Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the additional compensation public safety officials would receive. If county officials approve the proposed budget, uniformed personnel would receive a salary increase of $500 per year of continuous service up to 10 years ($5,000).
Horry County Council will discuss raising taxes and business license fees to shore up the county’s budget and improve pay for public safety employees.
Council members on Tuesday plan to take their second vote on an annual spending plan that covers more half a billion dollars in expenses. A third and final vote must take place before the next fiscal year begins on July 1.
“The voters are not excited about tax increases,” said councilman Cam Crawford, who recently paid for a survey of residents in his Socastee-centered district to gauge interest on topics ranging from roads to tax hikes. “However, there seems what I would say is fairly strong support for public safety. If the increase is tied to public safety, from the data I got, it’s more acceptable.”
The initial budget council members voted for in April did not include any tax or fee hikes, but it called for using $1.3 million in reserves to make up for a shortfall in the waste management fund. That budget also required steep cuts to recreation services, including possibly closing the Carolina Forest Recreation Center. After multiple conversations with council members in recent weeks, county staff created a plan to address shortfalls in the recreation and waste management accounts, while providing higher-than-expected raises for county workers and additional compensation for public safety employees.
Per county records, here are some of the highlights from the latest plan:
Two tax increases
County council will look at two take hikes to fund public safety improvements. One increase (primarily for police) would impact all property owners while the other would strictly affect those in the unincorporated areas (for fire service).
For taxpayers hit with both increases, the hikes would amount to just over $15 more per year on an owner-occupied home worth $200,000. City residents would pay less, about $10 more per year.
Business owners to pay more
Like local municipalities, Horry County charges business license fees based on a company’s revenues.
The proposed increases would generate about $4 million more per year, enough to keep county’s recreation and waste management accounts in the black.
If county officials approve this plan, they would also avoid tax increases for waste management and recreation.
Councilman Gary Loftus pointed out the county’s business license fees are much lower than those of other local governments, particularly the City of Myrtle Beach.
“We’re not talking little differences,” he said. “Every one of them is at least eight times more than ours. And granted, the businesses don’t like to hear that, but guys, the cities are living off you.”
Changing the merit pay system
Under former county administrator Chris Eldridge, county officials created a merit pay system that awarded raises to county workers from 1-5 percent based on annual evaluations from supervisors. However, the county typically budgets for a 3 percent increase in compensation, meaning in each department the average of the raises could not amount to more than 3 percent.
In other words, giving an employee a raise of 4 percent or 5 percent meant limiting another worker’s boost to merely 1 or 2 percent.
County officials are proposing scrapping that system and providing an across-the-board raise of 4.4 percent this year.
They arrived at that number after a compensation study showed the county was 4.4 percent below the market midpoint for positions countywide.
The county was just 2.2 percent below the midpoint for public safety jobs and 7.1 percent below that mark for non-public safety jobs.
Despite the planned increase in pay, county staff cautioned council members in a budget memo that the public safety improvements only address part of the problem.
“It appears additional Personnel are needed to meet the service demands of our community as well providing for the safety and wellbeing of our Public Safety Team,” the memo stated.
Police, firefighter pay improving
County leaders have struggled to deal with a compensation problem known as “compression.” It’s an issue that arises when salary increases for entry-level officers put rookie pay close to that of their veteran peers.
The reason this happened in Horry County is because officer salaries remained stagnant through the Great Recession as county leaders held the line on expenses to balance budgets.
Once economic conditions improved, county officials raised the starting pay for officers but didn’t address the years of flat wages for longtime police.
“That has attributed to turnover, probably a higher frequency of turnover,” Crawford said. “Some of it has been caused by our merit system. I think that a merit system by itself does not adequately address wage compression. … We’ve got to look at some ways to tackle that problem.”
Some council members, including Crawford, have discussed creating a step system that would tie compensation to rank and longevity.
The latest budget plan doesn’t include such a system, but it does contain a 4.4 percent raise for all employees and an additional one-time perk for public safety personnel.
If it remains in the final budget, that public safety benefit would be a salary increase of $500 per year of continuous service up to $5,000 for uniformed personnel (police officers, firefighters, etc.).
For example, a police officer with 10 years of service would receive a $5,000 pay increase. An officer with two years on the job would get a $1,000 hike. That’s in addition to the 4.4 percent raise all employees would receive.
The raises and bonuses would increase the budget by about $4.3 million. Officials said the two property tax increases would pay for those enhancements.
Other fee increases
County officials have looked at multiple other fee hikes in recent weeks and these will be considered Tuesday night.
Among those changes would be an increase in the per-passenger charge the county bills casino boats. The proposed increase would take the charge from $7 to $10 and go into effect Feb. 3. The change would eventually add $250,000 more per year to county coffers.
Several proposed hikes come from the code enforcement area of county government. Increasing the reinspection fee to $100 would bring in another $8,000 per year, a fire inspection fee would bring in $300,000, and a nickel increase in the per-square-foot cost of residential building permits would raise $400,000 annually.
County officials are also considering a municipal tax collection fee that would generate $200,000.
If those changes are approved, county officials would use some of that money to hire two building inspectors, administrative assistants in the Register of Deeds and Clerk of Court offices, and support other programs.
Altogether, the fee hikes would net $704,000.
County officials will discuss the budget during their 6 p.m. meeting at the Horry County Government & Justice Center in Conway.