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Murrells Inlet: Group forms to support fire tax referendum
By Jason Lesley
Al Hitchcock, chairman of the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire Department board of directors, hopes residents will turn out and vote March 17 on a referendum to raise the district’s property tax rate cap.
The referendum will address a complaint from Gov. Nikki Haley, who vetoed legislation that would have allowed the appointed board to raise taxes in order to maintain its fire insurance ISO Public Protection Classification of 3, which puts it in the top 5 percent of fire departments in the nation. Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, who agreed with Haley’s veto, said he would support holding the referendum and letting residents decide on the proposed tax increase from 10 mills to a maximum of 14.
Hitchcock said members of the board of directors could not advocate for a yes vote, but a group called Friends of Murrells Inlet-Garden City Rescue has been formed by political consultant Tom Swatzel, a former county councilman and Republican Party leader, to promote it.
“I’m one of the strongest opponents of tax increases that you will find,” said Swatzel, a member of Georgetown County Council from 1995 to 2002 and county GOP chairman from 2007 to 2011. “However, the evidence is now clear. If the millage cap is not raised, fire protection will eventually suffer, risking lives, property and the low fire insurance rates achieved by the district’s excellent ISO classification. In the long run, the slight increase in taxes will be offset by avoiding substantial increases in fire insurance premiums. Passage of the referendum will allow the district’s board of directors the discretion to increase the millage rate as needed, up to the 14-mill cap.”
Swatzel points to the district’s mounting deficit spending since 2013, brought on by skyrocketing fire response calls, lower growth and property values and the need for a fourth station, as key reasons for approving the referendum. He said the fire district’s budget deficits are estimated at nearly $900,000 from 2013 through 2015. Reserve funds will be used to cover the shortfall. “In reality, he said, “the district cannot pull itself out of this hole and continue to provide excellent fire protection with a millage rate that is way below the state average.”
From 2010 through 2014, the district experienced a 42 percent increase in fire response calls. “We need to pass this referendum to maintain an excellent rating in the future and the low insurance premiums that go with it,” Swatzel said.
The district’s board decided in late November to call for the referendum, which will be conducted by both the Georgetown and Horry County Boards of Elections since the district straddles the county line.
Swatzel said his group is raising money and seeking volunteers for its campaign to pass the referendum, scheduled on St. Patrick’s Day. “This is likely to be a very low turnout election. It will be important to reach out to voters with volunteers going door to door and with direct mail, signs, and flyers, all of which cost a lot of money,” he said.