Editorial

Editorial | In the Horry Garbage Trenches

If there’s going to be a flow control fight, let’s get it over with

April 12, 2013 

  • What is home rule?

    Home rule is the idea that local governments should have the power to make local decisions. It was begun in South Carolina in 1973 and refined in subsequent years. The first Horry County Council took office in 1977. Before then, senators and representatives from each county controlled the county’s budget and made most decisions.

    In recent years, many counties have complained that legislators are slowly chipping away at their authority and taking back power they had given to local governments.

    How does it apply to this case?

    We’re not experts in home rule, so we asked a political expert. Dr. Holley Tankersley, chair of the politics department at Coastal Carolina University, said that from her reading of the rules, Horry County’s in the right on this one.

    “Here you have a case of a state legislature uncomfortable with the idea that a law they passed in 1975 cedes this much control to a locality,” she said. “They tied their own hands almost 40 years ago, and now they are concerned about what that means in practical terms.”

    County Councilman Marion Foxworth, who also teaches political science, has no doubt that “precedent is on our side.”

    He compared the county’s flow control situation to the impact fee enacted in Beaufort County and the real estate transfer fee in Hilton Head Island. In both cases, the legislature acted after the fact to make such actions illegal, but fights by the local governments kept them in place in the original locales. Foxworth predicts the same will happen in Horry County, with flow control ultimately preserved here but off limits to the other 45 S.C. counties. That, he said, is what the real fight is about, the legislature trying to keep the idea from spreading elsewhere in the state.

    During a March hearing on the issue, Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston said he’d already heard from leaders in Mount Pleasant, Charleston and North Charleston who believe that voiding flow control would be a violation of home rule.

    But Rep. Nelson Hardwick of Surfside Beach disputed that idea during the same hearing.

    “We are not trying to usurp any of their powers,” he said. “We would just like to right a wrong that has been done.”

    Ultimately, it will likely be up to the courts to decide.

Your trash disappears each week like clockwork. Leave it by the curb or throw it in the Dumpster and it’s gone in the morning. Most of us don’t care that much about how it happens as long as it takes place.

So why should Horry County residents care about the knock-down, drag-out fight taking place over the county’s trash management rules? A couple of reasons. First because it’s your money being used to wage this fight. Second, because our leaders’ time and energy are not infinite, and the vast amounts of energy expended on dealing with local garbage means less to spend on other issues.

A bit of background for those still unfamiliar with the dispute: Horry County passed an ordinance in 2009 that requires all trash generated in Horry County to be disposed of at the county’s landfill. The rule quickly drew opposition from landfill operators in neighboring counties that lost business as a result. Multiple lawsuits against the practice were filed in state and federal court, all of which the county and its Solid Waste Authority have won, so far.

Perhaps more than any other issue, it drove a wedge between local and state politicians. Those state leaders, led most vocally by Rep. Nelson Hardwick of Surfside Beach, have pushed and supported bills in the legislature that would make such ordinances illegal, calling them unfair monopolies. County officials have pushed back by saying trash management is a government service like police or fire protection that they should have the ability to regulate as they see fit. Neither side is giving an inch.

So how much of your tax money is on the line? Hundreds of thousands. The Solid Waste Authority spent more than $150,000 on attorneys to fight just one of the suits. According to its check registers, the authority has also already racked up more than $50,000 this year in lobbyist fees fighting the issue in Columbia. And Councilman Harold Worley complained at a January council administration committee meeting that “we spent $400,000 last year trying to get our thoughts across.”

If the legislative action passes, as most believe it will, Horry County leaders have vowed to continue the fight “tooth and nail,” in Worley’s words. The council has already authorized County Administrator Chris Eldridge to find an attorney to help them sue the state to keep the county’s flow control ordinance.

Emotions are high and show no signs of abating.

At the meeting in January, council members tag-teamed in a spirited come-to-Jesus gathering that had all the hallmarks of a good old-fashioned tent revival, including other council members murmuring their agreement as the group let loose on the legislature in turn. The main complaint? What the council sees as a new assault on home rule.

“If they’re going to run Horry County from Columbia, I might as well resign,” Worley said.

“The Solid Waste Authority has flushed thousands of dollars down the proverbial toilet trying to fight this through lobbyists in Columbia,” Councilman Marion Foxworth said, happy that the council was finally talking about a court battle.

Councilman Carl Schwartzkopf complained about the campaign donations to local legislators that have poured in from national waste companies. “They hand out money like we hand out candy at Halloween.”

“They’re going to pass that legislation,” Foxworth said.

“But they’re not going to do it without getting bloody,” Worley retorted. “Don’t pee on my back and tell me it’s raining.”

Legislators are just as energized and largely unconcerned about any perceived attack on home rule.

“We give them [counties] responsibilty, but we also ask that county governments act responsible,” Hardwick said at a March hearing on the bill. “Running a businessperson out of business is not what a county should be doing.”

“You asked if this was a home rule issue,” said Sen. Harvey Peeler, who was chairing the meeting (and whose brother is an executive with national trash company Waste Management). “I think this is a golden rule issue. And the golden rule trumps the home rule.”

“Somebody over there don’t understand that this isn’t right,” Hardwick told us in February. “It just really isn’t.”

County Council, he said, “can sit there and hire lawyers and keep fighting, but as long as I live and breathe I’m going to try and do the right thing. … Do they have the power? Absolutely. The Supreme Court says they did.” But, “I’d like to pull that back a bit.”

Is it an important issue? Yes, particularly as it relates to home rule and a county’s ability to make its own decisions. And we do wish that county and state leaders could simply sit down and hash our their differences and stop spending so much time, energy and money on this fight. But that’s not realistic. Those at all levels of government have met multiple times since the fight began and seem unable to come to any sort of acceptable resolution.

Last November, for instance, the two sides met as part of a Myrtle Beach gathering of local political leaders, where county and state leaders both said they hoped some sort of peaceful solution was still possible. Worley said the county didn’t want to be “spending taxpayer dollars to fight each other.”

But it looks like that’s exactly what’s going to happen. It’s certainly not the best situation, but frankly, it seems the court fight is going to come one way or the other, this year or the next or the next. If it takes place now, perhaps the county and SWA could at least stop spending so much lobbying legislators on the issue year after year.

We’re with the pugnacious Foxworth on this one, at least when it comes to strategy. Stop dancing around each other and start swinging. Don’t make us sit through 12 expensive rounds if we can get this settled in less.

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