Police officer and firefighter-paramedic wages figured in the election of a new Horry County Council chairman, Johnny Gardner, and will continue to be an issue for all council members in the coming months.
With the primary election results barely official, the Horry County Council unanimously approved a possible non-binding referendum for the November general election in which voters could be asked if they are willing to pay higher property taxes to improve public safety.
The council has instructed administrator Chris Eldridge to meet with Horry County fire and police chiefs to find out what they feel is needed to adequately meet public safety needs. The referendum, if approved at the July council meeting, will address the issues of public safety funding for personnel, salary figures and building funds for Horry County projects.
In the Republican primary election, Gardner defeated incumbent council chairman Mark Lazarus by a scant margin for the nomination. With no Democratic opposition on the November ballot, Gardner’s primary victory is tantamount to election. That victory was official after an embarrassing, four-day delay in recounting the more than 24,000 votes cast for Gardner and Lazarus. The chairman is elected countywide.
As a political newcomer, Gardner surprised some by successfully challenging an incumbent. Gardner had a good ground game, prevailing by large margins in outlying precincts and attracting enough votes in coastal urban places. Lazarus surely hurt his re-election chances when he walked out of a Burgess Community meeting where public safety workers challenged his position on wages.
Who knows how many votes Lazarus cost himself in an election that was described as his to lose. To his credit, Lazarus gracefully accepted the outcome and will support a smooth change of leadership.
Gardner campaigned on a commitment to making public safety workers’ pay more competitive. Horry County Fire Rescue and law enforcement departments have lower pay scales than the cities of Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach. Other major scandals have impacted the county police department, but the low pay cannot be fixed with better leadership. The Horry County public safety components must be competitive in wages and benefits, as is the case with area municipalities. The Sun News editorially supported improvements in the City of Myrtle Beach public safety wages and the property tax increase necessary to fund them.
Nobody likes a tax increase and elected bodies fully understand that. A majority of taxpayers will support increased taxes when they are convinced of the need. That is a dynamic illustrated by the approval of the three RIDE retail sales taxes that have financed significant new area highways, including S.C. 22 and S.C. 31. The dynamic also may be driving the November referendum. The motion was from Tyler Servant, who as a councilman has never voted for a tax increase.
He said public safety is a core mission of government and a tax increase may be justified if the people believe it to be necessary. The fact is, a millage increase may be necessary, period. Gardner, who will take office in January, also said he’s not ruling out a tax increase. “The short answer is ‘no, no tax increase,’ the long answer is ‘never say never.’ ”
While that’s a better answer than the ridiculous pledge made by some elected people to not vote for any tax increase no matter what, county council members, and Gardner, should not count on popular opposition to taxes freeing them of their responsibilities for properly financed public safety departments.
A lifelong Horry County resident, Gardner is a graduate of Coastal Carolina University and the University of South Carolina Law School. He’s been a Conway attorney for 20 years and served as an Army officer in the 82nd Airborne Division. Being a council newcomer certainly doesn’t have to be a drawback. “This is a big county, and a lot of diverse interest. We’re going to make sure that the council’s decisions are in the best interest of the entire county.”