By Paul Gable
One week after defeating incumbent Mark Lazarus for the Republican nomination for Horry County Council Chairman, Johnny Gardner’s campaign message is already driving council discussions.
Throughout his campaign Gardner spoke of putting “Public Safety First” and charging fees on new development to help pay for the impact it causes on county goods and services.
During its regular meeting Tuesday night, council approved two resolutions directly tied to those issues.
By an 11-1 margin, council member Tyler Servant opposing, council approved a resolution to encourage the South Carolina General Assembly to amend the current state Impact Fee law to make it more user friendly for local governments struggling to meet the costs associated with new development.
Later in the meeting, Servant introduced a resolution to instruct staff to bring back to council a proposed advisory referendum question to address raising tax millage to fund increased salaries and additional personnel for police and fire/rescue departments as well as an additional police precinct for Carolina Forest.
After discussion, it was agreed to split the issue into two referendum questions, one for police and rescue personnel and another for fire, because of the different ways in which police and rescue personnel are funded in the budget from that used to fund fire personnel.
County Administrator Chris Eldridge was instructed to meet with the the Police and Fire/Rescue chiefs to determine the increased needs in their respective departments to fully meet the county’s public safety requirements.
Council must approve referendum questions by the end of July in order to meet the August 15th deadline to have them included on the November 2018 general election ballot.
The resolution dealing with advisory referendums for tax increases to fund first responders was particularly poorly thought through as discussions on the issue demonstrated. An advisory referendum is not binding on council.
At no time during his campaign did Gardner propose increasing taxes to fund increases to personnel numbers and salaries in the police and fire/rescue departments.
Gardner proposed addressing public safety needs first in the budget process with a view to finding the necessary monies from existing county revenue.
However, Tuesday night, Servant joined by council members Dennis DiSabato and Cam Crawford seemed to agree the needs of public safety were many and only a property tax millage increase could solve the problem.
Council member Harold Worley said the public safety funding discussion needed to include using a portion of the Hospitality Tax money that will begin accumulating next year after the last of the county’s Ride I bonds are paid off.
Council voted earlier this year to extend Hospitality Tax collections beyond Ride I needs with a view to using that money for the proposed Interstate 73 construction to Myrtle Beach.
During his campaign, Gardner said public safety needs were more critical than new highway funding. He supported using some Hospitality Tax money as well as other current revenues for public safety funding.
The several weeks between Tuesday’s council vote and the July meeting deadline to complete a study of department needs and come up with referendum questions is not sufficient. Council has ignored public safety needs for many years and in-depth study and debate about what is needed, when it is needed and how it is funded cannot be adequately explored in a few weeks.
During the Gardner/Lazarus campaign for the county chairman nomination, several county first responders attempted to question Lazarus about public safety needs at a candidate forum in the Burgess Community. Those efforts resulted in Lazarus walking out of the meeting and later joining campaign consultant Heather Ammons Crawford in calling the questioners “union thugs.”
Public safety needs, a topic that wasn’t even worth discussion by Lazarus and council just several weeks ago is, all of a sudden, a vital issue that must be rushed to a vote in July with a tax increase the only viable answer.
Council made the mistake of ignoring increasing public safety needs for many years. It should not now attempt a poorly considered, quick fix merely because the voters chose Gardner over Lazarus, especially a quick fix that is made up of a tax increase that is probably not necessary.
Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but not when council only has half the script.