Senate overrides Haley veto of bill allowing millage increase in Murrells Inlet Garden City Fire District

A plan for a new fire station in the Murrells Inlet Garden City fire district likely will move forward, despite Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto of a related bill earlier this month.

The veto passed its first hurdle last week with an S.C. Senate override. If an override in the state House is not successful this summer, Haley’s veto would prevent the new station’s construction and likely would lead to higher insurance costs for some homeowners , said Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet.

Cleary and Rep. Nelson Hardwick, R-Surfside Beach said they are confident the measure will pass in the House.

The bill, S. 293, sponsored by Cleary, would allow the special purpose fire district to increase it’s millage cap from 10 mills to 14 mills over the next 20 years.

Haley, on her Facebook page, called the bill a backdoor approach to raising taxes without voter approval. She said signing it would set a precedent for other districts to similarly raise the millage.

William Fancher, president of the Murrells Inlet Garden City Professional Fire Fighters Association said in a statement that the association is thankful for Cleary’s efforts, but disappointed by the veto and Haley’s belief that the district seeks to raise taxes without voter approval. He said “that is the furthest thing from the truth” and pointed to a public hearing held in April 2013.

Fancher said there “was overwhelming support” for the increase during the hearing last year.

The funds generated from an increase would be used to build and man another fire station in the district on McDowell Shortcut Road to handle increased demand and growth of the area. Stations are currently located at 3641 U.S. 17 Business, 280 Azalea Drive and 4463 New River Road, all in Murrells Inlet.

“Governor Haley may look at Senate Bill 293 as a tax increase,” he said. “But, we look at Senate Bill 293 as a way to maintain and expand a excellent level of service to the residents of the fire district.”

The tax in the district was last raised in 1992, after initially being set at 5 mills when the district was created in 1966, according to the bill. In 2000, the district began providing emergency medical services and the bill says the additional revenue is needed to continue providing those services.

Cleary said an unsuccessful override could mean homeowners in the district likely would see hikes on their insurance bills. He said the House is expected to convene and override the veto in the summer.

Hardwick said the House likely won’t be able to take up the issue until early August.

“The problem is the ISO rating people are coming in August,” Cleary said. “We will lose our ISO three if we can’t get it [the override] through by September.”

The Insurance Services Office (ISO) Public Protection Classification Program gauges the departments fire protection capabilities and gives a rating between one and 10. Each department is evaluated every 10 years. Myrtle Beach has an ISO rating of one, Surfside Beach is a three, Georgetown County is a four and Horry County is a five. ISO ratings affect homeowner insurance rates.

Cleary said the fire district board is not sure if a hike is necessary immediately, but the ability to raise the tax if needed will help the district maintain it’s ISO rating. Any near-term hike, Cleary said, likely would not exceed two mills.

Cleary said the override vote wasn’t unanimous, but it was close, and said it was heavily influenced by residents emailing senators across the state.

“A lot of the senators received 200 to 300 emails,” Cleary said. “They told me that if they (residents) would quit sending emails they would get it through. The people back home spoke and the people here heard it. It wasn’t my golden tone that convinced them.”

“There was a good bit of confusion the first time we passed it in the house about it affecting every fire district in the state,” he said. “A lot of representatives thought that if we vote for it in Horry County and give this fire department a raise every fire district is going to want to raise the taxes and we don’t want to raise the taxes.”

Hardwick said some also thought it was a local issue and were hesitant to “get in the middle of a local issue.”

He said those concerns were cleared up.