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Lazarus: Horry County tax increase could have been avoided with promised state funding

Community activists are crediting their trust in Horry County Police Chief Saundra Rhodes for hearing mostly support for the 7.2 mills the county council will consider adding to the current tax rate.
Community activists are crediting their trust in Horry County Police Chief Saundra Rhodes for hearing mostly support for the 7.2 mills the county council will consider adding to the current tax rate. MyrtleBeachOnline.com File Photo

Horry County Council is scheduled to vote for the final time Tuesday on a proposed tax increase, with Chairman Mark Lazarus saying the hike might not have been needed if the state restored local government funding that was cut during the recession.

Council will vote on whether to raise property taxes by 7.2 mills, which equals $13.5 million, next fiscal year, to help prevent the county from reaching into its reserves for $8 million to balance the 2016 budget. That budget year starts July 1. The additional funds would also generate money for public safety projects like adding two court security officers, four violent crime detectives, three gang unit detectives; purchasing body cameras; and providing police with digital storage for the cameras.

The increase would also provide two prosecutors for the solicitor’s office, 3 percent pay increases for county employees and 5 percent for Class 1 police officers, new stretchers for the ambulance service, a needed police radar, and help to address call volume issues that the emergency management system has been experiencing.

Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said if the state restored $4 million in funding through a local government funding statute, and if the county lobbied for more accommodations taxes it collects and provides to the state, it wouldn’t be in this situation.

“We’re in such a hole right now, that if we don’t do this, next year we’re going to be faced with an extreme amount of increases in millage in order just to balance the budget … ,” Lazarus said. “It will be a challenge.”

But, at least two area legislators said the county shouldn’t be banking on money from the state because it hasn’t followed the local government funding formula properly since 2008.

The issue

The legislature has not fully funded the Local Government Fund – which helps pay for animal shelters, the coroner’s office, the court system and more – at the statutory amount since 2008. The funding freeze has led to a $15.6 million shortfall in Horry County. A proposed bill would maintain funding with no increases through fiscal year 2017-2018, and is in the state House’s Ways and Means committee.

Lazarus said the state should get the local government funding back on track this year, and it could work with the county to get accommodations taxes in line with actual costs of providing services for locals and tourists by using a projected $400 million surplus the state has.

“I ask our local delegation and I ask the state representatives,” Lazarus said. “Send the counties the local government funding that you agreed to. Send it to us. We wouldn’t have to do this today if we had our local government fund. That’s money that we collected, as citizens and tourists of Horry County, and we sent to the state government. And they can sit on a $400 million surplus, they certainly can send us our $4 million.”

Couple that with the opportunity for additional accommodations taxes, and the county wouldn’t be in this predicament, he said.

“It’s costing the citizens of Horry County to protect the tourists and the citizens, to the tune of about $10 million,” Lazarus said. “Now we’re talking $14 million. Well guess what? $13 million five hundred thousand dollars is what we’re looking at increasing taxes today. If we had that $14 million, we wouldn’t be having this discussion today.”

The legislators

Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Murrells Inlet, said it isn’t as easy as cutting Horry County a check from state coffers.

“I would agree with [Lazarus] if we had cut the funding this year and hadn’t cut the funding in the last [several] years,” Cleary said. “It’s kind of like if my parents promised me $1,000 a year for 25 years and after five years they stop giving it to me, 10 years later, am I still bringing it up?

“Quite honestly, it hasn’t been funded at that level since 2008 when we cut all the agencies back because we had a recession … and we still don’t have as many highway patrol officers today as we had in 2008.”

Cleary said state law enforcement, higher education, primary education, and more funds have taken hits since the late 2000s because of the economic downturn. And Cleary is not too sure his colleagues put funding municipal and county governments as top priorities when it comes to the $400 million surplus.

“Too many council members throw legislators under the bus,” Cleary said. “And we lose motivation to give it to them.”

The will of the majority of the legislature decided not to restore funding to the local government fund, Cleary said, because of how some council members interact with their legislators.

“I learned in middle school that when you’ve got people above you, you try to be nice to them,” Cleary said. “Now Mark Lazarus and I get along very well and I’ve done my best to try and restore funding, but I can’t do it. One of the reasons is they seem to not understand is when they throw leadership, which I am not, under the bus, it removes the motivation for those people to help them.”

Rep. Mike Ryhal, whose District 56 includes Horry County, said he was going to review the proposal more closely this weekend.

“The county’s saying that they’re not getting $4 million, so they want to raise $13.5 million?” Ryhal said. “My first blush at it is if you’re raising four times what you’re being shorted … you’re trying to raise $13, $14 million and you’re blaming it on the local government fund at $3.5 million? Everybody realizes we went through an economic downturn. At that time, the local government fund was short, funds were cut. If we would have continued to fund the local government fund at the levels that we previously had, we would have had to look at all the other agencies in the state and look at a 20 percent cut, or something along those lines.”

Horry County is working on passing a budget that would help get overtime costs, which is one of the references Ryhal made, in order by trimming the amount of paid time off it offers to its employees.

“When I read in the paper that new employees who are hired are getting five weeks off, and then I see duplication of county police and the sheriff’s department, there are a lot of things that can be done to cut costs in the county,” Ryhal said. “I think that they need to do an audit. Where are those areas and where are the duplication of efforts? … Before we go out for a tax increase, I think we need to look at how we can cut costs in the county.

“Before you cry about the $3.5 million, take a look at your costs. Are they in line? Have you eliminated unnecessary benefits and those types of things. The answer is no. They haven’t done that yet.”

Three communities react

Some residents say while they don’t like tax increases, they understand the need for this one to help fund public safety and support it because of their trust in Horry County Police Chief Saundra Rhodes.

“I think they support it as long as it’s going toward hiring more police officers,” said Ed Wilson, a community activist in the Red Bluff area. “You’ve got a lot of killing going on up in that area.”

There have been several killings and high-profile crimes in the last year in north central part of Horry County near Loris.

Carole vanSickler, president of the Carolina Forest Civic Association, said she has not heard a lot from other residents, but those who have said anything speak about the amount of money the county wants.

“They’re surprised at the value of the millage at 7.2 mills,” vanSickler said. “Otherwise, I haven’t heard too much from anybody about it, negative or positive.”

Al Jordan, president of the Greater Burgess Community Association, said he hasn’t heard a lot of discussion about the increase, but what he has heard has been supportive.

“From what I’ve heard, most people seem to support it,” Jordan said. “Nobody wants a tax increase, and we’ve heard that 18 million times. But I do think there is support for Chief Rhodes and the general feeling of confidence in her recommendations.”

The largest part of the increase is directed toward public safety.

“Many people seem to feel it’s time to step up to the plate, bite the bullet and do what you need to do,” Jordan said.

The county has its public hearing and third and final vote on the tax increase at 6 p.m. Tuesday in council chambers.

Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or on Twitter @TSN_JRodriguez.

If you go

WHAT | Horry County Council vote on 2015-16 budget with 7.2-mill tax increase

WHEN | 6 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE | Council chambers, Horry County Government and Justice Center, 1301 Second Ave., Conway

PULL QUOTE OPTIONS

“I think they support it as long as it’s going toward hiring more police officers... I highly support Chief [Saudra] Rhodes, too. She’s doing an excellent job.” Ed Wilson, a community activist in the Red Bluff area.

“... I do think there is support for Chief [Saundra] Rhodes and the general feeling of confidence in her recommendations.” Al Jordan, president of the Greater Burgess Community Association.

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