By Paul Gable
A bill being sponsored by four local state representatives is erroneously being promoted as legislation that would settle a lawsuit between Myrtle Beach and Horry County and provide funding for Interstate 73.
Nowhere in the original complaint or subsequent motions of that lawsuit, filed March 2019, is Interstate 73 mentioned.
The legislation, H4745, sponsored by Reps. Alan Clemmons, Russell Fry, Heather Ammons Crawford and Tim McGinnis would provide the extension of what is called a countywide ‘legacy hospitality fee’ as long the revenue derived from the countywide portion is used specifically to fund an interstate highway project.
When Myrtle Beach filed the original complaint last March, it specifically sought end collection of a 1.5% countywide hospitality fee within its corporate limits. Immediately after filing the lawsuit, Myrtle Beach city council passed new accommodations and hospitality fee taxes, allowed by current state law, to capture revenue from those levies for use on projects of council’s discretion within the city limits.
North Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach quickly followed Myrtle Beach’s lead in passing new accommodations and hospitality taxes within their respective jurisdictions.
The day Myrtle Beach filed its lawsuit seeking to stop collection of the countywide hospitality fee, countywide funding for I-73 was dead.
A section of the original complaint filed by Myrtle Beach claims the 1.5% countywide hospitality fee, established by a 1996 county ordinance, was illegally extended by county council when a sunset provision was removed from the ordinance in April 2017.
County council voted to remove the sunset provision at the urging of then county chairman Mark Lazarus. It was Lazarus who introduced I-73 into the discussion by mentioning the I-73 project as one of the possible future uses of hospitality fee revenue.
A current proposed settlement for the lawsuit ends any authority of the county to continue countywide collection of the 1.5% hospitality fee and allows all the cities within the county to collect and use the revenue from their newly passed hospitality and accommodations taxes as their respective councils determine within their respective jurisdictions.
Some of those uses can include maintenance of existing roads, highways and other infrastructure, public safety, parking facilities, piers, recreation facilities and beach renourishment, all available for tourist and local use, to name a few.
The state legislation sponsored by Fry, Clemmons Crawford and McGinnis seeks to put a genie, who has long since escaped, back in a bottle that no longer exists.
In a recent media interview, Fry said the cities and county need to contribute enough money to get help from the state and federal governments for the Interstate 73 money.
“They (the cities and county) need to honor that promise, have that local match, allow us in Columbia and Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.) in D.C. to go advocate for the road on our levels,” Fry was quoted as saying.
What Fry failed to mention is that the county and cities have already contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to the I-73 project. SC 22, the final leg of a future I-73, was completed 20 years ago with proceeds from the countywide hospitality fee.
In the intervening 20 years since SC 22 was completed, approximately $100 million of state and federal money has been spent on the I-73 project for route studies, engineering and right of way purchases in Dillon and Marion counties. A proposed federal grant of $346 million, which was attached to application requests for Hurricane Florence relief funds by Gov. Henry McMaster, is intended to be spent for I-73 construction in Dillon and Marion counties. None is designated for Horry County, according to sources familiar with the application.
Fry, Clemmons, Crawford and McGinnis have been unable, to date, to secure any of the state’s $2 billion excess revenue from last fiscal year for the I-73 project.
What Fry, Clemmons, Crawford and McGinnis are not saying is that Horry County has always been expected to fund all of the costs for construction of I-73, within the county, from local funds.
I submit Horry County has already done its part in contributing to the I-73 project with the construction of SC 22. It’s time for the state and federal governments to step up and do their share.
As a nation, we would still be waiting for completion of the first interstate highway project if each county through which the road passed was expected to entirely fund construction costs of the highway within their county from local taxes.
There are many local projects and initiatives which can be funded from hospitality and accommodations taxes. Myrtle Beach understood this when it filed the lawsuit. North Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach quickly came on board. So should Horry County.
If Fry, Clemmons, Crawford and McGinnis, at the state level, and Rice, at the federal level, are as determined to get I-73 built as they all claim to be, it’s time for them to do the job for which they have been elected. It’s time for all of them obtain the money for the project from the respective bodies to which they have been elected rather than attempting to dictate to local governments.