Tag: Johnny Gardner

County Council Guts Impact Fee Ordinance Before Final Passage

Horry County Council gave unanimous approval to third reading of an ordinance establishing impact fees on new construction but only after voting to reduce the fees by 81.5% before final passage.
To those who haven’t followed the issue closely, the reduction to only a nominal fee that will be charged may seem an action in the best traditions of a conservative council.
BUT IT’S NOT!
In fact, it is a huge victory for special interests to the detriment of average taxpayers in the county.
What eight members of council really voted for was to cave-in to the wishes of the development lobby while ignoring the wishes of the taxpayers.
The development lobby was successful in defeating attempts to impose impact fees at least twice in the last 15 years. After county voters supported instituting impact fees to help pay the cost of new development by a 72% vote in 2018, it was obvious some type of bone had to be thrown to voters this time around.
The question is not whether the explosive development the county is currently experiencing is going to increase the need for new or improved roads, new stormwater infrastructure, new fire stations, new parks and so on. Rather the question is who is going to pay for these improvements of basic needs.
Eight members of council, Johnny Vaught, Dennis DiSabato, Danny Hardee, Mark Causey, Orton Bellamy, Bill Howard, Cam Crawford and Gary Loftus voted to extend those costs to every taxpayer in the county rather than limit the charge to those causing the increase – namely owners of new construction whether private homes or commercial.
Council Chairman Johnny Gardner, and members Harold Worley and Tyler Servant voted against the amendments gutting impact fees and for the wishes of the voters as expressed in the referendum.
New single-family homes will be the class of construction that will generate the greatest proportion of the new fees. The first two readings of the impact fee ordinance passed with a fee amount of $6,645 per single-family home with other types of construction, multi-family, retail, hotel for example, having maximum fees imposed in accordance with state law.
Tuesday night the eight council members named above amended the ordinance to remove impact fees for road and stormwater infrastructure from the ordinance thereby reducing the fee for single-family homes from $6,645 per home to $1,236 per home.
But the costs for new and improved road and stormwater infrastructure to serve the new developments throughout the county won’t go away just because council removed those portions of the fee from the ordinance.

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Crunch Time for County Council and Impact Fees

Tuesday night Horry County Council will vote on third reading of an ordinance to impose impact fees on new construction in the unincorporated areas of the county.
Two and one-half years ago, nearly 75% of the voters said yes to an advisory referendum question asking whether county council should establish impact fees in the county.
Despite passing the first two readings unanimously, third reading passage of the ordinance is not assured.
On the table at third reading of the ordinance is imposition of an impact fee of approximately $6,600 for new single-family homes and varying impact fees for other types of new construction depending on the type.
Numerous sources have told me over the past two weeks the pressure on council members from the development lobby to water down the bill or kill it completely has been intense.
That lobby, composed of large landowners, builders and their associated sub-contractors and the real estate sales industry is pushing the message that impact fees will cause a significant slowdown in construction costing jobs and seriously impacting the local economy as well as making it more difficult in recruiting new businesses to the area.
The real reason for the opposition to impact fees is the builders do not want to pay $6.600 more out of their pockets each time they receive a new building permit. Developers will recover that money when the house is sold because the cost of impact fees will be passed on to the new homeowner, but they don’t want to float that sum for the few months between start of construction and sale in today’s market.
The impact fee will add approximately 2.5% to the cost of the average new home in Horry County. Prices on new homes have risen considerably more than that in the past year simply through market forces of supply and demand and sales of new homes have not slowed down because of the increasing price.
Impact fees in Horry County are not a new concept. Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority has been collecting impact fees for a number of years. The statement in the county’s Imagine 2040 master plan explaining those fees is simple, “GSWSA collects water and wastewater capacity fees (impact fees) from new customers so that the current customer base does not bear the burden of new growth for both water and wastewater improvements.”
The development lobby used its same arguments when GSWSA imposed impact fees. Those arguments were totally false then and remain totally false now. One only has to drive around the county and view all the new construction projects in various stages of completion to see how false the argument is. GSWSA impact fees have not impacted new construction one iota.

