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Budget cuts loom for Myrtle Beach

Once the new boardwalk is finished later this spring, don't expect to see any big city-funded construction projects in Myrtle Beach for a while.

It's time for the city to prepare its 2010-2011 budget, and city leaders already know it's going to be a tight year. The capital improvement projects list for the coming year will likely be the first slice of the budget pie to be removed.

"This budget retreat is not going to be fun," Mayor John Rhodes said recently.

The council and city senior staff members will meet - as they do each year - at the Wampee Conference Center in Pinopolis to discuss the coming fiscal year in detail.

The meeting begins Wednesday evening with an overview of the proposed budget, runs all day Thursday, when the council members go through the proposal line by line, and wraps up Friday morning when the council discusses any remaining business. The meeting is open to the public.

City budget director Michael Shelton does not share details of the proposed budget publicly until he has given them to the council first, but he has already indicated this will be a tougher year than last year, when the city slashed $33 million from its capital improvements plan and about $1.2 million from the operating budget so it could meet fiscal goals and demands, shrinking the budget from $161 million to $126.8 million.

The coming year's budget could be quite a bit lighter than that.

The two-day retreat's agenda calls for a discussion of cuts in city services, and city manager Tom Leath has asked each department to offer a list of service trims that could be made.

Though the council has previously been reluctant to chip away at services, city spokesman Mark Kruea said "they aren't in favor of tax increases, either." There's no indication at this point that the proposed budget includes a tax increase, and Kruea said the city is trying to save as much as possible. "There will be some difficult decisions to be made."

Shelton said refinancing the Myrtle Beach Convention Center and Hotel's debt could save the city about $600,000 in the new budget year, and Kruea said that would "mean a great deal to the budget."

The one project still likely to be completed in the coming fiscal year is the widening of 38th Avenue North between U.S. 17 and Robert M. Grissom Parkway. That work has been on the city's schedule for more than a year now, awaiting final approval from the state Department of Transportation, and is being paid for with money budgeted in years past. The city's five-year capital improvement plan will still contain some items, but those are likely to be scheduled for 2012 and beyond.

Requests for funding from outside agencies, such as the Grand Strand Humane Society and The Coast Regional Transportation Authority, will also be considered at the retreat.

Sandy Brown, executive director of the humane society, recently presented an update on shelter operations to the council, and talked about how her group has been working to raise money. But as with most other nonprofits, donations have been down.

The shelter gets nearly $200,000 of its more than $700,000 budget from the city in exchange for taking in the city's stray and abandoned animals. Brown has said she would request about $300,000 this year, but in a year when the city is considering cutting services, fulfilling that request might not be possible.

"Meeting everyone's needs will be a neat trick this year," Kruea said.

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