By Paul Gable
Horry County Council voted unanimously at its regular meeting Tuesday night to cancel the Financial Participation Agreement with the South Carolina Department of Transportation that would have provided funding for the Interstate 73 project.
The agreement was approved by council during a special meeting held on November 28, 2018 and signed by former county administrator Chris Eldridge on December 13, 2018. Former council chairman Mark Lazarus led the charge to get the agreement signed before he left office December 31, 2018. Lazarus and Eldridge were the two foremost proponents of having the county enter into the agreement with SCDOT.
In addition, Lazarus and Eldridge were instrumental in orchestrating the elimination of a sunset provision from the county’s hospitality fee legislation earlier in 2018 in order to direct revenue to I-73.
But it all began to fall apart in March 2019 when the City of Myrtle Beach sued Horry County over continued collection of hospitality fees after the bonds for the first RIDE projects were paid off, an action the city called illegal.
Last spring, Horry County Council approved a resolution to refund hospitality fee revenue collected within the municipal boundaries to the respective cities where it was collected. The resolution included a proposal for the municipalities and the county to provide some funding for I-73 with percentage contributions from each agency in line with the percentage of the total amount of hospitality fee revenue each city received.
The cities dismissed that resolution out of hand.
Now, the cities and the county are considering a settlement agreement to the lawsuit with virtually the same terms with the exception that the cities will be on the hook to pay their attorneys 33% of the refunded revenue, approximately $7 million.
The blame for the cancellation of the I-73 agreement can be laid directly at the feet of Myrtle Beach and the other cities that joined in the lawsuit and refused to accept virtually the same settlement they are now considering.
Several county council members, including Chairman Johnny Gardner and council members Harold Worley and Johnny Vaught made exactly the point that the cities could have had the same settlement without paying such large attorney fees by accepting the resolution in the spring. It must also be noted the I-73 contract would not have been cancelled if the cities had taken this action.
Gardner and Worley said the county’s state legislative delegation should step up and obtain some funding for I-73 from the approximately $2 billion excess revenue the state will experience during this fiscal year.
And they certainly should. Reps. Alan Clemmons and Heather Ammons Crawford have been especially vocal about the need for the county to provide funds for I-73 so that a grant application by the state to the federal government for $346 million funding for I-73 will remain viable. To date Clemmons and Crawford have been unable to bring any meaningful state funding to the project while insisting the county take the lead.
If the federal government approves the $346 million grant, it would be the first meaningful contribution the feds have made to the I-73 project but none of this money would be spent in Horry County. It is all dedicated to building the road in Marion, Dillon and Marlboro counties, none of whom have committed any local money to the project.
Why hasn’t Rep. Tom Rice obtained real funding from the federal government for a project that he spends a lot of time talking about the need for?
Why should Horry County take the lead on funding an interstate roadway that neither the state nor federal government have provided any meaningful funds for?
Two council members, Dennis DiSabato and Cam Crawford, expressed the opinion that it should even though they later cast votes to cancel the agreement.
DiSabato said he did not agree with having the state legislature take the lead on local issues.
Since when is an interstate highway a local issue?
Crawford said there was risk with the legislature running this operation (funding I-73). He seemed to hint that the legislature may amend the hospitality fee enabling legislation to make it project specific (to I-73).
Interesting what comments and votes are made when reelection is on the horizon.
The I-73 project is not necessarily dead. The county’s legislative delegation can do what it should have been doing for years – provide meaningful funding for the project out of the state’s $2 billion excess.
If an agreement with the cities can be finalized on the lawsuit, it may provide some funding for I-73.
But for now, Horry County is no longer the only government, either local, state or federal, to be on the hook for funding I-73. It never should have been in that position in the first place.