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Horry County Councilman Al Allen (center) makes a point as he questions Horry County Administrator Chris Eldridge on Tuesday. The council split a decision to fire Eldridge, but pay him for six more months in addition to health benefits. A tie vote counts as a defeat so Eldridge is still the administrator. His contract expires in April with an automatic one-year renewal. Al Allen, county commissioner, said Eldridge makes more than $211,000 annually with a $10,000 a year car allowance. Photo by Janet Morgan/janet.morgan@myhorrynews.com

Horry County Council plans to ask the S.C. Department of Transportation to put off any work on I-73 until county officials know they will have the funding to fulfill a contract with the state agency.

The only question is how long the delay will last.

County officials signed the agreement with the DOT in December. The contract called for eventually spending as much as $25 million per year on road work, including the county’s portion of the proposed interstate. But the funding source for that construction is the subject of a legal dispute between the county and local municipalities, and council members are unsure how the courts will rule.

“Who knows?” councilman Al Allen asked. “Nobody knows. That’s the song I’ve been singing. … Horry County does not need to be in any binding contract.”

The DOT contract states that county officials have until June 30 to approve DOT’s proposed work plan, but county council members are considering asking the DOT to give them until at least October to make that decision.

The work plan proposed by the DOT covers $12.4 million worth of projects, including road design and right-of-way acquisitions for I-73. The plan also calls for 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 flood conditions.  

If approved, the projects would be completed over the next year.

But Allen wants county council to either delay approving the work plan until January or scrap it altogether.

“It would give the county much more options, breathing room,” he said. “The sad thing is nobody can assure us how much of the 1.5 percent [hospitality fee] we’re going to get. … I want to protect Horry County. You’re talking about 12 and a half million dollars.”

Council members on Tuesday will discuss delaying the work until Oct. 1, said councilman Johnny Vaught, who said the extension should give the council more time to find out the status of the hospitality fee collections.

The 1.5 percent hospitality fee that is collected on all prepared foods, hotel admissions and attraction tickets sold countywide.

The fee was originally created by a county ordinance in 1996 to help pay for major infrastructure projects, including S.C. 31 and S.C. 22. When the debt on those projects was paid off, county officials planned to use the hospitality revenues to cover the county’s portion of I-73 and to help improve public safety services such as the police and fire departments.

But earlier this year, the cities of Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach decided they wanted to dismantle the hospitality tax structure and not share fee revenues with the county.

Myrtle Beach officials sued the county, calling the county’s collection of hospitality fees inside the city “illegal.”

During a hearing last week, the county’s attorney Henrietta Golding argued that the Grand Strand’s municipalities should not be allowed to overhaul the hospitality fee system that has been in place for more than 20 years. The cities' changes are scheduled to take effect July 1.

County officials have asked the court to stop the cities from changing the fee structure while the lawsuit is pending. 

A decision from Judge William Seals is expected in the coming weeks.

Contact Charles D. Perry at 843-488-7236

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I'm the editor of myhorrynews.com and the Carolina Forest Chronicle, a weekly newspaper in Horry County, South Carolina. I cover county government, the justice system and agriculture. Know of a story that needs to be covered? Call me at 843-488-7236.

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