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Murrells Inlet: Taxpayer pledge blocks effort to raise cap on fire tax

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The board of the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire Department last week trimmed its request for an increase in the state cap on its taxing authority. But this week the board that has faced questions about raising taxes at all found residents questioning whether it is asking for enough.

However, all those questions are moot because state Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, one of three legislators who represent the fire district, won’t back the increase. Without his support, it can’t pass the legislature.

Goldfinch said voting for the increase will violate the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, drafted by Americans for Tax Reform, that he signed as a candidate.

The fire district was created by state law in 1966 and an increase in its top tax rate requires approval of the legislature. State Sen. Ray Cleary proposed a bill this year to allow the rate cap to rise from 10 to 20 mills. (A mill equals $1 in tax for every $1,000 in taxable value.) The actual rate would be set by the six member board of the fire district.

Al Hitchcock, who chairs the fire district board, told residents who gathered in the main fire station this week to talk about the tax proposal that the board agreed last week to ask for a 2 mill increase in the cap rather than 10 mills. “We can live with that,” he said, although “it’s sort of tying our hands.”

Tom Swatzel, a former Georgetown County Council member, was critical of raising the tax cap because tax revenue more than doubled between 2004 and 2012 and the district ended its 2011 fiscal year with a $2.5 million reserve. Doubling the taxing ability of the fire district was hard to justify, he said.

But with a 2-mill increase, he said, “most people don’t have an issue.”

“The board has done a really good job with our taxpayer dollars,” Swatzel said.

The fire district currently has three stations, and it wants to build a fourth to serve a portion of Horry County along Highway 707. The district has the money for the building, but is concerned that it can’t pay the annual cost of operating the station (estimated at $380,000 to $425,000) with its current tax rate. In addition to increased costs, Hitchcock said the district faces lower revenue because of declining property values in Georgetown County.

“As I see it, we will be paying 2016 bill with our 2007 income level,” he said.

Many of the supporters who spoke at this week’s hearing live in the area that will be served by the new station. One of those, Bill Fletcher, said the current 10 mill tax works out to $18 a year on his home. “I’ll pay twice that much and still save money,” he said.

Hitchcock said the district wants to maintain its current fire insurance rating, and that the fourth station is critical to that. The district is up for a 10-year review by the Insurance Services Organization in 2016. A drop in the rating, currently Class 3, would raise insurance premiums far more than the 2-mill tax increase the board proposes, he said.

“I can’t afford to have my taxes raised,” said Fred Wallace. But he said he can’t afford the alternative and called the increase in the tax rate cap “the lesser of two evils.”

Margaret Ann Fancher questioned whether the 2-mill increase is enough. “I would like them to have what they need to protect us,” she said.

“We should go for the max,” Jerry Fancher said. “I’m prepared to pay.”

“If we don’t ask for the most, there’s no room to negotiate,” said Michael Weich. He drew applause when he addressed concerns of retirees by asking, “What were your taxes up North?”

Bob Kemp also urged the fire district board to ask for the full 10 mills. “I trust these folks a heck of a lot more than I trust the people in Columbia,” he said.

Cleary said he tended to agree. He and Hitchcock both pointed out that a raise in the fire district’s tax cap would not allow the board to double its taxes. State law ties annual property tax increases by local government to the Consumer Price Index and population growth.

“There’s no way I would give them 10 mills to spend all at one time,” Cleary said.

Not Whitney Hills. She is active in the local Republican Party and said “I don’t believe in raising taxes.”

But she pointed to Hitchcock and said, “If this man asked me for a 20-mill increase I would give it to him.”

The fire district board has the community’s trust. “They do it because they love Murrells Inlet,” Hills said. “How dare you tell them any differently.”

Another GOP activist opposed the 10-mill increase. “This is our money they’re talking about,” said Judy Clarke. “In this economy, we have to be very careful.”

Clarke said she could live with a 2-mill increase.

Goldfinch announced last week he won’t support any increase. “I pledged to the voters of House District 108 that I will not vote to increase their tax burden and I’m going to abide by that pledge.”

The district has the money to build and operate the fourth station, he said.

Goldfinch said he checked with Americans for Tax Reform and was told voting to increase the fire district tax cap would violate the pledge. “It’s put me in a bad position,” he said.

He listened to the speakers at this week’s hearing, but said he didn’t hear anything that changed his position.

Cleary admitted, “a tax increase is never what you want to have on your résumé,” but he said he has faith in the fire district board.

Since spending bills must start in the House, he won’t press the measure in the Senate without the support of Goldfinch.

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