The MB Chamber Doth Protest Too Much

April 11, 2018 3:39 AM
The MB Chamber Doth Protest Too Much

Watching the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce production Tuesday afternoon with respect to its handling of the tourism development fee public funds reminded me of a stage play.

It was a totally scripted production, billed as a press conference to answer the claims made in Karon Mitchell’s recently filed lawsuit. But, this “press conference” did not take questions from the press.

What kind of press conference does not take questions? One dealing with the TDF lawsuit obviously.

Of course, by taking questions the players could have been tripped up on their carefully crafted scripts, so it was best not to take them.

The scripts reminded me of Queen Gertrude from “Hamlet.” To paraphrase her timeless line, “The Chamber doth protest too much methinks.”

How many times were the words “fake,” “baseless,” “scandalous” and “shocking disregard for the truth” uttered during the respective acts? Too many to be believed, which is exactly the point of Queen Gertrude’s comment.

Even with the scripting, mistakes were made.

Time and again Mitchell was attacked by the various players, but no proof was provided to support those attacking statements, merely words. It was all Mitchell’s statements are false (and worse), We do all these things, believe us.

Board chair Carla Schuessler denied the Chamber was “inextricably intertwined with governmental policy,” as stated in the lawsuit. We covered the Tim McGinnis campaign connection in a previous article.

Once again there was no explanation of the consecutively numbered cashier’s checks totaling $325,000 that were disbursed among local and state politicians in 2009 after the tourism development fee became law and was instituted by Myrtle Beach city government.

More than anything else, it was those campaign contributions that stirred questions about the TDF and the Chamber that remain to this day.

Matt Klugman, Chair of the Marketing Council for MBACC, spoke over and over about a competitive bidding and RFP process that was used to select the services of various businesses, referred to as crony companies in the lawsuit, that were started by former Chamber employees. This is good! Documents related to those processes should make interesting reading when they become exhibits in the lawsuit.

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Horry County Chairman Candidate Johnny Gardner Endorsed by Firefighters

April 8, 2018 6:42 PM
Horry County Chairman Candidate Johnny Gardner Endorsed by Firefighters

Johnny Gardner, a candidate for Horry County Council Chairman in the upcoming June 12, 2018 Republican Primary, has received the endorsement of his campaign from  the Horry County Professional Firefighter Local 4345 of the International Association of Firefighters.

Robert Mullaney, President of Local 4345 IAAF told GSD, “We are happily endorsing Mr. Gardner and looking forward to helping Horry County and making fire rescue the place people want to work for again because of outstanding leadership.”

Mullaney has been critical in local media of the pay raise and shifting around of personnel proposed for firefighters and EMS personnel with next fiscal year’s county budget. The new fiscal year begins July 1, 2018.

Mullaney called the proposal a “band aid” that does not deal with the underlying problems in the department.

“I am humbled to have received endorsement from Horry County Professional Firefighters Local 4345,” said Gardner.  “Their endorsement is indicative of the change in county government being sought by working citizens. Horry County is a great place to live and work and I want to make sure it stays that way for all of our citizens.”

“With this being National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, I want to ensure not only our public safety employees but also all county government employees and the citizens they serve that the lines of communication will always remain open between them and the county chairman, if I am elected,” Gardner continued. “I promise to listen and hear what is being said rather than spend my time talking at them.”

Gardner is a native of Conway, a graduate of Coastal Carolina University and the University of South Carolina School of Law, a U.S. Army veteran having served as a Captain in the 82nd Airborne Infantry Division and the founder of Johnny Gardner Law, P.A.

In the short time since he has filed his candidacy, Gardner said he realizes there is a large disconnect between county employees and county leadership.

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Efforts to Debunk Karon Mitchell Lawsuit Flawed

April 7, 2018 4:48 AM
Efforts to Debunk Karon Mitchell Lawsuit Flawed

(Ed. Note – Some negative reactions heard locally to the Karon Mitchell lawsuit are like the Chinese fireworks pictured above – loud and colorful but, in the end, just smoke.)

