South Strand voters to decide future of fire service Tuesday

After waging a door-to-door campaign to secure yes votes for Tuesday’s referendum on South Strand fire service, supporters hit the phones last week.

Turnout is expected to be light, and they didn’t want to miss anyone.

“We do feel good about it, but you’ve got to get your voters to the polls,” said Al Hitchcock, who chairs the board of the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District. “That’s the main thing.”

On Tuesday, South Strand residents will be asked if the district’s taxing capacity should be increased by 4 mills. If the measure passes, the maximum property tax hike would be $37.20 on an owner-occupied home worth $232,500 (the median value in the area), according to the district’s calculations.

Such an increase, however, doesn’t compare to the hundreds or thousands more per year that residents would pay if the fire service deteriorates and insurance premiums rise, according to the referendum’s supporters.

The district’s board members, who are appointed, have the authority to raise taxes, but state law caps the district’s taxing rate, meaning any expansion beyond the 10-mill limit would have to be approved by legislators.

District officials have said the extra money would help pay for a fourth fire station and maintain the department’s level of fire protection. A no vote, they contend, could mean a change in the district’s strong ISO rate, which many insurance companies use in setting homeowners’ premiums.

The district, which includes parts of Horry and Georgetown counties, was created in 1966 and has seen just one millage cap increase in the decades since. That was in 1992. Meanwhile, the area has grown and in 2000 the district began providing EMS services along with fire protection.

In the last three years, the agency’s call volume has increased by 42 percent.

The district has been making plans for a fourth station for years, but the recession caused delays and in recent years the department has been dipping into reserve funds to cover deficits. The most recent budget had a deficit of $177,000.

Tom Swatzel, who organized the campaign supporting the referendum, said the district’s financial records illustrate the need for the change.

“Anybody that looked at their financials over the last three years would be, I think, converted into voting yes,” he said.

District officials have been requesting an increase in the millage rate for more than two years.

Lawmakers signed off on a hike last year, but the measure was vetoed by Gov. Nikki Haley, who objected to an unelected board raising taxes with no voter input.

Enter the referendum, a compromise that will collect the public opinion the governor wanted.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Swatzel and a team of volunteers have been trying to sway residents. So far, they said, the reception has been strong.

“All of our reports have been positive from voters that they’ve done outreach to, whether it’s on the phone or going door to door,” Swatzel said. “Part of it is that the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District just has a very good reputation. ... Lots of people just want to see them do well.”

Despite that optimism, there is concern about how many people will show up for a March referendum that has no other questions or any candidates on the ballot.

Hitchcock said supporters are hoping for 4-5 percent turnout.

“We’d like to think it was more,” he said. “But we’ll take what we can get.”