Fire district board awaits audit to set amount for tax increase – Coastal Observer


Fire district board awaits audit to set amount for tax increase

A pay raise is needed to recruit and retain staff, the chief says.

A referendum will be called this summer to raise the property tax cap for the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District. But after agreeing last week to bring the issue to a vote, the district’s board decided to wait until it receives its 2022 financial audit before deciding how much of an increase it will seek.

“Multiple officials and community leaders say they want to see the audit for 2022 before they take a position on how much, if any, millage they will support in a referendum,” said Gene Connell, who chairs the fire district board.

The district is a state special-purposed district that covers portions of Georgetown and Horry counties. Its tax rate, currently 14 mills, can only be raised with voter approval. A referendum that would have raised the rate to 19 mills was defeated in 2019.

“Everything we forecast from the last referendum is right on the money,” Fire Chief J.R. Haney said. 

That 19 mills is what he projects the district needs next year to raise pay to help recruit and retain firefighters and emergency medical workers.

But the district also received a report from a consulting firm last year that showed the district needs to double the number of personnel to provide full staffing of fire and rescue units. That will require doubling its tax rate.

“That’s going to be a hard sell, anytime you double anything,” Al Hitchcock, a former chairman of the fire board, told the six-member board at a meeting last week.

During his tenure, the district raised its tax rate from 10 to 14 mills. That funded a new fire station and a new medic unit. Part of the pitch was that the additional tax would be offset by lower insurance premiums as the district’s fire rating improved with the new station, Hitchcock said.

The 2019 referendum failed in part because of questions about the district’s finances and the lack of outside audits for four years.

The district is due to get an audit for the fiscal year that ended Dec. 31 by the middle of June. The board agreed to pay up to $2,250 to get the audit completed before its next meeting on April 24.

“What’s in the audit is going to be no surprise to us,” Haney said.

But the audit will allow the board to better gauge political support for a tax increase and hold a referendum in time to include any millage increase in property tax bills that will be mailed out by the two counties in the fall. To meet that deadline will require the referendum to be held and the result certified before July 31, Haney said.

“It can be done, but everything will have to be right in line,” he said, calling the margin “razor thin.”

Over 70 percent of the 8,200 calls the district answered last year were for medical issues. The district has ambulances at three of its four stations and because many calls come in at the same time, the district didn’t have an ambulance available for more than 200 calls, according to the study by McGrath Consulting. The district had to call on neighboring departments for help.

The district is also seeing the effects of a national shortage of firefighters and emergency medical workers. Over three years, the district’s turnover rate averaged more than 20 percent. Low pay was cited as the top cause for turnover.

Haney wants to raise pay by 25 percent. That can be done for the current staffing level of 18 people on a 24-hour shift by raising the district’s tax rate to 21 mills.

A raise to 28 mills would increase pay and increase the staffing to 30 people on a shift. That would allow the district to staff a fourth ambulance and meet national standards for staffing when crews respond to structure fires.

Board member Kay Benton said the district should strive for the level of service that 28 mills would provide, but that she thinks a gradual increase would be more palatable to voters.

Connell said the referendum question could be written to raise the cap, but limit the annual increase.

Whatever the tax rate, “we need to be able to articulate what we’re asking for,” board member Beth Ward said. “The reason for asking needs to be defensible, explainable and understandable.”

Larry Hopkins, a long-time volunteer, told the board the issue isn’t just about taxes.

“The public doesn’t know what the fire department does,” he said. “They don’t understand that we have five ambulance calls at the same time.”



Georgetown County Board of Education: First and third Tuesdays, 5:30 p.m., Beck Education Center. For details, go to Georgetown County Council: Second and fourth Tuesdays, 5:30 p.m., Council Chambers, 129 Screven St., Georgetown. For details, go to Pawleys Island Town Council: Second Mondays, 5 p.m. Town Hall, 323 Myrtle Ave. For details, go to   , .