Editorial | Horry County Recreation Fund Oversight Lacking

February 3, 2013 

Part 2 of 2 (read the first editorial in this series):

With $20,000 a year each in taxpayer money to spend at their discretion, we’d expect Horry County Council members to adhere to the strictest guidelines for doling out that cash, ensuring that tax funds aren’t being wasted or used improperly. Instead, council members have done little to keep tabs on how large portions of the money is spent, never question each other’s spending and regularly ignore even their own rules on how such funding should be distributed.

The issue is the county’s district recreation funds, a relatively obscure part of the county’s spending process that gives each council member a pot of money to spend at the beginning of each fiscal year. The councilmen are then charged with spending that money on whatever projects they think will best fulfill the mission of community recreation in their district.

Look through the county’s code of ordinances and you’d likely think this funding was well regulated and tracked. After all, a 1998 ordinance governing the use of such funds specifically says the money “must be spent on community recreation purposes only” and says that any non-county agency or group receiving the money must first complete an agreement that spells out exactly what the money will be used for and must accept that they’ll be subject to audits of that funding.

But in practice, council members regularly give money to whatever groups strike their fancy, recreation-related or not. And despite dozens of checks cut to non-county agencies in the eight-year span we examined, from HOAs to the Make-A-Wish Foundation to Atlantic Beach, the county has no signed agreements and has completed no audits.

How can this be? Initially, the county lawyer told us the 1998 law did not apply and was written for a previous version of recreation funds. Then he said he needed more time to investigate the issue. Eventually, county spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier would say only that the county code needed to be updated to reflect new circumstances. We hope that update comes soon. She did stress, as did many of the council members we talked with, that all of the funding decisions take place in open council meetings and require approval by the full council.

It’s hard to see that as much more than a fig leaf of accountability, however. In eight years of meetings, we found nary a one in which the vote on recreation fund spending was not unanimous. A number of council members said that, though they might have misgivings about a particular spending decision by another member, nobody ever voted no.

“That’s one of those unspoken political things,” said former Chairwoman Liz Gilland, who is a candidate for that seat again. “Nobody wanted anybody to vote against theirs and so they didn’t vote against the others.”

As for tracking the funding after the check is cut, that’s left to the will of each member.

“I can justify it all given the opportunity to,” said another council chair candidate, Councilman Al Allen, for instance. “But I can’t speak for all councilmen. I can only speak for Al.”

But hold up a minute. We’re talking about a pretty small chunk of the county’s budget. Does it really matter?

Governments, said Councilman Carl Schwartzokpf, “spend too much time worrying about the pennies instead of the thousands of dollars going somewhere else.”

And besides, sometimes small recreation expenses just can’t be predicted ahead of time in the months-long budget process. Timing’s the issue, said Councilman Marion Foxworth.

“You don’t know in April that your team’s going to make the playoffs in August,” pointed out Gilland.

Both defenses are true, but not good enough. Yes, $240,000 a year may seem like small potatoes compared with a more than $300 million annual budget. But $240,000 is still $240,000. That’s the salary of five firemen. It’s just a little less than the county’s 2012 bill for its 385 cell phones. Over the years we studied, council members spent just a few thousand dollars short of $1 million. The money also rolls over from year to year, so council members who do not spend all of their money can amass more and more. By this past November, members were sitting on just more than $569,000, money waiting to be spent whenever our leaders feel the urge.

As for being unexpected, that might be a fine argument if council members were actually spending their money on surprise expenses. In reality, however, most outlays are either going to the same groups year after year or to large multiyear projects.

Foxworth, for instance, consistently funds the summer program at the Racepath community center and has been gradually putting money toward a new park in the city. The Beach Ball Classic and Aynor Hoe Down receive thousands each year. On the North end, Harold Worley, who argued against former Chairman Tom Rice’s most recent attempt to nix the funds, has said he’s saving his money to build a parking lot at the Little River waterfront. Brent Schulz has been funding a new boat landing near the Myrtle Beach Mall. In Socastee, Bob Grabowski has just spent several years’ worth of funds on a boat landing on Peachtree Road. These are not minor, unexpected needs that just popped up out of nowhere; they are long-term projects or annual requests that deserve to go through the regular budget process and priorization just like every other infrastructure improvement in the county.

The problems boil down to this: Single-member discretionary funds unecessarily insert politics into what should be relatively noncontroversial decisions about community recreation. By leaving county spending up to individual members rather than a group consensus or an agreed upon priority list, taxpayers are funding the shifting priorities of single members, rather than the area’s priorities. The practice can lead to conflicts of interest and open members up to accusations – founded or not – of rewarding supporters, currying favor or helping themselves. Compounding the problem is the lax or nonexistent oversight of where the money is going and seemingly little desire to ask questions about how it’s used.

All of these issues can be easily fixed, and council members even know how to do it.

“Would it be the end of the world if we did away with it?” asked Foxworth. “No.”

“It’s not terrible,” said Rice, but “I still thought it would be better if it were part of the budget process.”

“It really wouldn’t bother me much if we just put in the budget or put it in recreation,” said Councilman Jody Prince. “I think it’s OK to do it, but it wouldn’t be something I’d fight or cry about.”

They’ve got the right idea. Put the money back in the Recreation Department where it belongs, put it through the regular budget process, and get council members out of the check writing business.

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

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