By Paul Gable
Myrtle Beach City Council hosted a raucous special meeting Tuesday with home and business owners voicing their outrage at recent shooting incidents on Ocean Boulevard and in other parts of the city.
It was a good move by city council, allowing the meeting to act as a pressure valve relieving some of the pent up frustration felt by citizens by having it voiced directly to council and city staff in a public forum.
That frustration ran from blaming city officials for ignoring the city’s problems and threatening defeat of the four incumbent council members up for reelection in November to calling for martial law to be declared in the city.
Many of the comments were rough and pointed, one citizen even asking John Rhodes if he would immediately resign as mayor. However, council took the criticism stoically because solutions are more important at this point than verbal jousting contests.
While many of the comments fell short of suggesting solutions for the violence problems in the city, several were on point.
Several citizens suggested using money from the one cent local option ‘tourism development fee’ (ad tax) to fund more police officers.
Former Mayor Mark McBride was most forceful in this line of thinking noting that the city’s police force had not expanded since he left office at the end of 2005.
To be fair, the city has installed over 800 cameras that are constantly monitored to help with public safety response and were very helpful during this past weekend’s incidents.
McBride called for 50 percent, approximately $10 million, to be redirected from the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce’s out of area advertising to funding additional police officers as well as providing raises for current officers.
Chamber CEO Brad Dean, speaking earlier in the meeting, addressed the same issue. Dean acknowledged that no amount of advertising could counter the negative publicity Myrtle Beach suffered from a you tube video of the Ocean Boulevard shooting that went viral on social media over the weekend.
Dean said he would work with local officials, the state legislative delegation and Governor Henry McMaster to effect changes in the state legislation governing the tourism development fee to allow a shift of some dollars the tax raises from tourism promotion to public safety funding.
Specific amounts and/or percentages for the shift were not discussed. This will be an interesting development to watch over the coming months. McBride’s call for 50 percent is probably beyond the realm of possibility, but a significant amount for an extended period of time is called for if funding for public safety is actually to be helped.
Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus pledged the help of the Horry County Police Department in searching for solutions. Lazarus said county public safety officials would meet with city public safety officials to discuss how county police could supplement Myrtle Beach policing efforts, especially during high tourist months, to bring about a safer environment in the city.
To be fair, the response from MBPD officers to the shootings last weekend was quick and effective. In one of the incidents, an arrest of a suspect occurred six minutes after the incident occurred, according to MBPD Acting Chief Amy Prock.
There also appears to be links to activity of North Carolina based gangs in both the Easter weekend shootings as well as those of last weekend.
As one citizen said to me during the meeting, this is more a societal issue throughout the United States than something specific to Myrtle Beach and Horry County.
That being said, there is no doubt changes and improvements must occur locally. It will be interesting to watch both immediate and long term changes proposed and put in place by local government officials to improve police presence and efforts throughout Myrtle Beach and Horry County.
There is a city election coming in November in Myrtle Beach. I don’t believe that was an overriding consideration for Tuesday’s special council meeting, a general airing of citizen frustration was needed.
But, I do believe the response to these frustrations, including initiatives to improve police presence and effectiveness both in Myrtle Beach and throughout Horry County, could be.
Myrtle Beach City Manager John Pedersen made some suggestions to council at the end of the meeting including putting up barricades and establishing an 11:30 p.m. curfew.
These suggestions are not only unrealistic, they are ridiculous to even mention. City staff and council members are going to have to come up with some serious suggestions and initiatives for this meeting to be considered more than a political exercise.
Problems with crime have been dodged and ignored by city officials for too long as other initiatives like purchasing downtown properties and looking for significant investment in the mixed use district have been at the forefront.
I would like to believe city council now understands that its number one priority is improving public safety. Time will tell.
Of course, council could use the Donald Trump approach – declare the video and reports fake news, blame it all on mainstream media and stick their heads further in the sand.