Both sides willing to shell out big in fight over Horry County trash

bdickerson@thesunnews.comAugust 18, 2012 

— The fight to keep Horry County’s flow control ordinance in place wasn’t a cheap one.

When state watchdog website compiled a list of the 25 biggest lobbyist spenders during South Carolina’s recent legislative session, coming in at No. 21 was the Horry County Solid Waste Authority, which spent approximately $77,500 on lobbying efforts. “We spent more money than we wanted to … in consulting and stuff like that,” said Mike Bessant, the SWA’s governmental affairs director.

The total represented a substantial increase from previous years. The authority spent about $18,500 for lobbying efforts in the same period in 2011 and $24,000 in 2010.

It’s hard to say whether the extra spending made a difference or whether things would have gone otherwise without it, but it at least appears that the increased efforts were successful – for now. Two pieces of legislation that would have effectively killed the county’s flow control ordinance didn’t pass before the end of the state legislative session in June. One did pass the House and was supported by most of the Horry County delegation. It failed in the Senate, as did the other attempt to change the county rule.

The flow control ordinance requires all Horry County waste to be disposed of in county landfills and prevents out-of-county waste haulers from using other dumps. Since being put in place, it has provided a steady, lucrative revenue source for the county agency. The SWA estimated earlier this year that eliminating the rule could cost it as much as $4 million per year if haulers used dumps elsewhere or new waste companies moved into the area.

Horry County’s tipping fees – the fees paid by trash haulers – are $29 a ton, among the lowest in the state. Flow control proponents feared that if flow control disappeared, so would the educational and recycling programs those fees support.

Bessant said the agency’s lobbying efforts were handled by Beam and Associates out of North Myrtle Beach, who were paid nearly $29,000 according to the agency’s filing with the S.C. Ethics Commission. The SWA signed a three-year agreement with the environmental consulting firm in November 2009. According to the agency’s filing the SWA also retained the lobbying services of former Conway Rep. Billy Witherspoon (paid about $25,700) and Arthur Braswell (paid $23,000), the former head of the Solid Waste Management Division of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Money for lobbyists comes from the SWA’s consulting budget, Bessant said. Funds for landfill consulting in their most recent budget was around $400,000, he said.

Bessant said the agency was facing opposition from private hauling groups who spent money on lobbyists in support of the proposed bills, including industry giant Waste Management.

Waste Management of South Carolina made The Nerve’s list as the No. 6 biggest spender on lobbyists for the year, at $110,100.

A message left for a Waste Management spokesman was not returned.

Opponents of flow control say the measure creates a monopoly that is harmful to private garbage haulers in Horry County.

Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Surfside Beach, for one, was vocal in his opposition of flow control.

“I see that as a monopoly,” Hardwick previously said. “When you have no choices, it’s a monopoly.”

Among the lobbying expenditures reported by Waste Management were $500 donations to numerous state lawmakers, including Hardwick and Myrtle Beach Rep. Alan Clemmons.

Flow control became the defining issue in Hardwick’s primary election battle in June, when he was opposed by Rod Smith, a former SWA board member. Smith had the backing – and the donations – of much of the SWA leadership.

The SWA’s agreement with Beam and Associates comes up for renewal in October, and Bessant thinks the SWA will renew its contract because he expects the flow control issue to again come up during the next legislative session in January.

Bessant said the SWA’s board of directors hasn’t yet set a course of action for how to proceed if that happens. He bemoaned the money spent on lobbyists, pointing out that the cost meant the agency couldn’t spend the funds on other projects. But he’s not ready to give up yet.

“My recommendation would be to fight,” Bessant said.

Contact BRAD DICKERSON at 626-0301.

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