Sustained funding clearly is a major challenge for regional economic development and the Horry County Council should acknowledge and plan for its continuing role.
The Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. is at a critical juncture as a hiring committee begins a search for a new CEO to replace Brad Lofton, who is returning to his native Georgia. Lofton landed a dozen expansions and new employers that represent 1,350 eventual new jobs – 579 now filled. Lofton reported that the 579 jobs are worth about $300,000 more to the county’s economy than the county government funding.
Lofton has said one of the challenges going forward is “making sure we continue to get stable long-term funding.” A County Council commitment to continued funding undoubtedly will facilitate hiring an experienced leader to continue the progress of the last three and a half years.
The county provides $1.3 million to the MBREDC, the lion’s share of its revenue; the private sector membership base adds $300,000. The county’s agreement expires in 2015 and some council members express views that the county won’t be able to continue funding.
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The subject was discussed 10 days ago in an administrative committee meeting, where Councilman Marion Foxworth declared: “Frankly, I think [Lofton’s] leaving at this critical juncture really leaves them in a predicament because the contract is expiring, the revenue stream is expiring, and there’s nobody there to pick up the ball and get them to another level.’’
County Council members, including chairman Mark Lazarus expressed concern about the EDC beginning a search for a new leader without secured funding. That’s of particular concern to Lazarus who is on the MBREDC executive committee and co-chairman of the hiring committee. Speaking to County Council members, Lazarus said that’s an EDC challenge.
Foxworth said: “We need to have that discussion at the fall budget retreat: A, is economic development a core function of government and B, if it is, how are we going to fund it?’’
The obvious answer to A is “yes.”
Councilman Harold Worley, no friend of economic development in general, said “ … those guys are going to have to take a cut or we’re going to have to raise property taxes. And I know for one, I’m not going to vote to raise property taxes.’’
But continued funding for the EDC does not necessarily mean increasing the [property tax] millage. Foxworth noted that there were alternatives including “cuts elsewhere in the budget, or … some alternative revenue stream, like the capital project sales tax.’’
Here’s one source of $240,000 from the budget: The $20,000 “recreation accounts’’ of each the 12 council members (11 elected from districts and the countywide elected chairman). Eliminating these slush funds is not a popular idea with council members, but the accounts lack accountability and are not a good practice, never mind how much members enjoy having $20,000 to spend pretty much as they see fit.
Another potential source of revenue is further reducing the $5 million write-off for EMS (Emergency Management Services). The council is in the process of identifying the people not paying for ambulance services. Reduce the write-off by a fifth, add the money from the recreation accounts and the council is really close to $1.3 million.
Some council members no doubt take pride, as they should, in their support of the revitalized MBREDC. By all means, have a full discussion about funding economic development, but Horry County Council needs to make a long-term commitment. The challenge is for the County Council as much as the development corporation.