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Politics: Inlet fire district tax veto fuels debate

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

There will be no tax increase to stave off higher fire insurance rates in the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District — for now.

The General Assembly failed to override Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto last week of a measure to allow the fire department’s board of directors to raise millage rates from 10 to 14 mills in order to have the money necessary to operate a new station planned for McDowell Shortcut Road. Without that station, board members believe the district’s Insurance Service Office rating will drop and rates for homeowners will go up about $100 a year.

State Rep. Stephen Goldfinch and state Sen. Ray Cleary, both Republicans, have a difference of opinion about how to move forward and save residents the cost of fire insurance premium increases.

Goldfinch met with members of the fire department’s board Wednesday and said he would support a bill calling for a referendum of all the voters in the fire district.

“These guys knew they could have called for a referendum way back in June and decided to go around the voters,” Goldfinch said. “Because of poor advice from a member of the legislature — I’m not going to mention his name — they decided not to work with me. See what happened. They were counseled poorly and should have called for a referendum. They didn’t anticipate the consequences of setting a precedent for the entire state, looking for some fast cash. I think they, for the most part, agree with that now.”

Cleary said he’ll wait on an opinion from the state’s attorney general before proceeding. “The attorney general can rule it’s not constitutional, and we can’t do a referendum,” Cleary said. “If Stephen thought it was such a good idea, he should have brought it up in 2013 when we first introduced the bill.”

Goldfinch is seeking a second term in the House after running unopposed in 2012. He faces a challenge from former Rep. Vida Miller. Republicans say Goldfinch has his eye on the Senate in 2016.

Cleary, who is up for re-election in 2016, said he will announce plans after this year’s general election. Cleary sent out a fundraising letter to voters in June.

The legislators disagreed over the fire district bill’s history. “Stephen Goldfinch said in January 2013 the only reason he was not going to support it was because he was not going to support any fee or tax increase. Neither he nor the governor approached us about doing a referendum. We didn’t believe it was possible,” Cleary said.

Goldfinch said the fire district measure had nothing to do with his signing a pledge with GOP activist Grover Norquist not to raise taxes. “It’s really about whether the voters want the thing or not,” he said. “We can’t ever know till you let them vote. I would introduce a bill in January. If they want my support, and I’ve offered it, I will be happy to be the one to introduce it. There has been a lot of hype that shouldn’t have been out there.”

Cleary said if the attorney general rules a referendum unconstitutional he can reintroduce his bill to allow the board of directors to raise the millage within limits. “This could have been vetted completely by the attorney general’s office over a year ago,” Cleary said. “I don’t believe six unelected people have the ability to ignore state law.”

Al Hitchcock, chairman of the fire district’s board, said he’s willing to do anything to maintain the district’s ISO rating. “If it takes a referendum,” he said, “then that’s what we will do.”

Hitchcock said the grant to build a new fire station expires in 2017. The tax increase was necessary, board members said, to staff the new building. “We don’t want to build it and not have anybody in it,” Hitchcock said. “That would look real bad.”

There is some confusion about a referendum’s legal date. Cleary said the legislature prefers holding referenda votes with general elections. That would delay the Murrells Inlet-Garden City vote until 2016. Hitchcock hopes for a vote next June primary with additional money arriving by year’s end.

“We’re hoping for it,” he said. “If not, we’ll do the best we can with what money we have. They are telling us property valuations are going down and we’ll have less money to work with. We are fighting an uphill battle, but we’ll do whatever it takes to see that those needs are met if I have to jump through hoops or off a building. I just wish they would quit moving the hoops on me.”

‘Republicans for Miller’ make their return

Republicans planning to support Democrat Vida Miller in the S.C. House District 103 race in November gathered Tuesday to formally launch political activities designed to unseat incumbent Republican Stephen Goldfinch.

Sara and Steven Credito hosted the event for about 20 people at their home in Pawleys Plantation, joining Gil Goldsmith as organizers.

“I challenge all of you,” Sara Credito said, “Republicans, friends of Vida, Democrats — regardless of party affiliation — we all share this: We want responsible, honest leaders. Vida is honest and hard-working, just the kind of person we need.”

Steven Credito said he has known Miller personally, professionally and as the representative of District 103. “She exudes honor, integrity and pride,” he said. “She goes all out for her constituents, and it doesn’t matter what party she represents. She works with people.”

Goldsmith said he was a “Goldwater Republican” at age 17; he voted for Mitt Romney for president and Nikki Haley for governor and plans to vote for Haley again. “I look for integrity, not what party the person is in,” he said. “We’re all in the same boat essentially: one-income or fixed-income people. Whether that income is unemployment, Social Security or our diminishing investments, we have to be fiscally conservative and we need someone who will listen to us when it comes to how we spend money in our district.”

All the speakers criticized Goldfinch for his vote to uphold the governor’s veto of a measure to raise the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District millage after residents requested a vote by board members to raise taxes in order to hold down fire insurance costs, his support of a $12,000-a-year increase in legislators’ expense reimbursement and his business dealings.

Miller said she appreciated the support across party lines. “This job is about all of us, not about Democrats, Republicans or independents,” she said. “It’s about this community and what we can do in this community with all of us working together.” [E-Mail Article To a Friend]

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