By RUBEN LOWMAN
Horry County Council met for their annual spring budget retreat recently in order to assess the numbers for their 2023 fiscal year budget and make any revisions before final approval.
The $660 million proposed budget passed first reading and would see a potential five percent increase for every employee of the county, although there was disagreement amongst councilmembers as to how much of a raise they should receive. Issues discussed during the more than six-hour retreat held on Thursday, April 7, revolved around inflation, the cost of living skyrocketing locally, possible tax increases and growth and development throughout the county.
With councilmembers deciding that there would be no tax increase on the table this year, the most contentious topic was how to properly reimburse county employees with an increase in salaries. Assistant administrator for the county, Barry Spivey, said that over the last year to two years it’s been one of the most stressful and challenging environments that they have ever had just to deliver the services that are required of Horry.
“I want our employees to know that they have made a difference and they do make a difference every day,” Spivey said. “And we value that.”
Spivey said that even that may not be enough to retain employees, which is a priority for county officials. The proposed budget would also include an additional one-time payment of $1,500 for full-time employees and $750 for part-time employees, which would be dispersed quarterly. County officials said those numbers could change, as they are having to keep up with increased pay in neighboring municipalities. Previously, raises were given to employees using a tiered system.
County officials described the situation they are facing with hiring and retaining employees as difficult. The county is experiencing the “Great Resignation” that has swept the country as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, with employees in search of jobs that pay better salaries. County officials are also having to budget much higher figures for increased fuel costs, health insurance rates and the effects of inflation. This comes amid thousands of new residents moving into the area from elsewhere, along with thousands of new homes approved recently.
“Inflationary pressures on salaries are impacting us in a very material way,” Spivey said. “In terms of our ability to draw new employees to fill our open positions, as well as to retain the employees that we have. We’ve tried to make some recommendations here to address that, but that’s one of our biggest challenges at the moment.”
Neighboring municipalities are making it more difficult for Horry to hire and keep employees, Spivey said. He pointed out that North Myrtle Beach officials are looking at providing their employees with merit-based pay increase of up to 4.5%, Myrtle Beach is contemplating a 7.5% raise and Conway is mulling over a 7% increase.
“We want to be fair with our employees,” Spivey said. “We want to do the best we can.”
Councilmember Al Allen, District 11 representing Aynor, said that county employees need to be paid a living wage. With the costs of housing skyrocketing recently, Allen said that the county will not be able to retain employees as they are forced to move further away from their jobs in search of affordable housing. In particular, the lower-paid employees need to see the biggest increases, Allen said, as they are “real costs that are eating away at our budget right now.”
Allen said county officials need to take a hard look at what they can do to help those employees so that they can afford to continue to live in the county that they work for. He said if it continues on this same track, the county is going to end up forcing their lower-paid employees to have to live outside of Horry.
“Because with the $300,000-plus minimum housing and stuff, on a 30 or 40 or 50 thousand dollar a year job, you can’t afford that,” Allen said. “If you pay people a decent living wage and if you treat them right, then all that investment you have in them, they’ll be more prone to stay, they’ll be more prone to represent Horry County.”
One way to help pay for employee raises is by increasing the county’s impact fees and using them to pay for higher salaries.
Impact fees, which are a one-time payment on new construction, cannot currently be used for salaries, explained councilmember Harold Worley, 1st District representing North Myrtle Beach and Little River. What he proposes is to free up the money for salaries by replacing funds currently budgeted for capital projects, things like fire stations and fire trucks, with those from impact fees.
Worley said employees throughout the county, particularly public safety officers, deserve more money for the jobs they are doing.
“These public safety people, especially these police officers, deserve more money,” Worley said. “They cannot live on $41,447 a year. I’m going to vote to put the impact fee on them and if you throw me out of office, so be it.”
Public safety personnel make up over half of the nearly 3,000 county employees. County officials have said repeatedly recently that they have been overwhelmed with service calls as they continue to see record highs annually. The area’s growth has contributed to public services and infrastructure needing to keep pace.
As developments have proliferated around the county, Worley said impact fees are integral for residents. That has drawn a target on his back as his district seat is up for re-election this year.
“I know there’s a lot of people out there right now probably giving me the middle finger, and that’s fine,” Worley said. “If you are going to throw me out of office – the big developers and the realtors and the contractors and I could go on and on. That’s fine. You throw me out of office but we are going to fight back. We are going to do the right thing.”
Worley also said the county needs to closely examine its paving schedule for neighborhoods, as new developments recently approved will one day need to be paved. He said that as developers are constantly building, those roads will all need to be paved and he doesn’t want to see county officials unprepared if the roads are put in the county’s system.
“It’s going to be a lot of money. I don’t want that slipping up on us and us not being ready for it,” Worley said.
Councilmembers agreed that they would table the discussion until they carried out an impact fee study, which would be presented to council when the budget receives second reading. Second reading is expected to be at the council meeting scheduled to be held on Tuesday, May 17.