Editorial

Editorial | Horry County Recreation Funds Outdated, Unnecessary

February 2, 2013 

Part 1 of 2:

Imagine for a moment you’re given $20,000 to spend however you like to benefit your friends and neighbors. How would you spend it? New sidewalks? Support for charity? Money for the local Little League team?

Horry County Council members face the same question every year, and each answers it differently. While for the most part their answers are innocuous enough, the question shouldn’t be asked at all.

The issue is district recreation funds, a relatively obscure part of the county’s spending process. The funds work like this: Each member is given a chunk of money at the beginning of the fiscal year; for the last four years that has been $20,000 per council member. Entrusted with the money, councilmen can then spend it on whatever projects they think will best fulfill the mission of community recreation in their district.

Supporters, most council members among them, say the money goes to needed and important projects or causes. Opponents regularly call them slush funds, used to distribute tax dollars to members’ friends and curry favor, especially ahead of elections. We wouldn’t go quite that far, but yes, we believe they’re a bad idea.

Why?

They’re unnecessary and superfluous, for one. The idea, best as we can tell, is a holdover from years past when council members would split up unexpected or excess money and use it to pay for recreation projects in their districts. When the practice began, the county had no Recreation Department, no recreation director and no dedicated recreation fund.

By 2001, however, the county had all of those, including not one but two recreation funds, one specifically created for Socastee as well as a countywide fund with dedicated millage. In this year’s budget, the two total about $4.3 million. In previous years that number has topped $5 million. So why do taxpayers still need to give council members another $240,000 a year for their own pet projects? They don’t.

In many cases, such spending isn’t even going to recreation anymore. Council members have branched out significantly in recent years, using the funds to support domestic violence shelters, civic groups or animal shelters.

“The other things that we’ve spent it on – I don’t know what to say,” said Councilman Bob Grabowski. “It’s just become a fund that we use for needs in our district. … We need to change that to something else, because the name of it is misleading.”

“It used to be just recreation,” said former Council Chairwoman Liz Gilland, who’s running for the seat again. Toward the end of her term a few years ago, however, “it was becoming a whatever you want to give money to.”

“That gives me a little heartburn,” said Gilland, who tried but failed to end the practice. “It makes it easy for folks to complain that we’re using it to curry political favor.”

And given that individual members wield almost absolute control of these funds, the potential for at least the appearance of conflicts of interest or impropriety is heightened, though we stress that in the eight years of records we reviewed we found no smoking guns pointing to egregious misconduct. Nevertheless, some spending raises eyebrows, at least at first glance.

Councilman James Frazier, for example, has frequently given money over the years to the James Frazier Community Center. Councilman Al Allen, who is also running to lead the council, has given more than $30,000 to the Aynor Rescue Squad, of which he is also a member. Both are worthy organizations and do much good for their communities; the funding isn’t necessarily a bad thing. According to Allen, the money for the rescue squad goes to pay for EMTs who work on the sidelines of local football games, for instance. And Frazier supported the center in Bucksport, which provides a needed place for the community to gather, long before it was named after him.

Such spending illustrates another shortcoming of the county’s recreation funding: Without any formal process for applying for the money, decisions are left to the whim of each council member. Anyone or any organization with strong ties to a council member may reasonably expect to receive more consideration than equally worthy but less well-connected groups. Beneficiaries can also change dramatically when new council members cycle in, belying the notion that these projects are at the top of an area’s priority list rather than just a council member’s.

Even when beneficiaries don’t have direct ties to a council member, however, funding decisions often seem to be made with alarmingly little forethought. It’s not unusual for a nonprofit to make a presentation to the council about its activities and for council members to pledge their support on the spot. In some instances, members have even playfully competed to outdo each other, pledging just more than their compatriots. It’s nice for our leaders to be so generous, but when it’s public money they’re pledging, a bit more thought and less off-the-cuff liberality is warranted.

In short, the practice is outdated, unnecessary and leaves taxpayer funds unwisely subject to the random urges of each council member. And while it doesn’t seem to be a bald-faced method for buying votes, it sure can’t hurt.

“Everybody likes to have a little money they can dole out when the need arises so they can look like the hero,” said Gilland. “Because people remember that when you run for re-election.”

Tomorrow: Rec funds distributed with little oversight, and answering supporters’ claims

Spending at a glance:

Where the money went

See where recreation funds were spent from November 2004 to November 2012. Small dots are disbursements up to $10,000. Larger flags are disbursements from $10,000 up. Note: Addresses were not available for all beneficiaries

Explore the spending

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