secure funding for I-73 from countywide hospitality fees has been four and one-half years in the making. It began in Spring 2017 when former council chairman Mark Lazarus convinced county council to remove the sunset provision from the county ordinance establishing hospitality fee collection.

Lazarus next tried to convince council to dedicate the entire approximately $45 million annual revenue from countywide hospitality fees to fund construction of I-73. However, the people were beginning to be heard as their rejection of Lazarus for reelection in 2018 demonstrated, and Lazarus, in his final days in office, was only able to push through authorization for the county to enter into a funding agreement with the South Carolina Department of Transportation for up to $25 million per year from hospitality fees for I-73 construction.

That funding agreement was immediately challenged by a lawsuit brought by the cities against the county and the agreement was cancelled by county council in late 2019 with no money having ever been sent to SCDOT.

The settlement of that lawsuit included vague language that the county and the cities would work together to try and find alternative means of providing local funding for I-73.

After a break due to the uncertainties of the effects of Covid on local governments, a small group reportedly consisting of Chamber officials, state Rep. Case Brittain, Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune, North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley and DiSabato began meeting last summer to concoct a new local funding plan for I-73.

The spin at the time was dedicated funding from local governments could be taken to the S. C. General Assembly to lobby for state funds to be appropriated to I-73 construction and that resulting package could be taken to Washington to lobby for federal funds.

That entire concept seems to be upside down logic. Why should local governments be the first to dedicate funding for an interstate highway in an attempt to convince the state and feds they should contribute?

Upside down or not, it was apparently the best plan this private group could come up with in an attempt to keep I-73 alive.

The cities have yet to consider dedicating any of their hospitality fees to I-73 construction, but DiSabato carried the idea to county council. DiSabato was unsuccessful in an attempt to get a resolution on the agenda of the county Infrastructure and Regulation Committee, on which he serves, dedicating, from county hospitality fees, $4.2 million per year for 30 years.

After that failure, DiSabato turned to Vaught, chair of the county Administration Committee, to have the resolution included on the agenda of that committee for consideration. At the regular meeting of the Admin Committee, the resolution for I-73 funding was deferred.

In stepped the Chamber to attempt to save the situation with an announcement that Governor Henry McMaster would come to Myrtle Beach to announce he was pledging $300 million in state funds to construct the first portion of I-73 between I-95 near Dillon to 501 below Lake View, a total of six miles of road.

Vaught used that announcement to call a special meeting of the Admin Committee to consider the county’s $4.2 million resolution for dedicating hospitality fee revenue to I-73.

The governor’s overall funding plan presented at the Chamber press conference included $795 million from the state, $430 million from the federal government and $350 million in local funding from Horry County and the local cities.

None of the money from the state or the federal government has been appropriated to date and the governor cannot pledge state money on his own.  However, the Admin Committee voted 3-1 (council members Vaught, Gary Loftus and Tyler Servant voting in the affirmative) to recommend to full county council the resolution on dedicating hospitality fees for I-73 construction.

The resolution failed to be adopted at last night’s council meeting. Apparently relying on Vaught and DiSabato, the pro-I-73 crowd thought the votes to pass the resolution were in the bag.

But such was not the case. Vaught and DiSabato, with the dawn having risen that they didn’t have the votes to pass the resolution, tried to table consideration of the resolution, but failed. The resolution went down to defeat.

Both Vaught and DiSabato have indicated they will challenge Chairman Johnny Gardner in the June 2022 Republican Primary for the nomination for council chairman in next year’s general election. Both evidently feel they will need the support of the Chamber, its associated PACs, members and other cronies in this endeavor.

If obtaining council passage of the I-73 funding resolution was their opening gambit in an attempt to gain support to unseat Gardner, Vaught and DiSabato failed miserably. They share a dunce cap in the cartoon illustration accompanying this article for that reason.

However, maybe the dunce cap is misplaced. Maybe it should go to the Chamber crowd who apparently placed their faith in DiSabato and Vaught to get the resolution passed.

The citizens of Horry County are overwhelmingly against using local hospitality fees or other government tax dollars to fund an interstate road. They correctly understand, even if five members of county council don’t, that those local dollars should be spent fixing and upgrading infrastructure already in place.

Once the Chamber crowd understands the citizens are against their funding plan, and it should be painfully obvious this morning that six members of council agree, maybe it can come up with an alternate plan, based on significant funding from the state and federal governments, to build their Interstate 73, which is nothing more than an interstate spur off of I-95 to the coast.

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