Horry County residents will soon pay higher property taxes.
County council on Tuesday approved tax and fee hikes that will raise the bill of an owner-occupied $200,000 home by $105.80 in most of the unincorporated areas. Inside the city limits, the owner of a $200,000 home would pay $20 more per year (those residents pay separate city taxes).
“If we don’t raise taxes, we’re not going to be able to maintain the services that we need to do,” councilman Bill Howard said. “I know that some people would never raise taxes. … I don’t want to raise taxes, but we’ve got to do the right thing for this county, for the people.”
The hikes in the county’s nearly $600 million budget will help pay for raises for county workers, additional 911 dispatchers, firefighters and patrol officers, and new stormwater equipment.
The final budget vote followed a contentious debate. Councilman Harold Worley blasted his peers for raising taxes instead of using the more than $26 million left over from the hospitality fee settlement to supplement their budget. He also pointed out that the county has received federal COVID-19 relief money — so far more than $34 million of a projected $69 million — and the county is one vote away from approving impact fees on new construction.
“And we’re talking about a tax increase?” Worley said. “That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Other council members pointed out that those hospitality dollars can only be spent on projects and services related to tourism. They also stressed that it would be unwise to spend one-time money on recurring expenses, such as additional staffers, instead of infrastructure.
“Mr. Worley did a wonderful game with the walnut shells,” councilman Gary Loftus said. “And he’s got everybody confused as to what’s one-time money and what’s recurring money and what’s capital expenditures and what’s ongoing expenses. You can’t use any of that money for ongoing expenses. We might be able to buy a police car, but we can’t hire a policeman.”
Assistant county administrator Barry Spivey agreed, saying he would not recommend spending the one-time funding that way.
“It’s like me getting a tax refund and with my tax refund this year I end up going and buying a boat of which I’ve got mortgage payments for the next five, 10 years,” he said. “Once that refund’s gone, I’ve got to find another source to be able to fund it, which I don’t have in place today. So that’s why we don’t advise using one-time monies for recurring-type expenditures.”
As for impact fees, those revenues would also be restricted. Under state law, they can be used to build infrastructure to support new growth. They can’t be spent on employee salaries.
Councilman Danny Hardee said the tax increase supports critical public safety services. If the council took Worley’s approach, he said, that would simply delay a larger tax increase “just to try to stay afloat.”
“We don’t have the officers to cover the territory,” he said. “We don’t have the firemen to cover the territory. We’re almost having to borrow ambulances from the municipalities. … We have got to take care of the safety of the people of Horry County.”
The budget ultimately passed 8-3 with chairman Johnny Gardner and councilmen Worley and Al Allen voting in opposition. Councilman Tyler Servant did not attend the meeting.
Worley’s strongest objections stemmed from a council vote earlier this month to transfer nearly $26.2 million in hospitality fee collections to a new series of infrastructure projects. County officials plan to bond the most expensive projects and use some recurring hospitality fee money — about $5 million per year — to pay off the debt.
The money comes from the 1.5% hospitality fee that the county collects on restaurant meals, hotel stays and admission tickets sold in the unincorporated areas. County officials now have access to that revenue stream after settling a lawsuit with the city of Myrtle Beach in April. Local cities keep the hospitality fees collected in their borders.
County officials are required to spend hospitality dollars on projects and services that promote tourism. Under the plan they approved earlier this month, they agreed to spend about one-third of the recurring hospitality money on public safety personnel (about 65 positions are funded in the budget) and another third can go toward hospitality-related infrastructure projects. The final third would be set aside for additional transportation projects such as I-73, the proposed interstate connecting the Grand Strand with I-95.
The projects on the list that upset Worley were the Augusta Plantation Drive/S.C. 31 interchange in Carolina Forest ($75 million) and the planned improvements for Atlantic Avenue and Waccamaw Drive ($46 million).
“Why couldn’t that be in RIDE IV?” he said, referring to the county’s next penny sales tax program for building roads, which could be more than a decade away. “That money was set aside years ago for public safety. That’s what it should be used for.”
Worley even took exception to a $7.8 million proposal to build a waterfront boardwalk in Little River, which is in his district.
“I didn’t ask for that,” he said. “I don’t know who in the world put that in there, but I didn’t ask for it. … I don’t agree with it.”
Other council members noted that Worley did not object to the list of infrastructure projects when the council voted on them earlier this month.
Here’s a snapshot of the approved upgrades to county services:
• The county will fill a variety of positions, including 911 dispatchers, patrol officers and a victim advocate. There are also one-time expenses such as a dump truck ($205,000) and a baler ($100,000) for the Solid Waste Authority. Combined with the new positions added in a budget amendment earlier in 2021, the county created 153 positions this year.
• The county increased the stormwater fee that homeowners in the unincorporated areas pay each year by $45 per residence. This will allow the county to pay for more workers, heavy equipment and infrastructure projects.
• Along with hiring more employees across the organization, county officials also boosted the salaries of employees by 2-4% with lower paid workers (those making $40,000 or less) getting the highest raises. The increases would be adjusted to avoid lower compensated employees passing higher paid staff on the payroll.
• The budget includes a tax increase for additional public safety staff. That increase would generate nearly $7.3 million for those services and it amounts to $27.20 more per year on the tax bill of an owner-occupied home worth $200,000. Among the additions funded by this increase are 15 patrol officers, five court security officers, five corrections officers, a crime analyst and five firefighters.
• County officials agreed to a tax increase to pay for a Longs fire station. That increase amounts to just under $10 more per year in taxes for the owner of a $200,000 house in unincorporated Horry. This station would have 19 positions (seven EMS and 12 fire).
• The county's budget includes a tax increase to shore up the account that pays for recycling and trash collection sites. That hike amounts to $24 more per year for a $200,000 owner-occupied home outside the city limits.
The only change that council members made to their proposed spending plan Tuesday night was making elected officials eligible for the raises that county workers are getting.
However, council members opted not to give themselves a pay increase. Elected officials such as the coroner, treasurer and auditor will receive raises.