Horry County Council won’t commit to raising taxes just yet.
But they aren’t sure if any of their other suggestions for balancing this year’s budget (and next year’s) will be feasible. For more than three hours Wednesday, council members hashed out ideas ranging from charging nonprofits for fire protection to privatizing recreation services. No votes were taken, but council members stressed that they need to research more cost-saving or revenue-enhancing ideas rather than automatically resorting to a tax hike.
“We’ve still got time,” councilman Johnny Vaught said. “And we need to take that time and consider all of our options. That’s the main thing.”
The $524 million spending plan council members voted on last month doesn’t include any tax increases, but it offers minimal public safety enhancements and would force the county to make deep cuts to recreation programs, including possibly closing the Carolina Forest Recreation Center. That budget would also use all of the reserves from the waste management fund that pays for the 24 convenience sites where residents dispose of trash and recyclables.
Council members have considered approving two tax hikes to shore up the recreation and waste management accounts and provide for some additional facilities.
The proposed increases would not impact all residents equally.
All Horry property owners pay the recreation tax.If county leaders raise taxes for these services, the proposed hike would amount to about $27 more per year on an owner-occupied home worth $200,000.
Along with covering operations and paying for repairs to ballfields and gyms, the increase would cover two long promised recreation centers in the western part of the county.
The proposed hike for waste management would only affect residents who live outside city limits. That increase would amount to about $24 on an owner-occupied home worth $200,000.
Although those are two options, council members spent Wednesday discussing other possibilities.
Councilman Tyler Servant wants the county to obtain proposals from private companies for managing the county’s recreation programs and facilities.
“You’re backing into a tax increase,” he said, adding that he won’t support a tax hike for recreation without first studying privatization. “It’s a shame if we don’t explore all options.”
Some council members questioned how providing recreation services would be profitable for a business. They also said the process would take more time than they have available. The budget must pass two more votes before it’s approved and the deadline for approval is June 30. After this fiscal year, the recreation fund will be in the red.
“That’s easy to say,” council chairman Johnny Gardner said of Servant’s idea. “But it’s hard to work through this stuff.”
Council members looked at possibly approving smaller increases for waste management and recreation. They said they could raise taxes just enough to sustain operations without including additional money for long-term maintenance or new facilities.
The smaller hike would be about $8 more per year for an owner-occupied home worth $200,000 for recreation and another $8 extra for waste management.
Apart from property tax increases, county officials are examining other ways to boost revenues, including a five-cent increase in the building permit fee or charging $100 for an additional code enforcement inspection.
One idea that generated some debate was charging a fee to nonprofits for fire service. State law doesn’t allow counties to collect property taxes from nonprofits, but there is an exemption for fire districts like the one that covers unincorporated Horry. The provision allows the county to charge a fee that would be equivalent to the taxes collected on the property.
Barry Spivey, the county’s interim assistant administrator, said the county has lost tax revenue as nonprofit healthcare companies have bought up for-profit practices. The county could add about $600,000 to the coffers of its fire district by charging the fee to nonprofits. However, Spivey stressed that opening this door would mean charging all types of nonprofits, including churches.
Some officials balked at that idea, though it resonated with others.
“I’m just as religious as anybody up here is,” Vaught said. “But still, if you’re going to send fire protection out there to a church, why should they be any different? You’re trying to save their building from burning down.”
Councilman Paul Prince disagreed, saying he didn’t want to add a burden to nonprofit groups.
“A lot of the churches help every way they can,” he said. “It helps the government also. I think we’ve got to be very careful.”
County staff said they will take the ideas from council members and incorporate them in the next budget. However, they cautioned that the process will not be easy.
“We’re facing a lot of tough choices and decisions that must be made one way or the other,” Spivey said. “There’s no perfect answer.”