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Murrells Inlet: Fire district wants legislature to raise tax cap

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

State lawmakers plan to hold public meetings to gauge support for a plan to increase the property tax rate for the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District. The district says it needs to be able to raise taxes because property values aren’t keeping pace with growing demand for service.

“Nobody is eager to go out and raise taxes,” said Al Hitchcock, who chairs the district board. “We are positioning ourselves for the future.”

The fire district is a state special-purpose district created by the legislature in 1966 to cover portions of Georgetown and Horry counties. The tax rate is capped at 10 mills.

For an owner-occupied home, the current tax rate works out to be $40 for every $100,000 of market value. For the same value in commercial property and second homes the tax is $60.

A bill introduced this year by state Sen. Ray Cleary would raise the district’s cap to 20 mills. It will require approval from the legislature and the governor’s signature to change the tax rate. “It’s kind of a unique animal,” he said.

The district has a $3.16 million budget, which includes the property taxes, impact fees for capital equipment and fees from the counties for providing emergency medical services. It has three fire stations and plans to add a fourth on McDowell Shortcut in Horry County.

The district can’t afford to add the seven employees needed to staff the new station. “We don’t want an unmanned station,” Hitchcock said.

The district was created to provide fire protection, but 48 percent of its calls last year were for medical care. The 6,130 calls for all service in 2012 was an increase of 11 percent from the previous year.

The 10-mill cap was adopted in 1992. “Now we’re 20 years later and we’re offering not only fire protection but EMS,” Cleary said.

State Rep. Stephen Goldfinch said he will wait until he can get input from taxpayers before deciding on the measure. He, Cleary and Rep. Nelson Hardwick of Surfside Beach are the three legislators who represent the district’s coverage area.

Hitchcock said the district would like to have the tax cap raised before Horry County goes through property reassessment next year. “I’ve got a feeling that our property values are going to remain stagnant or go down a little bit,” he said.

Raising the cap doesn’t mean taxes will double. Any increases will be approved by the district’s board and are limited by the state’s tax reform law, known as Act 388, Hitchcock said.

The public meetings haven’t been scheduled. Hitchcock said the board will make the case for maintaining its current level of service as the district grows and preserving its Class 3 fire insurance rating. “If the public doesn’t want it, we’ll step back,” he said.

Cleary said a drop in the insurance rating for the district would outweigh the cost of a tax increase. “It’s probably more than 5 or 6 mills,” he said.

Cleary will also be interested in hearing from property owners. “You either want the service or you don’t,” he said.

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