Nearly every Grand Strand government wants to settle the lawsuit over Horry County’s hospitality fee, but one city’s leaders still have questions about the deal.
Loris City Council opted not to vote on the agreement during a meeting last week. The city’s support is important because county officials have said each Grand Strand municipality needs to approve the agreement before it can be finalized.
“What I did was put it in the hands of our attorney to go get answers to those questions,” said Loris Mayor Todd Harrelson, who said the council will revisit the settlement this week. The town is scheduled to discuss the issue behind closed doors during its meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, according to the council agenda. Harrelson declined to provide specifics about what city officials want to know. He did say the agreement is different than the one Loris officials refused to even consider last year.
“The first go-round it was completely different than it is right now,” Harrelson said. “I-73 really is all it was about at that point. It’s about a little bit more than that now. … It’s a little more interesting."
Neither Horry County officials nor any leaders from local municipalities have been willing to publicly discuss the terms of the settlement, outside of saying that it does not include funding for I-73, a proposed interstate that would connect the Grand Strand with I-95.
The hospitality fee is a 1.5% levy that was collected on all restaurant meals, hotel stays and admission tickets sold countywide from the 1990s until a judge forced the county to stop collecting the fee last year.
The lawsuit stemmed from Myrtle Beach leaders aligning with other Horry County municipalities to stop the county from collecting the fee within their boundaries. It has wound its way through several courts, appeal processes, mediation and finally the state Supreme Court on Aug. 19. The state's highest court has not ruled on the case yet.
Since the lawsuit was filed last year, the county has been barred from collecting the fee within the municipalities.
But in recent weeks, the cities and the county have come closer to settling the dispute.
The Surfside Beach, Atlantic Beach and Conway councils met Friday and each agreed to the settlement. The Myrtle Beach City Council and Horry County Council agreed on the settlement on Aug. 18. Aynor signed on Aug. 25.
North Myrtle Beach City Council approved the deal on Monday.
North Myrtle Beach Mayor Marilyn Hatley declined to offer details on what’s in the agreement.
“I would really would like not to make any more comments because it’s still a judge’s decision, and there still may be going to court over it, and so I’d just rather wait until we hear it from the county and the city of Myrtle Beach and let the judge make a decision,” Hatley said.
But, she said, “There’s no tax increase.”
The settlement must also be approved by the court. Officials have said it would be made public then.
“It could be tentatively the 16th of September,” Surfside Mayor Bob Hellyer said of when the settlement agreement will be public. “That’s what I’ve been told anyway. I don’t really know. That’s just what I’ve been told.”
The county used hospitality fee revenues to pay for road projects such as S.C. 22 and S.C. 31.
But, as Myrtle Beach officials pointed out last year, the road projects have been paid off yet the county was still collecting the fees without any municipalities’ approval.
At one time, the money had been earmarked to help build I-73, but the county announced it also wanted to use the money to pay for public safety in county-only areas.
During the back and forth between the county and municipal leaders, each maintained their support for I-73. Myrtle Beach has since created its own 1% hospitality fee to continue collection that stays in the city’s pockets rather than being sent to the county to divvy up.
Although the terms of the settlement haven’t been released, county officials have said part of the contention is what to do with the $19 million collected in hospitality fees between the time the roads were paid off and the judge’s ruling that the county had to stop collecting the fee within municipal limits.
The courts have been charged with deciding what to do with the $19 million and that answer is expected to be in the settlement.
Although not every city has approved the deal, Horry County Chairman Johnny Gardner remains optimistic about securing all the cities’ support. When the two sides were close to a settlement last year, the deal fell apart because county council made two last-minute changes and Loris and Conway leaders wouldn’t vote on it.
“I haven’t heard any negatives about anything,” Gardner said of the latest discussions. “All those concerns have been taken out of it. So heck, man, it looks like everybody’s getting what they asked for.”
Harrelson, the Loris mayor, said he doesn’t know how his city’s leaders will vote when they take up the matter again. He emphasized that they want a clear explanation before agreeing to anything.
“A lot of times when lawyers write things … they get paid to interpret what they write,” he said. “Regular people like me, sometimes we need an explanation. … You just want to make sure that you know what it’s exactly saying before you sign it.”