March 20, 2013

Editorial | Horry County’s Long-Range Budget Savings

Though we often forget it in today’s instant gratification culture, change can take years to develop and bear fruit. Such was the case with a pair of recent successes at Horry County worth noting.

Though we often forget it in today’s instant gratification culture, change can take years to develop and bear fruit. Such was the case with a pair of recent successes at Horry County worth noting.

First, the council voted Tuesday night on a resolution expressing their commitment to providing a safe working environment for county employees and naming June Safety Month in Horry County. The action sounds like benign fluff, about as exciting as the annual resolution honoring the employee of the year. Yes, we want Horry County workers to be safe. But how much should taxpayers – and their wallets – really care? A lot, as it turns out.

About 10 years ago, then-County Administrator Danny Knight looked at the worker’s compensation rate that the county was paying – among the highest in the state – and decided it was time to bring it down. Through years of effort and focus on safety that continued beyond Knight’s tenure, that rate fell year by year, cutting the county’s premium even as its payroll grew.

By focusing on reducing workplace accidents, the county has managed to reduce its premium from a high of about $3.6 million in 2006 to an estimated $2.1 million this coming fiscal year. From being near the top of the list, the county now has the state’s second-lowest “experience modifier” – the insurance premium variable that goes up or down based on claims and accidents. An extra $1.5 million a year in county coffers is nothing to sneeze at, particularly when it comes with the added bonus of a safer workplace for employees.

Also about a decade ago, the county installed a fiber-optic system linking all of its facilities and the city halls, jails and hospitals throughout the county. The effort was part of a long-term plan to improve public safety communications throughout the area. Since last spring, as the county’s recently released annual report noted, the network has also been put to use for video arraignments of suspects, a program that not only improves communication, but also improves the bottom line for local municipalities.

Since April 1 of last year, many inmates at the county’s jail outside Conway have participated in their bond hearings at local courts through a video conferencing system rather than being taken physically to courtrooms across the county. Before the change, somebody arrested in Conway, for instance, would have to be driven from the jail to court for a hearing, then picked up and driven back. Officers could be tied up for hours just moving prisoners from one place to another, hardly an effective use of that public servant’s time.

Horry County Police Lt. Ben Wells, who works at the county jail, helped set up the program. While savings to municipalities varies by their facilities – Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach have their own jail cells and so need to rely on this program somewhat less than others – the change has definitely made a difference in budgets, time and risk. Wells estimated that Conway – which used to transport three people a day to and from the jail – has reduced the number of its transported inmates by 96 percent. That means less money paid to officers just to drive prisoners back and forth, less wear and tear on vehicles and smaller fuel costs. North Myrtle Beach, Wells said, has seen so much savings it has used it to justify hiring a few more officers.

“Even inmates like it,” Wells said, because it often means quicker hearings. It also means less risk to the public and other inmates, as the great reduction in time outside the secure jail means a much smaller possibility for escape or for smuggling of contraband.

The video arraignment program is now up and running in Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach, Conway and Aynor. We’d encourage Surfside Beach and Loris to strongly consider signing up soon to enjoy the same benefits to their own budgets.

Kudos to Horry County staff for having the foresight to put programs such as these in place years ago and following through. Such successes reassure us that our tax dollars are being used wisely and with efficiency in mind.

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