It’s Your Money: Horry County faces ‘a lot of dollars in limbo’ going into budget retreat

It's Your Money: Horry County Budget

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Horry County leaders will discuss how to allocate more $176 million in the general fund at their annual Spring Budget Retreat this week.

The county faces pressure to increase public safety funding and a deficit in its parks and recreation department.

Amid deciding on a budget for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the county is working through additional challenges that could impact future funding plans.

“We’re going into a budget retreat with a lot of dollars in limbo that we don’t know are these dollars going to be coming in or are they not going to be coming in,” Horry County council member Johnny Vaught said.

Vaught is referring to more than $40 million budgeted to be collected from the 1.5% countywide hospitality fee.

For more than two decades, this fee has been collected inside city-limits to fund road projects throughout Horry County.

Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach have all decided to stop allowing the county to collect this fee, a move that will effectively cut the county’s budget by millions.

Future revenue from the fee was planned to be used to fund I-73 and council members had discussed using it to fund public safety.

Myrtle Beach has also filed a lawsuit against Horry County claiming the county has improperly collected the fee from cities since 2017 when a resolution ended.

Vaught said the lawsuit is overshadowing discussions on the budget.

The county is still trying to work out an agreement with the cities that will satisfy everyone.

On top of this, the county administrator and assistant administrator’s positions will be vacant, two positions that Vaught said are key to the budget.

Council members have started negotiations to put together a termination package for County Administrator Christ Eldridge, according to emails. Assistant administrator Justin Powell announced he was leaving for a job in the Department of Transportation. Vaught said both Eldridge and Powell will stay on until May when the budget is approved.

“I’m on my fifth budget retreat this year and I can’t recall having so many issues on at one time,” Vaught said.

Here’s a look at some of the top issues:

PUBLIC SAFETY

“The public safety people are wanting raises and we’d like to give them raises and that kind of thing. We need more boots on the ground as far as policeman and fireman. All of these things cost money and that’s what a budget retreat is all about," Vaught said.

The county police department is requesting 16 patrol officers and 15 other personnel. It currently has 256 budgeted positions. In 2010, the department had nine more budgeted positions, according to budget documents.

The fire department is also requesting nine new positions.

The public safety department’s requests for equipment and personnel total more than $6.8 million.

The county’s considering applying for a FEMA grant that will add 30 new firefighters but also requires a millage increase down the road.

In the past, Horry County has struggled to keep public safety salaries in line with surrounding departments.

At the budget retreat, the council will review a compensation study that could change how raises are awarded.

The study examined the possibility of paying public safety employees based on time served, rank and cost of living. Currently, raises are based on merit.

One of the biggest projects funded next year will be the construction of the Emergency Operation Center.

The county is projected to spend $23.6 million on the facility.

The new facility will be built across from the J. Ruben Long Detention Center.

“I’m looking forward to a facility that will give us sustainability for the long-term and take care of everyone that’s there," Horry County Emergency Management Director Randy Webster said in September.

There’s also funding budgeted for two new fire facility additions in Socastee and Goretown.

PARKS AND RECREATION DEPARTMENT

At the fall budget retreat, council members expressed the need to generate more funding for recreation.

Leaders said there would be at $400,000 deficit for recreational funding by the end of this fiscal year if nothing was done. Many of the options discussed to increase the budget involved a millage increase for property taxes.

“We increased some fees but that still hasn’t absorbed enough for what the cost is just running these facilities. So, council has a hard decision to make to look at. You know, do you reduce the services we’re providing? Do you raise taxes or, you know, what do we do to balance that budget?” Former Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus said in November.

A month later the county cut the deficit in half by reallocating money originally set aside to construct a library in Myrtle Beach.

However, a deficit still exists.

Vaught said the county is hoping to fix this but focusing on attracting more sports tourism to the area.

“The more sports tourism we can attract, the better off our recreation funding will be. I think that’s a market we haven’t really tapped,” he said.

Vaught said this shift might allow the county to allocate more hospitality fee money to the recreation department.

OTHER EMPLOYEE MATTERS

The communications department is also slated to add five new positions to the department that currently has only two employees.

Vaught said there will also be discussions on employee benefit packages and specifically retirement plans.

The budget shows expenses from personal services will increase by 3% due to “increases in workers compensation, health insurance, retirement and tort liability.”

“It’s going to be a really tough budget year,” Vaught said.

The budget retreat will take place April 5 and 6 in Conway. The public is welcome to attend and listen on these discussions.

After the retreat, the budget will be discussed and vetted in different committees.

County council will approve the final budget in May.

Copyright 2019 WMBF. All rights reserved.