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Fate of County Council Draws Near with Upcoming Vote on Impact Fees

In two weeks, the 12 members of Horry County Council will go a long way toward deciding their future fates with the voters when third reading of the county impact fee ordinance comes up for a vote.
In 2018, over 70% of voters approved establishing impact fees in the county on an advisory referendum question on the general election ballot.
Those voters have not forgotten their eminently clear message to county council – vote for impact fees.
On the table at third reading of the ordinance is imposition of an impact fee of approximately $6,600 for new single-family homes and varying impact fees for other types of new construction depending on the type.
The need for impact fees to pay for the costs of new development is quite simple. Revenue from those fees can be used to fund new capital projects in a variety of categories including roads, parks and recreation facilities, libraries, fire stations and police stations that will be needed to serve the huge amount of development currently underway in the county.
Using impact fees to pay for such new construction can reduce the pressure on the general fund to pay those costs or the need to impose such things as special projects sales taxes such as the RIDE tax.
To further exacerbate the issue, eight members of county council (Johnny Vaught, Dennis DiSabato, Cam Crawford, Gary Loftus, Bill Howard, Orton Bellamy, Danny Hardee and Mark Causey) provided the votes to pass the largest individual tax increase in Horry County history – 7.5 mils in the unincorporated area plus increases in two additional fees.
As one social media post noted about the tax increase, “Absolutely heinous that the special interests and county council put all this (costs of) new development on the backs of existing taxpayers. Unbelievable! If they had imposed impact fees when the majority of HC residents approved them several years ago, we wouldn’t have to have such huge mil increases. This is literally taxation without representation and it’s theft.”
And another, “The tax and spend so-called Republicans don’t give a flip. They will find any excuse to raise taxes on the hard-working residents of Horry County.”
Three members of county council, Chairman Johnny Gardner, Harold Worley and Al Allen received thanks for voting against the tax increase and “putting the people first.” Council member Tyler Servant was absent for the vote.
The message in those posts is certainly clear, but one wonders whether all council members are hearing that message.

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County Impact Fees Pass Unanimous Second Reading

Horry County Council is one step closer to imposing impact fees on new construction in the unincorporated areas of the county after unanimously passing second reading of an ordinance establishing those fees Tuesday night.
This is at least the fourth time in the past two decades that impact fees have been discussed by council. In the past, the development lobby has been successful in shutting down impact fees discussions before the issue got too far along in the legislative process.
Circumstances are different this time. Construction, especially of single-family homes, is red hot in the county and gives no signs of slowing down in the immediate future. Similar homes in similar type developments that were being advertised at mid-100s to high-100s last year are now being advertised in the mid-200s. That is approximately $250,000 for the average single-family home being constructed presently in a subdivision.
Some of that increase is due to the cost of building materials which have gone up by as much as four times in the case of lumber over the last 12 months. But profits for the developers have also been rising as the demand for new housing in the county continues to outpace the supply.
During past discussions, developers have been successful with the argument that impact fees would significantly increase the cost of a new home, driving down demand thereby causing high unemployment among the construction industry workers.
That argument does not hold water at this time even though it is being tried again and appears to have a sympathetic ear from a few council members.
Council member Dennis DiSabato attempted unsuccessfully to delay second reading of the ordinance by calling for a new committee to study the issue further. Council member Harold Worley, the most vocal supporter of impact fees during the discussion, said a vote to delay was a “kill pill” and the time had come to vote the ordinance up or down.
Council member Cam Crawford was more vocal and animated during the impact fee discussion than he has been in total in all the other council meetings and discussions over his nearly six years on council. Crawford’s voice and facial expressions clearly demonstrated his distaste for impact fees (or at least the distaste of those who have his ear).
In the end, however, neither DiSabato nor Crawford nor any other member of council voted against the ordinance.

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DiSabato Proposes Ordinance that Could Violate State Law and the U.S. Constitution

Included in the various email exchanges following last week’s Horry County Council brouhaha was one from council member Dennis Disabato to council Chairman Johnny Gardner in which DiSabato notified Gardner he had instructed staff to prepare a new ordinance that appears to be pointed at one fellow council member and may violate both the US Constitution and South Carolina law.
DiSabato and council member Al Allen were on opposite sides of the issue to discuss county legal fees on last week’s agenda. Allen requested the discussion be placed on the council agenda, DiSabato moved to adjourn the meeting to prevent the discussion from taking place.
In an email to council Chairman Johnny Gardner, DiSabato said that since Gardner had a desire to discuss the use of public funds so transparently, he wanted to place an item on the agenda for the next meeting.
“I would like to discuss the use of public funds and awarding contracts to organizations owned by council members and/or their immediate family. I believe it is important for the public to understand exactly how much of our tax revenue is being spent with Allen Aviation, in particular, for mosquito spraying contracts, as well as how those contracts are awarded,” DiSabato wrote to Gardner in the email.
Had DiSabato stopped there, he would have been fine.
However, DiSabato’s email took it further, “Furthermore, I’d like to take this opportunity to let you know that I have instructed staff to prepare an ordinance to prevent the county from further contracts with companies owned by council members and/or their immediate family. The intent here, Mr. Chairman, is to protect and prevent individuals on council from undue public scrutiny of perceived improprieties stemming from such activities.”
An ordinance such as DiSabato proposes may violate both state law and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The Fourteenth Amendment provides that no state may deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. It mandates that individuals in similar situations (classes) be treated equally by the law.
South Carolina has no law prohibiting public officials from conducting business with the agency they represent. It does have laws prohibiting members from voting on or influencing a governmental decision in which the public official has an economic interest and laws on disclosing the income (economic interest) from such business.

