Council considers cut to police to fund beach renourishment
With another round of beach renourishment expected before the end of the decade, the town of Pawleys Island is looking at cuts in its four-member police department to provide money for capital projects.
“I’m not for reducing safety, but I am for figuring how how to pay for these things down the road without a tax,” Mayor Brian Henry said at a budget workshop this week. “We’ve got to find the funding to do this in the next 10 years.”
The town completed a $14.8 million beach renourishment project in March 2020. It was funded with $6.1 million the town had accumulated from a 3 percent local tax on short-term rentals, a $2.8 million loan that it is repaying with its accommodations tax and a state grant that covered the balance.
The town does not have a municipal property tax. Council Member Sarah Zimmerman said she believes most property owner aren’t aware that the town doesn’t receive any money from the property tax collected by Georgetown County, most of which goes to the county school district.
But Zimmerman recalled that her idea of a flat annual fee for beach maintenance received overwhelming support at a meeting of the Pawleys Island Civic Association in 2019.
“I personally wouldn’t have a problem writing a check for $600 or $800 every year to keep that beach,” she said.
The town hasn’t accomplished anything regarding its finances in the two years since, Zimmerman added.
“Sometimes what you accomplish is what doesn’t happen,” Council Member Guerry Green said. “There was a movement to put a parking lot in the middle part of the island and ruin everybody’s property values.”
The parking lot was seen as a way to make more of the island’s beach eligible for state and federal funds for renourishment by increasing public access. It was never considered by the council.
The town is on track to have $4.7 million in its beach fund by 2031, according to Administrator Ryan Fabbri. But that is based on the town continuing to see the boom in vacation rentals that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic. In the first nine months of 2021, the local accommodations tax collections were already 16 percent above the amount budgeted for the year.
There is no way of knowing if future rentals will continue at the same pace, Fabbri said.
Demand looks strong for next year, said Council Member Ashley Carter, “but that can change if we have a storm.” He works for Pawleys Island Realty, which manages the largest share of island rentals.
The town’s general fund, which gets most of its revenue from a state accommodations tax and a share of insurance premiums collected on the island, is projected to run deficits starting in 2024. Those can be covered by a surplus that is projected to top out at $842,000 next year.
Council Member Rocky Holliday said the deficits that will cut the surplus by 45 percent over the next 10 years are “sobering.” To fund capital projects identified in a strategic plan adopted last year, “something would have to change,” he said.
The capital projects are beach renourishment, creek dredging and drainage improvements. A fourth priority in the plan is finding a way to pay for the projects.
“How can we pay for more capital projects?” Holliday said. “Without a tax, I might add.”
The police department accounts for 35 percent of the town’s budget.
“We don’t have the same luxury we had in the past of a large surplus” in the beach fund, Henry said. “We’ve got to find a way to put more money in the coffers down the road.”
The town needs to look at the cost of the police department and its coverage, he said.
The town did away with 24/7 police protection several years ago. It now has one officer on each of two 10-hour shifts each day. For four hours, the town relies on the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office to respond to emergencies.
“It works well in the off season,” Fabbri said.
In the summer, the town adds part-time officers to expand coverage on weekends.
Green said he would like to see how much coverage the town could get with two officers.
Holliday added that the town should look at additional technology, such as the security cameras at public accesses and the license-plate cameras at the two roads leading onto the island.
“I think it’s been incredibly successful,” he said, and he added that it only requires a one-time expense.
Zimmerman said property owners have come to expect police protection and that she doesn’t favor a cut. “We need to ask the property owners. We’re making a big decision here,” she said.
Carter pointed out that break-ins at houses on the island fell in the years after the town adopted a full-time police presence. He added that the sheriff’s office is also under pressure to expand its service elsewhere on the Waccamaw Neck. His nephew is the current sheriff.
“You can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, that’s for sure,” Holliday said. “This is a healthy exercise.”
The council is due to adopt the budget next month. It will take effect Jan. 1.
The budget includes a cost-of-living raise of 5.9 percent for the six full-time employees. That’s based on the increase used by Social Security, which has been the town’s benchmark for years, Fabbri said.
There is also 1.5 percent budgeted for merit increases of up to 3 percent.
“That deserves further scrutiny,” Green said.
The Society for Human Resource Management is projecting pay increases of 3.3 percent nationally next year, Holliday said.
“Let’s research other rate factors,” Henry said. “I’m not opposed to it, but I’m not sure it’s the right metric.”
The cost-of-living and merit raises as proposed add about $25,000 to the $1.5 million budget, Fabbri said.
That’s slightly more than the money added to the budget to pay for landscapers, irrigation and lawn care in the town’s Nature Park. It’s less than the $36,000 added to the budget for legal fees to cover the cost of ongoing litigation over the condemnation of easements required for future beach renourishment.