Horry County Council won’t abandon its I-73 contract yet.
But the window for salvaging the deal continues to narrow.
Council members on Tuesday again voted to put off making any changes to their agreement with the S.C. Department of Transportation (DOT). The contract calls for spending up to $25 million for the county’s portion of I-73, a proposed interstate that would link the county with I-95.
“Council will not approve any funding on it until we get this whole thing worked out,” councilman Al Allen said.
The problem with the contract is the funding source that county officials want to use to pay for the road work. When the agreement was signed in December, council members had planned to pay for the DOT projects with the more than $40 million in hospitality fee revenues they projected they would receive each year.
The 1.5 percent fee is collected on all prepared foods, hotel admissions and attraction tickets sold countywide.
But the county’s plans changed earlier this year when the cities of Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach decided they wanted to dismantle the hospitality tax structure that has been in place for more than 20 years.
Myrtle Beach officials even sued the county, calling the county’s collection of hospitality fees inside the city “illegal.”
The dispute has led to a back and forth between the cities and the county over the fee. Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach officials agreed to negotiate a deal with the county, but only if those conversations took place behind closed doors and all parties agreed to keep the discussions confidential. County officials panned that idea, blasting city leaders for their lack of transparency.
County officials then proposed a specific plan for dividing the tax revenues, but Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach rejected the offer.
Timing is critical for the county. Last month, DOT officials submitted a work plan for I-73. Before state officials can begin those projects, county council must approve their plan. The deadline for that approval is June 30.
The projects include road design and right-of-way acquisitions. The work would also cover a $410,000 study of S.C. 22, which flooded after Hurricane Florence. The study would look at the cost of raising the road above the flood conditions.
So far, the DOT has presented just over $12.4 million worth of projects to the county. If approved, they would be completed over the next year.
Amid concerns about funding, county officials had discussed either terminating or amending the DOT contract, but on Tuesday a group of Myrtle Beach tourism leaders urged them to continue trying to negotiate with the cities.
“We want you to give it some time,” said hotelier Matthew Brittain. “Things don’t look great right now, but it’s too early to cut and run.”
Steve Chapman, another hotel owner, concurred.
“I’ve heard the dialogue between the county and the cities and it hasn’t been pretty lately,” he said. “But I just have faith in you guys and the municipality mayors and council members that we’re going to find a way to work this out. This is too important an instrument for our county.”
After the hoteliers made their pleas to council, councilman Harold Worley encouraged them to help county officials persuade Myrtle Beach leaders to work with the county on a resolution to the inter-governmental sparring.
“I don’t get it,” he said. “You folks down there that really run the city, the business community especially and the tourism base, you need to get ahold of what’s going on politically.”
Worley blamed the bad blood between the county and Myrtle Beach on a lawsuit that the county and school district filed against the city last year. That case focused on the city’s redevelopment plans for the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. County and school officials have argued that the city’s plans for financing those improvements would hurt the county and school district by withholding millions from those governments.
Worley supports the county’s position in that lawsuit and contends Myrtle Beach leaders are pursuing the hospitality tax fight because of it.
“The majority of council members support I-73,” he said of the county’s leadership. “We don’t like being held hostage.”
As part of Tuesday’s vote, council members agreed to continue fighting the cities in court. Some said they were unsure if they even should consider changing the DOT contract.
“There’s pending litigation,” councilman Dennis DiSabato said. “I don’t know that anything can be done with that contract until this litigation’s resolved anyway.”