Horry County Council left the most pressing questions about the county’s finances unanswered after an all-day budget retreat Friday.
Council members voted in favor of a $524 million spending plan that includes no tax increases, but the budget also lacks the money needed to sustain the county’s recreation programs. After years of ignored requests for additional funding, county staff suggested closing the Carolina Forest Recreation Center to help balance the recreation budget. They also recommended severe cuts to youth programs and senior services.
“That’s finally come home to roost,” county administrator Chris Eldridge told the council of the recreation account.
Council members also heard requests for additional public safety personnel and a tax hike to sustain the county’s 24 waste management centers. Although council members must vote in favor of the budget two more times before it’s approved, their plan doesn’t include specific cuts, tax hikes or other solutions to some of the county’s financial challenges.
“I know we’ve gotten hit with a lot of ‘It’ll take this tax increase to do this and this tax increase to do that,’” said councilman Gary Loftus, who stressed that the county must find ways to manage limited resources. “I would challenge staff, rather than giving us a millage increase, give us some interesting and different ways of perhaps funding these things.”
The recreation problem is not new.
For years, county officials have known they could not continue building recreation centers and adding programs without eventually confronting the financial reality of those expenses.
That reckoning happens this year.
“There’s not a lot of good news,” said Steve Gosnell, the assistant county administrator over infrastructure and regulation.
Some of the struggles are self-inflicted. In 2011, Horry County leaders shifted some tax money out of the recreation account to increase funding to Coast RTA, the public bus service, and the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp. (EDC), the county’s industry recruitment arm. County officials did move some of the debt payments out of the recreation account to offset the impact, but they never restored the recreation tax rate to its previous level.
So where will the county’s recreation program go?
The money for recreation comes from a countywide tax. County officials have not proposed raising taxes, meaning there could be severe program cuts.
On the chopping block? The Carolina Forest Recreation Center. The county spends nearly $900,000 each year operating the facility, which brings in just $275,000 in revenue. With the proximity of other recreation facilities — the YMCA and Pepper Geddings in Myrtle Beach and Carolina Forest Community Church less than two miles away — there are certainly other options.
However, there’s not a strong appetite on council to shut down a building that just opened in 2012. In recent weeks, they have even been looking at ways to build a $5 million path that would run beside the center.
“What we’re going to do is try and identify sources of revenue that can help stave off the closing of facilities and cutting of services in the parks and rec department,” said councilman Dennis DiSabato, who represents Carolina Forest. “I can’t tell you that there will be a millage increase, but I do think that we’ll be able to identify resources for funding it on some level.”
When asked about possible sources, he pointed to the EDC.
“I wouldn’t be opposed, personally, to moving the EDC budget to parks and rec,” he said. “My first avenue to fund parks and rec would be to find available funding that’s somewhere else in the budget that can be eliminated and moved to parks and rec before looking at a millage increase.”
Not all council members seemed enthusiastic about cutting the EDC, which receives more than $1 million in public money each year. Loftus said he would be willing to provide his peers with a detailed breakdown of the agency's economic impact on the area.
Regardless of what happens with the EDC, closing the recreation center wouldn’t solve the county’s long-term recreation maintenance issues or be enough to offset the projected shortfall. County officials have said they might need to close up to one-third of the county’s facilities and programs to operate under existing revenues.
That would mean closing 46 facilities, 22 fields, seven boat landings and seven parks. The county would also lay off six full-time workers, 31 part-time employees and cut all senior and outdoor programs. Ballparks and facilities from the North Strand to Green Sea would be impacted.
Council members from western Horry voiced frustration over the lack of recreation centers in their communities. The county approved two facilities for that region in 2005 and since then three rec centers have been built in the coastal region.
“There’s no way to get to our wonderful beaches along the Grand Strand unless you come through rural Horry County,” said councilman Al Allen, who represents the Aynor area. “Horry County is one county.”
Council members discussed potential tax increases for operations and facility maintenance. Those hikes could repair bleachers and soccer goals and fill five vacant positions. They could also help pay for ballfield lights.
And should county leaders build the rec centers the western part of the county has wanted for more than a decade, that price tag is nearly $1.4 million each year for debt and operations per center.
If the county approves tax hikes for all of those expenses, including building two rec centers, the change would amount to about $27 more per year on an owner-occupied home worth $200,000.
That hike would impact all county residents, including those who live in cities like Myrtle Beach and Conway. The county provides each city with some of this funding for municipal recreation departments.
Waste management woes
Waste management is the second major problem facing the council, and it will become even more dire next year.
The issue is the county fund that pays for 24 convenience centers where residents of the unincorporated areas can deposit trash and recyclables.
The money for those centers comes from a tax collected in the unincorporated areas of the county. Unlike the recreation fee, city residents do not pay this tax (they pay municipal fees). These county taxes have not increased since 2005, although both the volume of waste and operational costs have continued to rise.
The county has been using reserve money to balance this account, which has a recurring shortfall of over $1.2 million.
County officials said they can manage the account this year without any impact on services, but there will be no reserves next year to make up for the shortfall.
“You’d be where you are next year where you are with recreation this year,” Gosnell said. “You’d be forced to do something revenue-wise or cut.”
County staff recommended a tax hike to shore up this fund. That annual increase would amount to about $24 on an owner-occupied home worth $200,000.