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Strategic plan: Council sees conflicting goals for county growth

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County’s reliance on property taxes from the Waccamaw Neck and growth of the tourism industry is not sustainable, County Council members agreed during a strategic planning session last week.

“Eighty-two percent of property taxes come from the Waccamaw Neck,” said Council Member Jerry Oakley. “We must grow the western part of the county. How do we do it? That’s the question.”

The seven council members and Administrator Sel Hemingway spent last Wednesday at the Bunnelle Foundation’s conference center in Pawleys Island discussing priorities during a workshop facilitated by Bill Tomes of the Institute of Public Service and Policy Research at the University of South Carolina.

Tomes prepared a study for local governments last year on why Georgetown County lost population in the family-raising 22- to 44-year-old age bracket in the 2010 census. It found lack of housing, lack of entertainment and concerns for public safety as the top reasons for leaving.

Jobs and education were not among the reasons cited by the study.

Council Member Bob Anderson said changes in real estate tax law by the state legislature could be devastating to Georgetown County. For example, he said if the assessed value of second homes is reduced from 6 percent to 4 percent, the rate for owner-occupied houses, the county would lose $8.4 million in annual revenue, a 13 percent decrease.

“We’re in a unique situation,” Anderson said. “Coastal communities are the only ones affected by that. It’s a scary number.”

Hemingway said property taxes are the No. 1 complaint from in-state absentee property owners because they pay school operating taxes on their vacation homes but not on their primary residences. They see a big difference in the two tax bills, he said.

The state replaced a property tax for school operations with a 1-cent sales tax as part of a 2006 tax reform bill.

Absentee property owners who live out of state seldom complain about the county’s property tax rate because it’s usually lower than the rate where they live, Hemingway said.

Another contributing factor to Georgetown County’s situation, Oakley said, is its percentage of land under conservation easement: the largest in the state.

Council members listed priorities that would address tax inequity, growth and other issues. They were:

• Develop the western part of the county;

• Reach 50 percent occupancy at the county’s industrial park on Highway 521 near Andrews;

• Balance the industrial and tourism economies;

• Use the county’s natural water system, including the port of Georgetown;

• Let Highway 701 become the highway of choice for through traffic, easing the burden on Highway 17 on Waccamaw Neck;

• Stem the flow of young people leaving the county.

Tomes said counties make a mistake when they fail to connect plans and budgets. “Strategic plans should identify priorities,” he said, “but it’s where you put the money that shows citizens what the priorities are.”

Job creation, particularly more technical jobs, needs to be the emphasis, Council Member Ron Charlton said.

“The county is built around International Paper and the steel mill,” he said. “I’d like to see more technical jobs to keep young people in the county.”

Jobs are Anderson’s top priority too.

“Let’s put money in the port and the road system,” he said. “All these other things are icing on the cake.”

But Georgetown County doesn’t control its future as far as job-creation goes, the participants agreed.

Growth of the industrial park hinges on widening Highway 521 to four lanes through Williamsburg and Clarendon counties, providing faster access to Interstate 95.

Dredging of the port relies on millions of dollars from the federal and state governments as well as an initial $5.5 million locally.

And the elephant in the room when industrial development for Georgetown County is discussed continues to be the perception that it’s a union stronghold because of the United Steelworkers.

Hemingway said many other counties in the state have more union activity than Georgetown County, but perception is reality.

Oakley said 80 percent of job creation in the state occurs within 20 miles of an interstate. That leaves Georgetown County in a bind, competing for the other 20 percent.

“The transportation system is a big drawback,” Charlton agreed. “We’ve lobbied for it.”

“We are limited with what we’d like to do,” Anderson said. “Even with unlimited funds, we are not the decision-makers.”

There are conflicting philosophies between the Waccamaw Neck and the rest of the county, said Charlton, whose district covers both areas.

“The Georgetown side says bring in growth,” Charlton said. “Waccamaw Neck says, ‘We’re here. Lift the gate. Do something about the traffic and keep out big-box stores.’ Folks up here who don’t have children complain about recreation.”

Oakley said council members are caught in the middle of every disagreement. “We are the rope in a tug of war,” he said. Sign restrictions are seen as either business-killing government intrusion or clutter control. “Everybody supports zoning,” he said, “until it affects them.”

Communication with citizens should be one of the council’s priorities, Oakley said. Few understand the complications and limitations of county government.

A petition circulated recently seeking pay raises for firefighters at Midway Fire and Rescue is an example. One of the proponents suggested taking money being spent on landscaping the median in Litchfield for the raises. She didn’t realize the landscape funding comes from private donations and accommodations taxes. Money for Midway Fire and Rescue is generated by a special district tax. Additional revenue could be generated only by growing the tax base or raising the tax rate.

Georgetown County is not alone when it comes to the revolving door for emergency workers.

“Fire, EMS and law officers traditionally leave for higher pay in a neighboring county or city,” Tomes said. “They are loyal to the service, not the employer.”

Georgetown is an entry level county for public safety jobs, and upward movement will always be a factor, Oakley said.

“The more aware citizens are,” he said, “the more likely they are to say they’re satisfied.”

The session looked at the future of the county, and Charlton said he wanted jobs for his grandchildren.

While many look to education as the key to the future, Anderson said he is frustrated by the schools. “We throw more money per student at education than any other country, and we’re 26th in the world,” he said. “Bricks and mortar have not made kids smarter. We blame the teachers, but I don’t know that teachers are the problem. Federal mandates drive costs. We don’t have enough parents sitting down with their kids at night.”

Council Member Lillie Jean Johnson said Georgetown County needs to address the situation where young people have “a diploma in one hand and a bus ticket in the other.”

She said there is not enough entertainment here to attract or hold them.

Anderson said he wanted to provide a safe place for families. “I made the decision, even as far as my career was concerned, about what I wanted for my family,” he said. “Is this a wholesome community? Industry looks at a community as a safe place to live, the moral fiber of the area.”

Council Member Austin Beard said he would like to see the Capital Improvement Plan completed along with the rural fire stations proposed in the 1-cent sales tax referendum that voters defeated last year. He said rural residents would get relief on the cost of fire insurance if the 10 satellite stations and a full-service station were built.

“What are we going to allow,” Austin asked, “to make the county better?”

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