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Horry County chairman ready to rule

New Horry County Council Chairman Tom Rice's first date with his fellow council members is set for Thursday, when he'll present three recommended changes to the way the council has been doing business.

Rice wants to streamline meetings and public comment and to form an economic development committee.

"I feel like we've absolutely failed at economic development," Rice said Tuesday. "Even in the best years, we are only third from the bottom in the country in terms of wages, and right now, we're at the bottom. I hate to be last at anything.

"If we don't do this, we're letting the citizens down."

The council has three committees now - administration, infrastructure and regulation, and public safety.

Rice also wants to see meetings move along more quickly - to get business accomplished in 30 to 60 minutes, not counting public input time, he said in a memo to council members.

He proposes limiting public input at the beginning of the meeting to only what is related to that night's agenda, and cutting speakers' allotted time from five minutes each to three. That would allow more people to speak in the 30-minute public input portion. Public comment on nonagenda items would be allowed at the end of the meeting.

"Often, our meetings would get going down a rabbit trail and we'd spin our wheels," said County Administrator John Weaver.

"It seemed like we just didn't have the organization to keep ourselves from looking foolish from time to time."

The changes Rice has asked for would all need full approval by the council, Weaver said, including three votes, like any other ordinance.

"These are not mandates. He's not trying to cram anything down people's throats," Weaver said. "From what I understand, he said he wouldn't have made these changes without council approval even if he could."

While committee membership and leadership can change yearly if the chairman wishes, usually committee appointments are made every two years.

Rice proposes having each council member participate on two of the four committees, and said he hopes people will offer more input at the committee level, where meetings are less formal.

"That would also help the council members be more prepared for the council meetings - instead of hearing people's concerns for the first time at the meetings," Rice said. He also said all committee meetings should be held on the same day, one after the other, so council members can attend other committee's meetings to learn more about county-wide issues. The proposed economic development committee would be led by Councilman Gary Loftus, and would include mass transit, which Rice said is tied to economic development. Loftus, the director of Coastal Carolina University's BB&T Center for Economic and Community Development, has years of experience, Weaver said.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics last year said Horry County had the lowest average weekly wage for five consecutive quarters, at $519.

Rice said that's because the area has relied solely on tourism as its economic base.

Loftus agreed, and said tourism will probably always be the area's No. 1 industry, but there need to be other industries, too.

The economic development committee would also include mass transit, and Loftus said Myrtle Beach International Airport is a critical part of the area's success, including bringing in new airlines, but that the committee will look at all transit, including the county's Ride II road improvement projects and the Coast RTA bus system.

He said the committee will talk about the referendum that passed in November to fund Coast with a steady source.

Rice is advocating a new focus on helping the region's economic development corporation succeed, and doing more, even when the economy is good, to boost the area.

One plan is to develop set packages of incentives the county can offer to lure businesses without having to go back to the council for debate and approval.

"If it takes us six months to decide what we can offer, we've already lost," Rice said.