The Horry County Council approved a $739 million budget this week for the coming fiscal year that includes tax and fee increases, funding for more police officers and emergency responders, and money for major road projects.

The budget passed with an 8-3 vote, with council chairman Johnny Gardner and council members Al Allen and Harold Worley voting against it. Council member Tyler Servant didn’t attend this week’s meeting. The county’s next fiscal year begins July 1 and runs through June 30, 2022.

The county’s budget this year is significant because, after months of uncertainty, the county emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic with funding surpluses, new revenues it can use to mount a full recovery and respond to the continued growth of the Independent Republic.

The $738 million budget breaks down into $206 million in the general fund, used for day-to-day operations and county employee salaries; $199 million for capital projects like new infrastructure and equipment; $176 million in a special revenue fund that helps pay for the Horry-Georgetown Technical College, recreation programs around the county and certain road projects; $68 million for the airports; $47 million for the Solid Waste Authority; and $44 million to pay of debts accrued from past infrastructure projects.

The tax and fee hikes included in the budget are a 7.6 millage increase and a $45 increase in the county’s annual stormwater fee — raising it from $44.40 to $89.40. The increase to the stormwater fee would raise $10.5 million next year, and $8 million annually in following years for flooding mitigation and other stormwater projects. The millage increase is split up among the waste management fund, the fire fund and the general fund and will help pay for waste hauling and convenience centers and additional public safety equipment and personnel.

For a county resident living in a $200,000 home, the total tax and fee increases amount to $105.80 added to their tax bills per year. For non-residents, the increases amount to $136.20 more on their tax bills.

The tax increases break down like this:

  • A 3.4 mill increase in property taxes would pay for increased public safety services. That increase is expected to raise an additional $7.3 million and would mean an extra $27.20 charge on a home valued at $200,000. County leaders plan to spend that additional money on 78 new public safety positions including 21 emergency responders, 18 fire fighters, 15 police officers and 10 operators for the 911 service.

  • A 3 mill increase in property taxes would pay for garbage hauling, convenience centers and other waste management needs. That increase is expected to raise an additional $18.2 million and would mean an additional $24 charge on a home valued at $200,000.

  • A 1.2 mill increase in property taxes would pay for staff at the new fire station in the Longs area. That increase is expected to raise an additional $2 million and would allow the county to hire 12 firefighters and seven emergency responders to work out of that new station, which is currently under construction. On a $200,000 home, that increase means residents would pay an additional $9.20.

  • The $45 increase in stormwater fees would pay for 36 new positions in the stormwater department and buy new equipment to help mitigate flood hazards around the county. That money would also pay for more mosquito spraying, flood mitigation studies, oversight of minor subdivisions and more.

New pots of money

In addition to tax increases, next year’s budget includes other new pots of money that don’t require tax or fee increases.

For one, the county is again able to collect and spend the hospitality fee, a sales tax charge on hotel stays, event tickets and restaurant meals. That money was tied up due to a lawsuit from Myrtle Beach, which disputed how the county was collecting and spending that tax several years ago. Now, the county has $23 million one-time funds it can spend (money that was collected via the hospitality fee but unable to be spent because the lawsuit froze that spending) as well as $3 million left over from this year’s budget. The county plans to spend that money on equipment, small capital projects and providing required matching funds for federal grants.

The county also has access again to about $15 million a year in recurring money from the hospitality fee, which it plans to split into thirds. One-third of the funding will go to road projects, another third will hire 65 new public safety employees, including 30 firefighters and 15 police officers and the final third will be used to borrow and pay back a debt of about $147 million to build several new roads, including:

  • An interchange on Highway 31 that would connect Augusta Plantation Drive to Revolutionary War Way in Carolina Forest, providing access in and out of the middle of the area. That project is expected to cost $75 million.
  • Improvements to Atlantic Avenue and Waccamaw Drive, expected to cost $46 million.
  • Phase one of the rural civic center, expected to cost $25 million.
  • Improvements to the Little River waterfront, expected to cost $7.8 million.
  • A new recreation center, expected to cost $7.4 million.

Money from that hospitality-fee-backed debt could also go towards improving the James Frazier Community Center, recreation programs in the Socastee area and intersection improvements around the county.

The county is also set to receive about $69 million total from the American Rescue Plan, relief money to recover from the coronavirus pandemic. It’s not yet clear what the county will spend that money on. Assistant County Administrator Barry Spivey said in May that the county was waiting on guidance from federal officials before making a spending plan for the funds.

The County Council is also nearing a final vote on impact fees, a one-time charge on new home, hotel and business construction to help pay for infrastructure needs. Council is set for a final vote on those fees — which would add thousands to the cost of a new home or building — in mid-July. Council members are still debating how much the fees will ultimately be.

Those funds will be highly-restricted in what the county can spend them on, but projects like new roads, fire stations and parks can be funded with impact fees.

Ahead of a final vote on the budget this week, Worley raised concerns about the county raising taxes when it had other sources of income available to it, including the hospitality fee funds and federal funds. Worley said it was irresponsible for the county to raise taxes when it could pay for the projects and employees it needed with existing money. Other council members said that wasn’t true, in part because the county was in need of more public safety employees and in part because those sources of revenue were restricted in their use. Impact and hospitality fees, for example, can only be spent in specific ways, for example.

Ultimately, Worley’s fellow council members passed the budget without his support.

Dozens of new employees and a new pay scale

Much of the new money raised by Horry County via the tax and fee increases will go to hiring dozens of new county employees to help county agencies provide increased and faster services. In total, via grants, new money raised, and other pots of money, the county will hire 284 new positions over the coming years. That total includes 195 public safety employees with 110 fire fighters, 43 police officers, 20 9-1-1 call takers, eight correctional officers, eight court security officers and four deputy coroners.

Also included in that total are 40 new employees for the stormwater department, to help with flooding mitigation and other stormwater management projects, 10 new employees in the public works department to work on roads, 12 maintenance workers, seven new employees in code enforcement and six new workers to help with beach and street cleanup. The county will also hire 11 other positions in various administrative roles.

Next year’s budget also includes a new system of raises for county employees. In the past, the county has used a formula, based on employee performance, to determine whether employees should receive raises between 1% and 5% each year. Ultimately, that system produced average salary increases of 2% to 3% across the board and County Council members have said it wasn’t a perfect system. The new system matches raises to how much a person earns.

Under the new scale, employees earning $30,000 or less will receive a 5% raise; employees earning between $30,000 and $40,000 will receive a 4.17% raise; employees earning between $40,000 and $80,000 will receive a 2.5% raise and employees earning $80,000 or more will receive a 1.67% raise.

The new system also provides a method for the county to raise base pay for employees. For example, if county position pays $35,000 a year and is eligible for the 5% raise, or $1,750, the base pay for that job will increase by $875.

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J. Dale Shoemaker covers Horry County government with a focus on government transparency, data and how the county government serves residents. A 2016 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he previously covered Pittsburgh city government for the nonprofit news outlet PublicSource and worked on the Data & Investigations team at nj.com in New Jersey. A recipient of several local and statewide awards, both the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania and the Society of Professional Journalists, Keystone State chapter, recognized him in 2019 for his investigation into a problematic Pittsburgh Police technology contractor, a series that lead the Pittsburgh City Council to enact a new transparency law for city contracting. You can share tips with Dale at dshoemaker@thesunnews.com.





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