Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, which mandated budget cuts, a hiring freeze and a pause on projects, Horry County now faces a budget that puts it in a better-than-expected financial position, a breath of fresh air after a year of uncertainty.
“We’re in much better shape than anybody ever thought we would be in based on last year,” County Council Chairman Johnny Gardner said after a day-long budget retreat Thursday, in which county leaders assessed their $553 million budget position and discussed what to spend taxpayer money on.
That $553 million budget breaks down into a $191.2 million operating budget, which pays for county employees and daily operations and equipment, a $46.6 million capital budget, which pays for large expenses and projects like building repairs and new fire engines, as well as the budgets for the airports and Solid Waste Authority, which largely operate independently.
Next year’s budget, set to take effect July 1, will include several tax and fee increases, including a 3 mil increase on property taxes in the unincorporated areas of the county for the waste management fund. County leaders have said that increase is needed because more people living here — plus more people working and eating at home due to the coronavirus pandemic — has increased the amount of waste flowing through the county’s collection centers. The additional money will help pay for those collection centers, and for a contractor — Unlimited Sanitation — to haul the garbage to the landfill.
A 3 mil increase means the waste management fund’s millage rate increases from 5.7 mils to 8.7 mils. On a $200,000 home, that means an increase from $45.60 into the garbage fund to $69.60, or $24 more. In total, that increase is expected to raise an additional $4.5 million for that fund.
“Those operations have been on a very razor-thin budget for the last few years, and that can has been kicked down the road,” Gardner explained. “If we don’t do that, it’s gonna be devastating. But we debated on that for a long time.”
Increase in stormwater fees
Horry County is also looking to raise its stormwater fee, money that helps the county mitigate flooding caused by heavy rains and storms. For a single-family residence, the county will raise the stormwater fee from $44.40 to $89.40, or $45 more. Businesses, hotels and multi-family dwellings will also pay an increased fee. That increase will raise an additional $9 million that will allow the county to take on a number of significant flooding-related projects. Among those projects are:
Hiring more beaver trappers. Because Horry County is so flat, beaver dams can cause stormwater buildups that flood homes and roads. County Council members are considering alternatives to this approach to allow the extra money to spent elsewhere.
Hiring several dozen more employees to clean and maintain wetlands and other flood-prone areas.
Completing flood mitigation studies at Buck Creek, Simpson Creek, Brunson Springs in Aynor, Crabtree Canal and in the Bucksport area.
Completing drainage studies at Socastee Boulevard, the Sea Mountain Highway outfall, Kingston Lake and Forestbrook.
Repairing more sinkholes and funding more mosquito spraying.
Those increases aren’t yet set — County Council still has to finish debating and vote on both issues — but Gardner said they’re needed.
“Stormwater is a big priority. Flood mitigation is a big priority,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll solve some problems.”
New money boosting budget
Horry County also has several pots of new money boosting its budget this year. For one, the county can once again use and collect money from the hospitality fee — which comes from hotel stays, restaurant meals and event tickets — because a lawsuit that had frozen those funds has now ended.
That means a total of $28.6 million — which has sat, frozen, in a bank account while the lawsuit played out — can now help the county make up for some of the pauses on spending it implemented during the pandemic. The county stands to collect an additional $1.88 million from the hospitality fee between now and June 30, when the fiscal year ends.
Going forward, the county anticipates it will collect about $12.4 million next fiscal year, with similar collections likely in following years. That amount is less than the county used to collect each year from the hospitality fee, but that’s due in part to how the lawsuit between the county and municipalities — including Conway, Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach — was settled.
Still, that money has big implications. Between now and June 2024, the county expects it could use the recurring funds to hire 82 new employees, including 17 police officers, 14 EMS crew members, 13 corrections officers, 10 9-1-1 operators, two deputy coroners, public works staff and more. The county plans to hire 58 of those positions — including half of the EMS crew members and half of the 9-1-1 operators — between now and June 2022, with the rest hired in the following two years.
And that’s just the recurring hospitality funds. The county also has the $28.6 million one-time funds it can spend. Though County Council will have to make a final determination on where to put that money, possible expenses include:
$2.8 million for oxygen tanks and breathing apparatuses for firefighters;
$2.8 million for fire pumpers;
$2.5 million for a new waste management center;
$2.4 million for stormwater wetland crew equipment;
$2 million for a police firing range;
$1.5 million for beach bathrooms;
$1.4 million for road resurfacing; and
$1.25 million to upgrade a Coast RTA maintenance facility.
That pot of money also includes $1.2 million for new recreation centers, $457,000 for the Vereen Memorial Gardens Boardwalk and $3.7 million for roads.
Horry County is also likely to implement an impact fee on new construction of homes, businesses and hotels, a move that could allow the county to collect an additional $21.8 million per year, some of which could be used on roads.
Council members will debate and vote on whether to implement the impact fees in coming weeks, though half of the council members have previously voiced support for the charge. Results of a ballot measure in 2018 showed that nearly 70% of Horry voters supported such a measure, though Council had delayed voting on impact fees due to the pandemic.
New fire stations, soccer fields and more
As in past years, next year’s budget also includes millions of dollars for capital projects, including several fire and public safety projects. Capital projects exist in a separate part of the budget because they’re largely funded by bonds, a form of loan that allows a government to spread the cost of big expenses out over time. That structure not only allows big projects — like a new school or fire station — to be paid for closer to when it’s needed, but spreads the cost out over time so it’s not just one group of taxpayers bearing the burden of something that will last for decades.
Some of the biggest projects the county will pursue with this year’s capital dollars are:
Consolidating the Nixonville and Wampee fire stations into one facility, costing $3 million;
A public safety training facility, costing $2.8 million;
A rebuild of the Shell fire station, costing $2.3 million;
Lighting at the Green Sea Floyds and Michael Morris Graham fields, costing $1.1 million each;
New soccer fields in Carolina Forest, costing $585,000;
Additional gates and fences around the M. L. Brown Public Safety building, costing $150,000;
A new barn for the animal care division, costing $100,000; and
A new soccer field in Aynor costing $100,000.
Other projects, like paving walking paths and parking lots, buying land for future fire stations, and renovations to the county library are also budgeted for.
Now that County Council has held both of its annual budget retreats, members and administrative staff get down to the nitty-gritty business of hammering out final details, writing ordinances and voting on the spending package. Some council members, including Bill Howard, have voiced support at recent meetings for an increased police budget, so that will likely be part of discussions moving forward, as will impact fees.
Overall, several council members said, they feel good about this year’s budget, emerging from the pandemic in a healthy position. That had Gardner patting himself and the rest of the county government on the back.
“I think we worked so hard last year that we put ourselves in a better position to go forward,” he said.