By Paul Gable
The I-73 participation agreement Horry County signed with SCDOT in December, at the urging of administrator Chris Eldridge and former council chairman Mark Lazarus, ignores local road needs, highlighted by recent flooding issues, for a new road that is years and over one billion unidentified and uncommitted dollars from completion.
When county council adopted Resolution 82-18 in July 2018, it specifically dedicated up to $25 million toward the I-73 project only. With this resolution in place, the county may not use any of this money toward repair or improvements to U.S. 501, S.C 9 or other roads in the county as flooding events since Hurricane Floyd in 1999 have shown to be needed. These funds can be used to improve S.C. 22 as that is part of the I-73 project.
There has been a general rush to dedicate funds for I-73 since right after the June 2018 primaries. Council held a special meeting on July 24, 2018 where Resolution 82-18 was passed which dedicated up to $25 million per year of 1.5% Hospitality Fee revenue to the I-73 project.
Staff immediately began conversations with SCDOT to develop and present the I-73 participation agreement. During the November 28, 2018 fall budget workshop, council approved allowing the administrator to execute the participation agreement with SCDOT. The agreement was executed by administrator Eldridge for the county and Christy Hall, the state Transportation Secretary on December 13, 2018.
At the July 2018 special meeting council also passed Resolution 84-18 directing staff to develop a plan to use $18 million of the 1.5% Hospitality Fee revenue on public safety and other roads. In addition, the resolution directed staff to draft an amendment to Section 19-6(h) of the Horry County Code of Ordinances, which currently requires all of the 1.5% revenue to be deposited in a Special Road Fund. The amendment would allow the $18 million to be used on other state approved tourism related expenses such as public safety, recreation, storm water and other infrastructure improvements.
To date no amendment has been presented to council. The amendment would require a three reading ordinance to become law. In addition, no plan for use of the $18 million has been presented.
But, the county already has executed an agreement with SCDOT for the up to $25 million for the I-73 project. It doesn’t take a person of even average intelligence to see where county staff priorities lie.
Before the participation agreement was approved by council, council was told by staff they would have to approve a work plan submitted by SCDOT each year before any of that year’s money (the $25 million) could be spent.
However, that is not exactly the way the participation agreement reads. In fact, there are a number of ambiguities in the agreement, according to two lawyers I consulted on its provisions.
Much of the discussion in the July special meeting was bonding of the $25 million. If and when the $25 million is bonded, and there is no way to seriously work on this project without issuing bonds, council loses its annual approval on the use of the funds because the $25 million would be committed for at least 20 years with Horry County required to pay them off, according to the terms of the participation agreement.
I submit, this has been the plan all along – get council agreement to steps along the way for the I-73 project, then, hit council members with the need for bonding at a relatively early stage of the project.
Council members may not know it, but they have already passed two ordinances, 93-16 and 32-17, and two resolutions, 82-18 and 130-18, that were steps along this primrose path to full commitment of $25 million per year to the I-73 project for at least 20 years.
Grand Strand Daily has learned that RIDE I bonds have been paid off. There will be no payment this month, which means the entire 1.5% money is now free to be used on other projects. County staff is reportedly prepared to open the special account with the state treasurer’s office from which SCDOT may submit vouchers for payment, according to terms of the participation agreement.
There has been no commitment from state funds for the I-73 project. The federal government has provided approximately $120 million in small amounts since 2001 when former Congressman Henry Brown began working on acquiring funds for the I-73 project. According to statements made by former Congressman John Napier to council, most of that money has already been used to purchase right of way for the project in Marion and Dillon counties.
There is no commitment from the federal government for construction funds for I-73.
Why should the county commit to providing a major portion of funds for the I-73 project when the state and federal governments have not?
Why should this money be dedicated for I-73 at all when improvements and mitigation for flooding on U.S. 501, S.C. 9 and other roads would be more immediately beneficial to both county residents and tourists?
I believe those questions should be asked of all council members by the voters of this county immediately.
It’s not too late to take a different approach to use of the Hospitality Fee revenues for immediate benefit, but it is fast becoming that way.