Proposed Land Sale by SWA to County Government Raises Many Questions

By Paul Gable

The Horry County Solid Waste Authority is proposing to sell a piece of property to Horry County Government while keeping the transaction as quiet as it is questionable.

The SWA board voted at its meeting last week to send a proposal for sale of the property to Horry County Council even though such action was not included on the board meeting agenda. It is not legal to vote on any item not included on the agenda and publicly advertised in advance of the meeting.

Horry County Council agenda for May 4, 2021 keeps the issue under the radar by listing an executive session to discuss the proposed sale or purchase of property but nothing to indicate the proposed seller is the SWA and the proposed buyer the county.

Why all the secrecy?

The SWA is a component unit of Horry County Government established by county ordinance. Its budget is included in the annual budget for the county and receives final approval from county council. The SWA bylaws and other rules must be approved by county council. SWA board members must be approved by county council. The SWA has never filed a Form 990 with the IRS, which it would be required to do if it were indeed a private, non-profit corporation.

Because of some vague wording in the county ordinance that established the agency as an authority, SWA executives and board members have tried, through the years, to claim the SWA is an independent, private non-profit corporation. It is not.

County council can dissolve the SWA any time a majority of council votes to approve an ordinance to do so.

Therefore, this is not some private entity offering to sell land to the county. It is a component unit of county government trying to gain some revenue from the county general fund to help with its expenses on Hwy 90.

When the SWA was established, council agreed to deed the approximately 700 acres that constituted the land which the county had utilized “for the specific purpose of solid waste collection, disposal and management.” This was done in order to give county council a degree of separation from landfill day-to-day operations.

Included in county Ordinance 60-90, which established the SWA, is the direction from council to the SWA to, “Reimburse the County for expenditures made in connection with the establishment of the Authority and the creation of the Solid Waste Disposal and Resource Recovery/Recycling System.”

The SWA was supposed to pay the county an agreed upon price for the land, convenience centers and associated equipment and infrastructure that the county deeded over to the SWA.

THE SWA HAS NEVER REIMBURSED THE COUNTY ONE CENT FOR THESE EXPENDITURES AS IT WAS MANDATED TO DO.

Within several years of its establishment, the SWA purchased an additional 1187 acres of land adjacent to the landfill rather than pay county government the money owed to it. Throughout the nearly 30 years of its existence, the SWA has purchased other land for various purposes.

When the SWA was created, it was specifically mandated by council to find alternative means of disposing of county garbage rather than maintaining an ever increasing landfill next to Sterritt Swamp.

Instead, the SWA has done the exact opposite. In its ever increasing thirst for additional revenue, not only has the SWA continued to increase landfill capacity through periodic expansions but also, approximately 12 years ago, successfully convinced council to approve a “flow control ordinance” that requires all municipal solid waste generated in the county to be disposed at the Hwy 90 landfill. Originally the flow control ordinance required all waste generated in the county to go to the SWA, but was amended around 2014 to allow construction and demolition waste to leave the county. Shame on council for falling into that trap.

The SWA is supposed to operate as an Enterprise Fund generating its own revenue and paying its expenses out of that revenue. Based on history, one might postulate the SWA chooses to pay “some” of its expenses while ignoring others.

Each year, the SWA is required to submit a “Letter of Financial Assurance” to SC DHEC that the authority has sufficient closure and post-closure funds at hand if the landfill, or any part, were to be immediately closed. In order to conform to the DHEC formula, which exempts public landfills from the need for purchasing bonds or insurance for such an eventuality, the SWA includes the county government general fund revenue as a source of funds that can be drawn on if necessary.

Recently some water samples taken in and around the landfill property have demonstrated contaminated water appears to be flowing from the landfill property into Sterritt Swamp. Further testing has been recommended to county officials.

The SWA statement on this testing was that it was entirely “political”. That statement was made before the SWA’s own testing agency presented its results, which generally validated the earlier results from a whistleblower source.

Council member Johnny Vaught expressed to local media his complete confidence in the SWA and support for the organization. Perhaps councilman Vaught should explain to county residents why this agency he so vigorously supports has pretty much done only what is pleases, ignored mandates from council for 30 years and attempts to operate under the radar at every turn rather than being transparent in its actions.

If funds were drawn out of the county budget to clean up or close the landfill, there would be a huge hole in funding for other necessary goods and services provided by the county.

The above potential liability makes it even more imperative the contaminated water problem be further studied, identified and mitigated, if necessary.

There are many reasons the county should not transfer taxpayer funds to the SWA. If the county needs some acreage to connect Gardner Lacy Road to International Drive, the apparent purpose for the land transfer, the council should use the land as it needs. The county has already, albeit indirectly, paid for this land several times over.

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