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Murrells Inlet-Garden City residents voting whether to allow fire district tax increase

Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire Department Station 1 has been serving from the Surfside Beach limits through Garden City Beach and Murrells Inlet since 1966. In a July 16 referendum, residents of the fire district will be asked if the district’s taxing capacity should be increased by 5 mills.
Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire Department Station 1 has been serving from the Surfside Beach limits through Garden City Beach and Murrells Inlet since 1966. In a July 16 referendum, residents of the fire district will be asked if the district’s taxing capacity should be increased by 5 mills. FILE

Residents in southern Horry and northern Georgetown counties are deciding Tuesday whether to approve a tax increase for their fire district.

The Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District’s board of directors is asking voters to approve a property tax increase from 14 to 19 mills, primarily to purchase a new ambulance and staff an additional ambulatory unit. The district currently has three active crews.

The request comes just four years after voters approved an increase from 10 to 14 mills for the district, and some supporters of that increase aren’t as receptive this time.

Tom Swatzel, chairman of a group called Friends of Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District, sent out a mailer last week to potential voters urging them to vote against the referendum.

In the mailer, Swatzel explains that his decision to publicly oppose the request is difficult because the firefighters, paramedics and EMTs continue to provide excellent protection and service, but he feels “the fire district board has stumbled badly in its fiduciary duties over the last five years.”

George Oldroyd, chairman of the fire district board, initially asked Swatzel to help advocate for the tax increase, as he had done in 2015, but Swatzel said that after reviewing the district’s financial information, he couldn’t see the need.

“It’s a tough love approach,” Swatzel said of his decision to send the mailer.

Some leaders want more information

He is joined by several state legislators in questioning the need for a millage increase, as Reps. Lee Hewitt and Russell Fry and Sen. Stephen Goldfinch sent the board a letter seeking more financial information and asking them to postpone the vote until the 2018 audit is complete.

Oldroyd said the board had hoped the audit would be completed before the referendum vote, but it didn’t happen, and they needed to move forward with the vote now to be able to inform the counties of their 2020 millage rate before tax bills are sent to residents.

He said he has seen a draft copy of the audit, which he expects the board to approve at its next meeting, and there are no surprises in the report. Oldroyd admitted that the board wasn’t monitoring the timely completion of audits in previous years closely enough, though some of that delay was due to difficulties caused by a former employee embezzling more than $80,000 in 2014.

Oldroyd also addressed what he believes are misleading statements in Swatzel’s mailer.

In response to the assertion that the district board spent $2.4 million in excess of budgets without any on-the-record votes to approve that spending, Oldroyd said that while their meeting minutes may be incomplete, all purchases have been well documented in financial records.

He added that the district isn’t governed by the same laws as municipalities, which are required to make budget adjustments mid-year, though he believes they should and plans to introduce a resolution to that effect soon.

Swatzel’s mailer also states that the district is financially sound with a $4.3 million surplus, but Oldroyd said that what Swatzel’s likely seeing as a surplus is actually a combination of fund balance, which is often already committed to items including retirement contributions for employees, and residents paying taxes early for the next fiscal year.

Oldroyd said he appreciates Swatzel’s active interest in public service, but he’s concerned the mailer may end up convincing residents against the millage increase, which is the only way the district will be able to afford the additional ambulatory unit.

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Investigative project reporter David Weissman joined The Sun News after three years working at The York Dispatch in Pennsylvania, where he earned awards for his investigative reports on topics including health, business, politics and education.
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