How Horry County plans to hire 30 new firefighters despite hospitality fee setback

Horry County will be able to hire 30 new firefighters thanks to a grant from the federal government.

County Council voted unanimously to accept the grant through the consent agenda. Council Members Tyler Servant and Dennis DiSabato were not at the meeting.

“It helps us get more people in the department. … It’s a good thing for Horry County,” Chairman Johnny Gardner said. “We hope we will be able to work out more details with money we anticipate getting in from the hospitality fee and things like that.”

While the grant will help pay for the first year’s salary of 30 new firefighters, Horry County will have to contribute $2.2 million from the fire fund instead of pulling money from the hospitality fee — which is hung up in an ongoing lawsuit between the county and municipalities — as it initially decided.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded the county a $3.6 million grant to help hire, onboard and pay new members of the Horry County Fire Rescue Department.

The Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant is one way FEMA helps local governments improve public safety.

By accepting this grant, Horry County Fire Rescue will be able to have three public safety officials on every fire truck. Officials are hopeful the grant will increase personal safety of firefighters, increase fire coverage and reduce the amount of times two trucks have to respond to one call.

“It’s going to make us more efficient, make us better and it’ll make dollars go a lot longer by saving our equipment,” Horry County Fire Spokesperson Anthony Casey said. “We’re ecstatic. It’s a shot in the arm.”

The federal government pays 75 percent of the costs of hiring the firefighters for the first two years. Then 25 percent in the third year, then on the fourth year Horry County is expected to pay for their entire salaries. During those three years, Horry County cannot layoff firefighters.

After the grant has expired, Horry County can decide how it will adjust its staffing levels.

Horry County also approved changing where its share of the money to pay for the new firefighters will come from due to hospitality fee lawsuit.

The council initially chose to use hospitality fee money after concerns from some members that accepting the SAFER grant would force a tax increase to keep the new firefighters.

Earlier this year Myrtle Beach sued Horry County over the collection of a 1.5 percent hospitality fee. Over the summer, a judge ruled Horry County could not collect the fee within municipal borders while the lawsuit is ongoing.

With the hospitality monies unavailable, Horry County will dip into the fire fund. According to county documents, the fund can handle the increased spending for the grant without any major changes to current operations.

If hospitality fee funding returns during the grant’s life cycle, council agreed to reimburse the fire fund with the money.

“We’re still hoping to reach an agreement, but the appeal is up in the (SC) Supreme Court. We don’t know when they will hear it or what they will do with it, but meanwhile we’re still hoping to find an agreement,” Gardner said.

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Development and Horry County reporter Tyler Fleming joined The Sun News in May of 2018. He covers other stuff too, like reporting on beer, bears, breaking news and Coastal Carolina University. He graduated from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2018 and was the 2017-18 editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. He has won (and lost) several college journalism awards.