The county council voted Tuesday night to save a quarter-million dollar recreation fund that’s been used to dole out dollars for travel, food, marketing and other uses by special groups; however some officials pledged to crack down on how that money is spent in the future.
The budget amendment to kill the fund and use the remaining $700,000 for public safety was overwhelmingly defeated on a 9-3 vote.
Voting to eliminate the recreation fund were council Chairman Mark Lazarus and councilmen Tyler Servant and Dennis DiSabato. Voting to continue the fund were Councilmen Howard Worley, Bill Howard, Gary Loftus, Cam Crawford, Harold Phillips, Johnny Vaught, Paul Prince, Danny Hardee and Al Allen.
The amendment was proposed by Servant, who later asked the county attorney to ensure the spending was ethical, and to clearly define what purposes the funds for “recreation and leisure”could be spent, with additional language forbidding the funding to family members.
The matter is not over, said Lazarus, who urged councilmen to consider several reform measures including the funding source.
Lazarus said that recreation fund allocations will not be considered in one lump vote without public debate by the council, and will no longer be placed on the consent agenda.
Councilmen who voted in favor of the fund say it was created in 1997 to ensure that every district gets a piece of recreation funding, rather than all of the money going to one or two districts.
About $4 million in total has been appropriated for the fund.
“This money is a blessing to District 9,” said Councilman Paul Prince.
Each councilman gets $20,000 a year to award to nonprofit groups, then the request is voted on by the full council, usually without discussion.
The Sun News reported Tuesday that in the current fiscal year, the money has been spent on after-school programs, Thanksgiving dinners for seniors, community cleanups in Burgess, marketing for the comic convention X Con, an economic growth summit at CCU, the S.C. High School Rodeo Association, Socastee Heritage Festival, Socastee Athletic Booster Club, Conway parks, County Parks and Recreation, a ballet performance for schools, the Boy Scouts, Wildlife Action of Horry County camp, and Savannah’s Playground.
Meanwhile, the council also approved raising fees paid by locals to use county recreation centers, an increase that is estimated to raise $200,000 to help make up a budget shortfall.
Councilman Johnny Vaught defended the fund, and said that every request goes through a review process and is then voted on by the full council. He said there is no behind-doors or personal spending, and funds are used to do special events in their district.
“I don’t want anyone to get the idea it is a slush fund,” Vaught said.
DiSabato said he supports the fund, but voted against it saying the council needs to do a better job of holding themselves accountable and making sure the recreation money is being used as intended.
The current process requires groups asking for the money to explain why their request is an appropriate use of the recreation fund.
However, out of 21 requests approved this fiscal year that were reviewed by The Sun News, more than half of those applicants declined to justify the use.
As chairman of the Administration Committee that reviews all of the requests, Worley agreed that “half are not absolutely tied to recreation.”
“I do agree the name (of the fund) is wrong,” said Worley, who pledged the committee would consider passing a new resolution to define exactly how the money should be spent.
“I hate to see council members be embarrassed, they’ve been doing this for years,” Worley said.
Some councilmen attached little importance to the topic, saying that the recreation fund was less than a fraction of the $453 million budget under consideration for the 2018 fiscal year that begins in July.
Lazarus said he objected to the source of the funding, which is the general fund that supports county operations including public safety.
“I have a real issue with that,” Lazarus said. “If this is going to continue, it should come out of the recreation fund — that is what our citizens pay for.”
Servant proposed an amendment to switch the millage amount from the general fund to the recreation fund, but that was also defeated on an identical 9-3 vote.