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Gagging of Al Allen Points to Deeper Issues in County

Last week’s premature adjournment of the county council meeting in order to gag council member Al Allen’s requested discussion of county legal fees allowed deeper issues inside the government and county to come to the surface.
A simple request from Allen for county legal fees paid to outside attorneys has been blown up into a supposed politically motivated conspiracy, according to a report in a local media outlet. Two “county officials” speaking on conditions of anonymity, according to the story, put forth a theory alleging a plot to fire County Administrator Steve Gosnell and County Attorney Arrigo Carotti was the reason for Allen’s request.
And make no mistake, the information Allen requested and which was ultimately provided to Allen, other council members (although many of those other members saw the information well before it was produced to Allen) and the media is definitely public information.
According to statements in local media, County Attorney Arrigo Carotti brought Allen’s request for the information on legal fees to council member Johnny Vaught. The excuse Vaught gave to the media was Carotti did that because the legal department budget falls within the oversight of the county Administration Committee of which Vaught is chairman.
Vaught told media he had concern that county legal strategies could be discussed and he didn’t want that sensitive information to become public. I would submit that type of information is already public.
If someone wants to assess legal strategy in any lawsuit, they can go online to the judicial records to read the complaint, response, motions and responses, depositions and view the exhibits associated with the case. All of that information becomes open to the public the minute it is filed with the court. A person is going to gain a lot more information about legal strategy from those documents than from records of how much in legal fees was paid and to whom it was paid.
Vaught’s entire premise that he was attempting to protect privileged information is ridiculous. But the ensuing rhetoric which evolved around the issue and the players involved point to deeper intent.
The real story is the one involving those who said the information requested by Allen should not be released publicly and who created a false narrative in an attempt to publicly embarrass Allen and, later, council Chairman Johnny Gardner.

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DiSabato Motion Ends County Council Meeting Prior to Discussion of Legal Fees

Horry County Council member Dennis DiSabato moved to adjourn council’s regular meeting last night before a discussion of county legal fees by council could take place. Council agenda listed the request for the discussion was initiated by council member Al Allen.
There is no question that a discussion of how much and to who the county pays fees for outside attorney assistance is public information. In a lawsuit two years ago, the county agreed that disclosure of legal fees ”is not legally privileged, is not exempt from disclosure under FOIA, and that it is important to the public interest that this information be available to the citizens and taxpayers of Horry County.”
Council voted 8-4 to adjourn the meeting with chairman Johnny Gardner and council members Allen, Harold Worley and Tyler Servant voting No.
Prematurely ending the meeting was the only parliamentary maneuver available to keep discussion of county legal fees from taking place in the meeting. Coming as it did immediately prior to the scheduled discussion makes it appear that DiSabato’s erratic behavior in bringing the motion was prompted by an ulterior motive for not wanting the discussion to take place publicly from the council dais.
This is not the first time DiSabato has exhibited erratic behavior with respect to issues associated with the county legal department.
In December 2018, county attorney Arrigo Carotti authored a five-page memorandum attempting to allege that then council chairmen elect Johnny Gardner had acted in an unethical manner with respect to a discussion held with the executive director of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation.
The memo was quickly leaked to a Columbia media outlet who reported the allegations.
The memorandum was sent to SLED by then county administrator Chris Eldridge. SLED conducted an investigation into the allegations which completely exonerated Gardner from any wrongdoing.
While the investigation was underway, Carotti sent an email to SLED which appeared to be an attempt to influence how the investigation was being conducted.

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New Moves in the Filing Controversy

Election Season Opens Early in Horry County

The next 14 months are going to provide interesting political times in Horry County. During that period, the cities will hold elections this coming fall and county and state primaries will be contested in June 2022.

Electioneering has already begun.

