City Mayors protest state bill that would subvert their power
Mayors of cities in Horry County lashed out at the S.C. House of Representatives on Monday, saying its intervention in a squabble between the municipalities and the county is an overstep of power.
The Horry County League of Cities — an alliance formed by cities involved in the dispute — held a Monday morning press conference to discuss recent actions by members of the House regarding the hospitality fee collection debate.
Currently, the City of Myrtle Beach is suing Horry County over the collection of the hospitality fee. The city says the county is illegally collecting the tax, after extending its deadline without municipal approval. The county asked a judge to prevent Myrtle Beach from collecting its own hospitality tax that it passed last month.
The dispute could lead to taxpayers overpaying in taxes and confusion on how the levy is being applied.
A house bill was filed by Horry representatives on May 9 that, if passed, would give Horry County Government the legal power to continue collecting the 1.5 percent hospitality fee. The mayors of local municipalities, however, object to the proposed legislation, saying it violates Home Rule by local jurisdictions.
“It is hard to believe our state representatives would go on with this power grab, but they are doing the county bidding. We will fight proposed House Bill 4597. It is dishonest and an affront to the hard-won progress that has been in home rule in South Carolina,” League of Cities Chair Mayor Marilyn Hatley said.
Mayors Barbara Blain-Bellamy from Conway, Brenda Bethune from Myrtle Beach, Hatley from North Myrtle Beach, Bob Childs from Surfside Beach and John Gardner of Aynor attended the League of Cities meeting.
HB 4597, sponsored by all the members of the Horry delegation to the Statehouse, would give all South Carolina counties the power to collect hospitality fee money. It will not be voted on until the upcoming legislative session in 2020.
State Representative Russell Fry said the point of HB 4597 was to bring all parties to the negotiation table and to open a dialogue. He said the Horry Delegation was not acting on behalf of county council, rather for the benefit of all of Horry.
“We did this out of a shared concern for the citizens of the county,” he said previously told The Sun News.
The bill was just another chapter in a five-month-long debate. Earlier this year, North Myrtle Beach, Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach all passed ordinances that would allow the municipalities to collect the portion of the hospitality fee collected within their borders, sparking the questions over the future of the fee.
The hospitality fee began with an agreement in the 1990s. The municipalities agreed to allow the county to collect the money for a finite amount of time. When the original agreement ended, the county extended it. Gardner said there was not proper communication at the time as to Horry County extending the deal.
Hatley said no city allowed Horry County to continue collecting the fee, but the Horry County leaders have argued that the municipalities are trying to kill the construction of Interstate 73. She said the issue is not the interstate’s merits, but rather how Horry County acted unilaterally to pay for it.
“None of these cities have said it does not support I-73. What we have said is that Horry County, without consulting with the cities and towns, made the decision to use our our fees of tax money to fund I-73,” Hatley said.
Bethune said her city’s actions have been taken out of context, and people have tried to say Myrtle Beach is trying to kill I-73. She said Myrtle Beach is trying to make sure its citizens are represented and rights are respected, while still supporting I-73.
“It is very disheartening that our actions to put our citizens and community first have been taken out of context,” Bethune said. “We have the lawful right to manage our funds, citizens’ money, for the good of our own communities. We are putting our citizens first.”
Representatives Fry, William Bailey, Alan Clemmons, Heather Crawford, Kevin Hardee and Tim McGinnis released a statement in response to Monday’s press conference.
“Press conferences are important but less effective than meaningful dialogue. Since the press conference is being held at Conway City Hall it is our hope that, following their press conference, the mayors will walk across the street to Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner’s office or down the street to the government complex to commence that meaningful dialogue,” the release said.
Fry said the press conference brought all the leaders to one place, making it a perfect day for the municipality leaders to meet with Gardner.
“If they did not meet with county officials, that is a missed opportunity,” he said.
Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner said he is willing to do anything necessary to resolve this, and believes a compromise can be met if the leaders can come together first.
“My office is right across the street, I got a nice big conference room in it and I don’t have anything else this afternoon,” Gardner said. “That being said, there is a lawsuit pending.”
The ongoing lawsuit limits what elected officials can say publicity about the hospitality fee. Therefore, Gardner wants to go ahead and get the mediation part of a lawsuit over with as soon as possible.
Mediation would make city and county attorneys sit down and debate the fee’s collection. While Gardner is in favor of public negotiations, the mediation would be private. If no compromise is met, the lawsuit would then be taken in front of a judge for a ruling.
“One of the steps that is mandatory for civil litigation is mediation,” Gardner said. “If Myrtle Beach wants to continue this lawsuit, let’s go ahead and schedule it.”