Myrtle Beach council pursues referendum on tax increase to build performing arts center

The Myrtle Beach City Council is moving forward with plans to place a referendum on the ballot next November that would raise property taxes to build a performing arts center, opting not to hold a special election on the issue.

In September the City Council considered the possibility of holding a special election in March or April 2013 to take the idea to residents, allowing them to decide if they support a tax increase to fund the building of the long-discussed performing arts center.

At a City Council workshop Tuesday morning, council members decided to wait until November 2013 to ask voters if they support footing the entire bill for the building’s construction – estimated to cost about $10 million.

“I don’t have a problem with [posing the referendum during] the general election. What’s the difference of a couple months [and] you don’t have to spend the money on a special election?” said Councilman Michael L. Chestnut during the workshop.

It would cost about $5,000 to hold a special election in Myrtle Beach, according to city spokesman Mark Kruea.

For years, the Myrtle Beach Performing Arts Center’s board of directors has struggled to raise money to partially fund a performing arts center. On Tuesday the council decided to ask voters if they supported the council fully funding the construction of the center.

If voters approve the referendum, residents owning a $200,000 home could pay between $24 and $32 a year over a 15 to 20 year period, Kruea said.

However, even if the residents support building the center, the referendum is not binding so the City Council is not obligated to do anything.

“There is no obligation whatsoever. At any point in this process you may withdraw [from funding the center],” city attorney Tom Ellenburg told the council members. “The City Council has to pick the right time to go into the market.”

Many council members said it was important that the referendum didn’t bind a future council, since the terms of three council seats and the mayor end next year. Even if the referendum is approved, moving forward could also depend on the percentage of people who vote in favor of the referendum.

“If the vote is 50.5 to 49.5 [percent], you’re going to have council members that are scared to pull the trigger,” Councilman Wayne Gray said. “If it’s 60-40 they might [be more willing].”

Performing Arts Center Treasurer Betty Anne Mills said she’s not concerned that the referendum isn’t binding.

“The city has to have that protection. We live in an unstable [economy],” she said, adding that she believes putting the question to the residents is a positive step forward. “People want culture here in Myrtle Beach and I think it’s going to happen.”

Ellenburg said once he drafts the language of the referendum, the council could vote to place the question on the November ballot as early as the first meeting in January.

Mayor John Rhodes said the sooner the language is approved for the ballot, the sooner the performing arts center board can begin campaigning for the measure.

The last time the city asked residents if they supported a tax increase was in 2001 when voters approved the referendum to fund $9 million for city recreation expansion and more than $25 million for stormwater drainage, Kruea said.

“Both passed easily,” he said.