CONWAY Coast RTA froze the hiring of 24 employees Wednesday and threatened to eliminate the Broadway at the Beach route and evening routes pending the negotiation of a funding agreement with Horry County.
The decision comes a week after the Horry County Council said it may want to see an audit before it committed to the more than $1 million it gives the transit annually. Both the county and Coast RTA operate on budgets that need to be approved by July 1.
The impact of shutting down the area’s only free transportation for tourists from Ocean Boulevard to Broadway at the Beach, known locally as the Myrtle Beach Entertainment Express, would likely impact tourist destinations like Ripley’s Aquarium, who sell package deals for its attractions – the aquarium, Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Haunted Adventure – between Ocean Boulevard and at Broadway at the Beach. Revving its engines at the possible cutbacks are taxicab drivers who were snubbed when the government-funded transit nabbed customers from one of its more popular routes.
Felicia Beaty, deputy general manager of Coast RTA, said it has not been calculated how much the transit will save by cutting the free route and trimming night transportation hours from 10 or 11 p.m. to 6 p.m.
“We recommend holding off on our summer service at the present time pending the results of our funding,” Beaty told Coast’s Board of Directors at their meeting Wednesday. “Without a clear direction as to what our funding levels are going to be, we’re recommending that we hold off for the time being. What we want to prevent is hiring people and then turning around and letting them go.”
Coast has its back to the wall as it must give commuters a 30-day notice of any canceled routes or changes to routes. Considering its budget is due in a little more than 30 days, it needed to make Wednesday’s warning without a solid answer from the county on how much the transit will receive or how long it must wait to receive it.
Mark Lazarus, chairman of the County Council, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Coast RTA has a more than $5 million annual budget where an audit is performed beginning in October of each year and presented in January.
The audit is one thing the county is considering as a way of having more checks and balances over the money it issues. It gets funding from the county, Georgetown County, Conway and Myrtle Beach. Each year in the spring, the county re-evaluates its expenses during its budgeting process.
Earlier this year, the transit was under scrutiny by the S.C. Department of Transportation and county officials after the state pulled the plug on a $1 million grant for bus shelters and signs that was awarded nearly nine years ago. That scrutiny led to the April firing of Myers Rollins, CEO and general manager of Coast during the years of the failed program.
Before Rollins was fired, Lazarus created a select committee to look at the botched program and report back to the council on who was to blame for the delay in the program and whether council should continue to fund the agency.
Ten full-time drivers and 14 part-time drivers will not be hired until negotiations are complete with the county.
“That’s the deciding factor,” said Interim General Manager Julie Norton-Dew. “We don’t want to hire 24 people for temporary summer service until we know for sure we’re going to get our funding in July.”
Jessica Mula, marketing coordinator for Ripley's Attractions, said the elimination of the Myrtle Beach Entertainment Express would not only impact the tourists who go to Broadway at the Beach, but also employees who use the route to get back and forth to work. An official statement on the possible route elimination from Craig Atkins, general manager for Ripley’s Attractions, was not available late Wednesday.
Robbie Singh, owner of Diamond Taxi, said Coast’s presence at Broadway at the Beach, which began in 2012, was felt immediately in the pocketbooks of taxicab owners.
“People wanted to pay $1 or $2, and they didn’t want to use a cab no more,” Singh said. “If Coast RTA cuts this route, there will be a lot of happy taxicab drivers and owners.”