Voters will decide fire district tax increase – Coastal Observer


Voters will decide fire district tax increase

The four precincts in Georgetown County will all vote at the fire department headquarters on Business 17.

Voters in Murrells Inlet go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether to raise property taxes for fire and emergency medical services.

The Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District board voted earlier this year to seek voter approval to raise the tax rate in the special-purpose district from 14 to 28 mills. It plans to add 7 mills to the tax bills that will go out from Georgetown and Horry counties this fall to increase pay and add a fourth ambulance. The other 7 mills would be added incrementally as the district hires more staff that were recommended in a consultant’s study in order to reduce overtime and meet national safety standards for staffing at structure fires.

“The response so far has been very positive to a Yes vote,” said Tom Swatzel, who created the Friends of Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire and Rescue to support a 2015 referendum that raised the tax rate from 10 to 14 mills.

The fire district is a special purpose district created by the state legislature in 1966 to serve portions of the two counties. The six-member board is appointed by the governor and doesn’t have the authority to raise taxes without approval from voters.

A vote in July 2019 to raise the tax rate failed. Swatzel was among the opponents. He was concerned at the time that the district hadn’t had a financial audit for 2014 through 2017, a time frame when it was learned that an employee had embezzeled $84,000. Those audits showed the district had overspent its budget and increased its surplus.

The district board paid a premium to its auditors this year to get a report before the deadline to place the referendum on the ballot. Next week’s vote comes as the counties approach the deadline for preparing tax notices. That means an increase approved by the voters will show up in the revenue that the district begins receiving this winter.

The board also hired a firm last year to evaluate the district.  It highlighted the need for additional staff, but also uncovered employee complaints about “supervisory practices.”  It recommended a human resources officer and a financial officer be included in the new hires.

For Swatzel, a political consultant and former Georgetown County Council member, the number that stood out in the consultant’s report was the times when the district was at Level Zero for ambulances. More than 200 times, the district had overlapping calls for its three ambulances. It had to request mutual aid from neighboring departments to answer new calls.

In a district where over 70 percent of the calls are for medical issues, that was significant, he said.

“We’re doing the very best we can to respond to calls, but there are simply not enough firefighters, EMS personnel and equipment to be able to reliably respond to the ever-growing calls for service,” said Capt. Brad Bemis, a firefighter and paramedic who is also district vice president of the S.C. Firefighters Association.

While the district staff can’t campaign for the referendum while on duty, Bemis has joined Swatzel when off duty to make presentations to homeowners groups in the district.

“I think he was very effective,” Swatzel said.

He was initially concerned about how voters would react to a ballot measure that potentially doubles their property tax payment to the district.

“Most people were pretty convinced of the need,” he said.

The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Voting for all four precincts in Georgetown County will be held at the fire district headquarters on Business 17. Early voting will continue at the county Elections and Voter Registration office in Georgetown through 5 p.m. Friday.

Voters can check their registration at



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   , .