Horry County’s public safety departments need more than $10 million in additional staff, equipment, raises and facilities so officials can maintain services for a rapidly growing population, according to county projections.
County staff relayed that message last month during county council’s budget retreat, and those calls will only grow louder in the coming months as council members hammer out their spending plan for the next fiscal year.
“We can’t continue the same level of service if we continue to deal with more growth,” said Randy Webster, the county’s assistant administrator over public safety. “Every single day it impacts us in a negative way. … We’re actually going backwards.”
County staff expect Horry’s population to skyrocket by more than 275,000 over the next 20 years. That means more neighborhoods to police and more calls for service.
This year’s budget requests include 20 additional patrol officers for the police department, 20 dispatchers for the 911 center and 21 corrections officers for the jail, as well as a crime analyst, a narcotics death investigator, a deputy coroner, a pathologist, and more than 20 other public safety positions.
Although the county can pay for some of those needs from other funding sources, most of the expenses, nearly $9.4 million, would impact the county’s general fund, which comes from property taxes.
Most of the proposed expenses are also unfunded, meaning the council would likely have to either raise taxes or pull the money from other sources to pay for them.
County officials have suggested creating a dedicated tax for public safety services, but their recent discussions have focused on using hospitality fee money for some department enhancements.
The 1.5% hospitality fee is collected on hotel stays, restaurant meals and admission tickets sold in the unincorporated areas. The fee was collected countywide until the city of Myrtle Beach sued the county last year. City officials didn’t want the county using money collected in the city limits to pay for county services. So far, the cities have prevailed in court. The two sides could not reach a settlement last month and the S.C. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case.
County officials have said they can’t plan on using hospitality fee money with the litigation pending, though they hope that resource will eventually be available.
Public safety was also emphasized in last year’s county budget, which topped half a billion dollars and included raises for all county workers. County leaders approved additional compensation for public safety employees. A tax hike and increased business license fees were part of the budget as well.
Horry County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner touted the public safety improvements during his “State of the County” address Tuesday night.
“We made that a priority,” he said. “We’ve done a pretty good job. We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but I think we’ve made a lot of headway in a short period of time.”
When asked about the additional public safety needs, Gardner said county officials will look closely at those funding requests.
“We’re going to try to address all of them,” he said. “If we would settle the hospitality fee lawsuit, that number was almost identical to the number that you were mentioning for what the budget needed. So if we could put those together it would be such a win for the citizens of Horry County.”
Under the proposed settlement that fell apart last month, Horry County was projected to receive $8.5 million per year in hospitality fee revenues, according to county estimates.
Public safety officials stressed that their requests are not a wish list. Webster noted that the 20 dispatchers would help an already strained 911 center.
“This is just to keep from totally wearing out the folks that we have who are really going at it 12 hours at a time," he said.
The budget requests also include more than $420,000 for a pathologist and an assistant. County leaders said the pathologist who has long provided autopsies for the public safety department is preparing to retire and they would rather hire someone to do that work in-house instead of contracting the service out to the Medical University of South Carolina.
“The ability to do autopsies is starting to be a challenge locally,” Webster said.
Despite the steep price tag, Webster said the county shouldn't delay funding these priorities.
“Some of these numbers … are a little bit astronomical,” he said. “I know that, but it’s to meet our needs.”