Horry County Council made an easy financial decision this month.
Now, much harder choices loom on the horizon.
By voting against giving themselves a 25% raise — a proposal so self-serving that it left some officials wondering why councilman Bill Howard proposed it — council members showed that they weren’t going to enter the budget season on a wasteful note.
But that move didn’t accomplish much: long term, it saved a few thousand dollars and some political embarrassment. In the coming months, council members will consider the level of service they want to offer and just how much they are willing to spend, particularly on public safety services.
In December, council members discussed raising taxes for the second time in three years. Although the county’s spending plan is still being crafted, county officials plan to include at least a 6-mill tax hike in the draft budget. That would amount to at least $83 more per year on an owner-occupied home worth $300,000 (and nearly $125 more per year for a second home of the same value).
The increase would generate an additional $18 million to help pay for staffing a new police precinct in Carolina Forest; additional firefighters, EMTs and vehicles at the planned fire-rescue stations in Shell and Nixonville/Wampee; and raises for corrections officers, among other items. Not everyone on the council is excited about a tax increase, of course, though councilman Howard wants an even steeper hike.
He’s suggested the council consider the maximum increase (about 12 mills) allowed under law. Such a hike would generate about $36 million in additional revenue — doubling the proposed increase.
“We are in the service business,” Howard said. “We need to give [residents] quality service. … And the ones that don’t vote for it, they’re just scared they’re not going to get reelected. We have to do what we’re put here to do.”
Unsurprisingly, other members of the all-Republican council aren’t thrilled about Howard’s proposal. Yet they also understand that the fastest-growing county in the state will need additional police officers, firefighters and EMTs. There will be new ballfields and parks to maintain, not to mention county roads and infrastructure.
Some council members have even suggested making small increases every year to maintain service levels.
We remain skeptical of many of these ideas. Why default to a tax increase of any size without a clear plan for spending the money. Without a plan, the county would essentially be searching for ways to use its citizens’ dollars.
The best idea that’s been presented so far came from the public safety division, which last month presented a long-range improvement plan that calls for adding nearly half a billion dollars ($480 million) in expenses over the next decade.
On the surface, that amount seems excessive — especially considering the other needs of the county — but this is the type of conversation that needs to happen. County leaders need to decide what level of service they want to provide, and residents should be steering those talks.
Would you rather see more money going to roads and fewer dollars on ballfields? Or maybe more code enforcement and planning staff to better control growth? What could be cut?
As leaders have these discussions, there are also serious concerns about the economy. The World Bank’s latest forecast notes that the global economy is “perilously close to falling into recession.” The world economy is projected to grow by 1.7% — a drop from the level forecast in June.
Higher interest rates, the war in Ukraine and the lingering effects of the pandemic have all made this an uncertain time.
County leaders must remember not to pile on to a public already facing difficult economic headwinds. Looking at the maximum tax increase would be foolish, if not harmful, and any hike should only be considered after all belt-tightening options have been placed on the table.
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