Horry County School Board Chairman Ken Richardson is already making a strong bid to replace Tom Rice as the South Carolina District 7 representative to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Two people have been spreading the word around the county that they intend to challenge Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner in the June 2022 primary.

Mark Lazarus, who Gardner unseated in 2018 with what is probably the biggest upset in Horry County political history, reportedly is telling supporters he wants a rematch with Gardner in the 2022 Republican Primary.

Johnny Vaught, the current County Council District 8 council member, and Dennis DiSabato, the current county council member for District 3, have also been broadcasting they will be candidates for the Republican nomination for county chairman in the 2022 primary.

What is interesting about these announcements is Vaught was a major spokesman for Lazarus’ reelection. Whenever Lazarus needed a surrogate to speak for him at a meeting or other campaign event in 2018, Vaught was the chosen spokesman.

If Vaught and Lazarus both contest the chairman primary, it will bring up another interesting dynamic. Both have used Crescent Communications, the political consulting firm of state Reps. Russell Fry and Heather Crawford and county council member Cam Crawford in past campaigns.

Hospitality Fee Lawsuit – What Does Myrtle Beach Really Want

With the City of Myrtle Beach announcing last week it plans to appeal the judge’s order on a settlement of the hospitality fee lawsuit it brought against Horry County, it appears the city has taken the stance of ‘my way or the highway’ on the lawsuit issue.

Everything has been settled and agreed to between the parties in the lawsuit except for the disbursement of approximately $19 million the county collected in the various city jurisdictions in the county between March and August 2019.

Horry County asked the judge to order that money be returned to the city’s in which it was collected. The judge agreed.

Myrtle Beach requested one half of those funds be returned to the cities and one-half established as a fund from which it may pay out refunds to individuals who paid the hospitality fee between the above months with any unclaimed amount going to the South Carolina Bar Association’s fund for legal services for low income residents.

Under the county plan, Myrtle Beach would receive $11,170,800 of the approximately $19 million total. This money could be spent on infrastructure and public safety services associated with tourism, according to state law.

Under the city plan, Myrtle Beach would receive $5,585,400. Why would the city want to receive less money and why would it appeal a judge’s order that awarded it more?

The dispute over the settlement money split is about interpretation of Rule 23 of the South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, which deals with class action lawsuits.

Myrtle Beach issued the following statement as an explanation, “This appeal is necessary to finally determine the rights of the other members of the class — those who paid the Hospitality Fee to Horry County during the period when it was in dispute — regarding distribution of the portion of the $19 million common fund that was not otherwise resolved by the settlement agreement.

Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune and City Manager John Pedersen have both added the city’s attorneys said the appeal is necessary in order to shield the city from any potential liability related to a suit that may be brought by a potential claimant.

I have spoken to two attorneys not involved in the lawsuit who said the city is already shielded from any claim by the trial judge’s order. In addition, neither believe this is a class action suit.

Emotions Running High as Elections Near

Earlier this week I wrote an article about several candidates in the upcoming Republican primary elections to which some readers took offense.

That’s fine. Democracy is supposed to be messy and I don’t expect people to agree with me all the time nor I with them. If that were to happen, we wouldn’t have a democratic society, we would have a cult.

Some of the people who took difference to what I wrote were important members of the citizens’ groups who helped elect Johnny Gardner as Horry County Council Chairman in 2018.

Their and my primary goal is to elect candidates who will represent the general citizenry of Horry County, not special interests.

Specifically, they believed I was attacking Terry Fowler, a candidate for county council in District 9.

Actually that was not what I intended. What I intended was to criticize that many seemed to choose Fowler as ‘their’ candidate very early on before all the candidates in the race were even known.

When some of those other candidates emerged and a choice was already made by some voters, those candidates were immediately dismissed as candidates of the people because they sell real estate.

I don’t believe people should be condemned merely because of the job they have or the people they know.

If that were the case, consider this: there are ties in the Fowler family to a former job with what I categorize as a premier member of what I call the Myrtle Beach Mafia.  This employer was in the midst of the $325,000 in campaign donations to local and state incumbents who were responsible for the establishment and enactment of the tourism development fee in Myrtle Beach, as well as other special interest issues.

This is the same person who was a strong supporter and former business associate of Mark Lazarus, the former council chairman.

But, it goes further than employment. Only one candidate in the District 9 race has spoken with Gardner about county issues. That candidate, one of the real estate write-offs, is the only candidate in the District 9 race to date who has pledged to support the passage of impact fees in Horry County.