By Paul Gable
Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune sent a letter to Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner last week rejecting public negotiations on a county plan for splitting hospitality fees.
Myrtle Beach wanted to hold any negotiations in secret using a lawsuit the city filed against the county last month over hospitality fee collection as the excuse for needing to keep discussions behind closed doors.
However, anyone who has followed local politics for even a short while understands the proclivity of local governments to conduct as much real discussion of issues as possible out of public view.
There is a very good reason for this. Often, the genesis of the issues kept most secret comes not from local elected officials, but rather from the special interests who have the ear of the politicians and who have been very effective through the decades pushing agendas that most benefit those interests.
The current hospitality fee issue dates back at least three years to the beginning of 2016. At that time, the projects funded by the Ride II tax were coming to completion. The hospitality and real estate interests began pushing the need for a Ride III referendum.
Informal talks between special interest leaders and local politicians developed a plan to promote passage of a Ride III referendum as well as continuation of hospitality fee collections countywide to fund I-73 construction within Horry County.
The special one-cent sales tax approved with Ride II and Ride III referendums pay for many projects that improve roads within the county that have become congested with traffic from new developments. These costs should be paid for directly by developers or impact fees rather than all the citizens of the county, but the hospitality and real estate lobbies have been able to avoid this to date.
The Ride III referendum was passed by voters in November 2016. County council removed the sunset provision from hospitality fee ordinance in the spring of 2017 at the behest of Lazarus, county administrator Chris Eldridge and county attorney Arrigo Carotti.
It was only after the 2018 primary elections when county chairman Mark Lazarus lost the Republican nomination that things began going off track. Voters who supported Lazarus’ victorious opponent Johnny Gardner were demanding that more attention be paid to the needs of public safety and existing infrastructure than an I-73 project that was years on the future and had no funding from the state and federal governments.
Despite being the loudest proponents for I-73 locally, members of our state legislative delegation, most notably Reps. Alan Clemmons, Heather Ammons Crawford and Russell Fry, have been unable to secure any state funding for the I-73 project. They have, however, been effective in crafting legislation favoring the special interest lobbies of hospitality and real estate interests.
Adjustments to the use of hospitality fee revenue, adding more funding for public safety for example, were made by county council at a special July 2018 meeting of county council. Nevertheless, Lazarus managed to get council to agree to approve a Financial Participation Agreement with SCDOT for the I-73 project just before he left office at the end of December 2018.
By the time Gardner assumed office, he had already been accused of possible illegal acts in a narrative developed by Carotti, Eldridge and Lazarus. That narrative was sent to SLED requesting an investigation of Gardner. Gardner had campaigned on more funding for public safety and infrastructure and funding for I-73 only if the state and federal governments also made significant appropriations for construction.
The SLED investigation came back completely exonerating Gardner of any wrongdoing.
A March 2019 vote to fire Eldridge for his participation in false allegations made against Gardner failed on a 6-6 vote with those council members most associated with the hospitality and real estate interests, Harold Worley, Tyler Servant, Cam Crawford, Gary Loftus, Dennis DiSabato and Bill Howard, the Deep Six, voting to keep Eldridge.
After the SLED investigation results were made known and county council was approaching its budget workshop, the City of Myrtle Beach filed its lawsuit over hospitality fees.
A resolution to cancel the agreement with SCDOT has been pending before county council for two weeks. It is now being suggested that the agreement should not be cancelled while the lawsuit is pending. However, county council does not have any idea where the revenue to fund that agreement will now come from.
Despite being threatened by the voters who opted for change in the June 2018 primaries, to date, the plan hatched in 2016 by the special interests and the members of the county and city councils they influence remains active.
The letter from Bethune and the lawsuit it refers to are only the latest actions in keeping it so.