Horry County’s Election Year Budget

By Paul Gable

Horry County Council’s recent budget workshop provided an interesting view into budget making in an election year.

County employees will receive what is being called a “three percent across the board merit raise.” In a countywide election, the county’s employees can account for thousands of votes including their families and friends.

In addition, ways to fund additional raises for public safety personnel are being considered. Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus has proposed an additional $1 per hour raise for all Level 1, 2 and 3 police officers, Sheriff’s deputies and detention officers, which, if approved, will bring their respective raise amount to nearly 10 percent across the board.

Lazarus also proposed an additional three percent across the board raise (six percent total) for firefighters and EMS personnel.

The proposed public safety raise percentages were billed as necessary for “retention” of personnel, but it is interesting this consideration only seems to come up every four years or so when the council chairman is up for re-election.

Even more interesting is the fact that this increase in the public safety budget will not add any additional personnel despite the growing population of the county, which causes an increased demand for services.

Council member Harold Worley proposed using some of the excess hospitality tax revenue that the county will begin experiencing next year, currently estimated at $40 million per year, for increasing the number of police and fire personnel. County council already passed an ordinance stipulating continued collection of full Hospitality Tax after Ride I bonds are paid off.

Lazarus, who wants to use that money for I-73 construction, was heard to utter “not going to happen” at Worley’s suggestion.

One only has to consider the nearly $12 million of excess Ride II tax collections that recently was used to purchase approximately 3,729 acres of swamp land under the guise of establishing a wetlands mitigation bank in the county. That purchase literally came out of nowhere with little explanation to full council before it was approved.

If council is unwilling to return those excess tax revenues to the citizens who paid them, it certainly seems those excesses would be better spent on items that benefit the largest number of citizens rather than on the wishes of a few at the top of county government. The voices of average citizens need to be heard.

It appears there will be a tax increase for stormwater management. Current stormwater fees for a single family residence in unincorporated areas of the county are $29.40 annually. A proposal to raise that amount to $39.40 is being considered although some council members want to see it go as high as $50 annually. Other types of properties that pay different amounts would be adjusted accordingly.

Will a rise in stormwater fees improve flooding problems in areas such as Forestbrook, Colonial Charters and other locations in Little River, Carolina Forest and areas in Socastee?

Stormwater management has never been a strength of Horry County. When I moved down here almost 35 years ago, Forestbrook flooded in heavy rains. It still does. But county staff and a majority of county council members hesitate to challenge the powerful real estate and development lobby with even targeted impact fees, which may help the flooding situation in the county.

The more you pave over land and build new structures, the more you exacerbate flooding. Take Houston, which prided itself on having no zoning or land development regulations, as an example.

As Worley has so often stated, why should those citizens who have lived in Horry County for a number of years be asked to pay the costs of new development?

Other interesting proposals that came up recently include purchase of land and the possible establishment of a parking authority to provide free parking for county residents who want to go to the beach without paying the exorbitant rates charged in Myrtle Beach. There is a vocal group of county voters to whom this would appeal. I can’t imagine it will be heard after the June 12th primaries.

Another was to change garbage collection in densely populated areas of the county such as Carolina Forest. Rather than apply the 6.2 mills of property tax currently collected for recycling and disposal convenience centers, it would be applied instead to curbside collection of garbage.

There are many problems with this proposal. How do you tell citizens in the rural areas of the county they still have to carry their garbage to convenience centers while charging citizens in more densely populated areas the same amount for curbside collection?

Additionally, the 6.2 mills currently collected will probably fall very short of the amount needed for curbside service in the densely populated areas, but it sounds good at election time.

There appeared to be extra scrutiny of the budget proposal for the Treasurer’s Office relative to the scrutiny placed on other department budget proposals. By now, most voters know the Treasurer sued county government over its handling (or mishandling) of last year’s budget for that office.

Representative democratic government does not work well when a tiny cabal at the top attempts to run it like an oligarchy. Such appears to be happening currently in Conway.

It’s time for the voters to take note.

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