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Murrells Inlet FD: Change in board appointments follows tax proposal

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The three board members of the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District who represent Georgetown County will be appointed by the governor rather than County Council under a bill introduced in the state legislature last week. The change comes at the request of the district’s board.

“The entire board of the Murrells Inlet fire district would like it to go back to the old way,” state Sen. Ray Cleary said.

The “old way” is the way it was done until 1996. The state lawmakers who represent the special-purpose district make a recommendation to the governor. The process changed in 1996 because legislative reapportionment looked like it would leave the county with only one resident lawmaker. Several other boards that had been filled by the delegation’s appointees were included in a bill that gave appointment power to County Council.

The district, created by the legislature in 1966, serves portions of Georgetown and Horry counties. The process never changed for the three Horry County appointees on the fire district board.

“Now that we have a resident senator and House member, it’s only natural that we do it the same way in both counties,” said Al Hitchcock, who chairs the fire district board.

Reps. Stephen Goldfinch and Nelson Hardwick are the other legislators who represent the district. They introduced the bill.

Goldfinch said he consulted with County Council Member Jerry Oakley, who said he didn’t object provided his appointees weren’t tossed out.

The delegation has taken back appointment authority over other boards that devolved to the county in 1996, including the Election Commission and the County Transportation Committee. Those met with objections from council members who said the lawmakers were usurping local authority.

The fire district has also asked the legislators for an increase in the tax rate, which is set by state law at 10 mills. A bill introduced by Cleary this year would raise the cap to 20 mills. The district board would set the actual millage.

“It’s the only district in the state that crosses county lines. It makes it very hard to fund,” Cleary said.

A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for April 29 at the department’s headquarters station on Business 17.

“The general public, everybody’s in favor of it,” Hitchcock said. “A few people are saying ‘no new taxes.’ Nobody wants additional taxes.”

But he said a 2-mill increase is necessary to get a fourth fire station operating, and that station will help keep the district’s current Class 4 fire insurance rating by the Insurance Services Organization.

“Without the fourth station the ISO rating will likely go up after they do the next inspection,” Hitchcock said.

The fire district board hopes to convince property owners, and the lawmakers, that it is cheaper to raise the tax rate than raise insurance premiums. “It would be an investment in the fire department instead of paying your insurance company more,” Hitchcock said.

Goldfinch said he hasn’t heard from anyone except district board members who favor the increase. “I don’t believe there’s support in the community,” he said, but he added that he’s willing to listen.

The increase is opposed by Tom Swatzel, the former County Council member for Murrells Inlet and the political consultant who ran Goldfinch’s election campaign last year. An e-mail from Swatzel to Cleary and Goldfinch said tax revenue to the fire district from Georgetown County grew 168 percent over the last 10 years and property tax revenue from the county’s portion of the fire district grew 184 percent.

Hitchcock disputed those numbers but admitted the district did not roll back taxes after Georgetown County’s reassessment in 2006 because it wanted to equalize the rates between the two counties.

Swatzel also pointed out that the district’s financial statements show it had a $2.5 million reserve fund at the end of last year, equal to 71 percent of the district’s revenue.

He also said the fire district doesn’t take into account the $330,000 it receives from Georgetown County each year to provide emergency medical service. He pointed out that Cleary’s bill to raise the district tax rate makes it appear that the district has to use property tax revenue for medical services.

“It is hard to justify any increase in the MIGC Fire District’s property tax rate based on the tremendous revenue growth that has benefited the district and the fact that the district is being compensated by Georgetown County for providing EMS, over and above the property tax millage imposed by the district,” Swatzel wrote.

“They’re telling us 10 mills is enough to run the fire protection business, but it isn’t enough to run the EMS,” Cleary said.

Update: This story corrects an error in the print version. The district surplus was 71 percent of revenue last year, not 28 percent.

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