On April 5, 2018 at 3:05 p.m., Karon Mitchell filed a lawsuit against the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce (MBACC), the City of Myrtle Beach and Horry County alleging misuse of tourism development fee (TDF) and accommodations tax (ATax) public funds.

In response to the lawsuit, MBACC issued a blanket denial of the allegations and at least one local television news outlet in the area attempted to, in its words, “fact check” the allegations.

The MBACC response came in a media statement issued April 6, 2018, by board chair Carla Schuessler:

“Today we had an opportunity to review the lawsuit that was filed against us, and l am disappointed to see that we will have to divert our time and resources to address this case which is full of conjecture, innuendo and inaccurate statements. The Chamber complies with all applicable laws regarding the use of public funds and selects vendors based on best business practices.”

The Chamber statement went on to say it will hold a press conference next week to accurately address the statements in the lawsuit.

The local news outlet broadcast a story April 6, 2018 where it claimed to find discrepancies, between claims in the lawsuit and MBACC public disclosure documents, with respect to public money spent with what are called in the lawsuit “crony companies.” According to the lawsuit, crony companies are companies formed by former and/or current Chamber employees and, in at least one instance, a company owned by a MBACC executive board member.

This appeared to be much ado about nothing as the MBACC public disclosure documents used generic descriptions instead of specific vendor names for some of the expenses listed. If those challenged expense amounts did not go to any of the crony companies, next week’s MBACC press conference can “accurately address” those statements and tell us exactly what company did receive the payments.

Another area addressed in the media story was a statement in the lawsuit that “the chamber funneled tourism tax money through the crony companies to contribute to politicians supported by the chamber.” 

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Horry County’s Election Year Budget

April 2, 2018 5:09 AM
Horry County’s Election Year Budget

Horry County Council’s recent budget workshop provided an interesting view into budget making in an election year.

County employees will receive what is being called a “three percent across the board merit raise.” In a countywide election, the county’s employees can account for thousands of votes including their families and friends.

In addition, ways to fund additional raises for public safety personnel are being considered. Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus has proposed an additional $1 per hour raise for all Level 1, 2 and 3 police officers, Sheriff’s deputies and detention officers, which, if approved, will bring their respective raise amount to nearly 10 percent across the board.

Lazarus also proposed an additional three percent across the board raise (six percent total) for firefighters and EMS personnel.

The proposed public safety raise percentages were billed as necessary for “retention” of personnel, but it is interesting this consideration only seems to come up every four years or so when the council chairman is up for re-election.

Even more interesting is the fact that this increase in the public safety budget will not add any additional personnel despite the growing population of the county, which causes an increased demand for services.

Council member Harold Worley proposed using some of the excess hospitality tax revenue that the county will begin experiencing next year, currently estimated at $40 million per year, for increasing the number of police and fire personnel. County council already passed an ordinance stipulating continued collection of full Hospitality Tax after Ride I bonds are paid off.

Lazarus, who wants to use that money for I-73 construction, was heard to utter “not going to happen” at Worley’s suggestion.

One only has to consider the nearly $12 million of excess Ride II tax collections that recently was used to purchase approximately 3,729 acres of swamp land under the guise of establishing a wetlands mitigation bank in the county. That purchase literally came out of nowhere with little explanation to full council before it was approved.

If council is unwilling to return those excess tax revenues to the citizens who paid them, it certainly seems those excesses would be better spent on items that benefit the largest number of citizens rather than on the wishes of a few at the top of county government. The voices of average citizens need to be heard.

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Primary Filing Opens But Do Campaigns Mean Anything?

March 19, 2018 3:11 AM
Primary Filing Opens But Do Campaigns Mean Anything?

Filing opened last Friday for candidates in the upcoming June 12, 2018 Republican and Democrat party primary elections. Filing for candidates will close at noon Friday March 30, 2018.

The biggest name filing for re-election on the first day was Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus.

We will now see three months of campaigning, led by incumbents to convince the voters to continue their time in office.

But, have the incumbents really served the needs of the people or worked for other agendas?

Unfortunately “fake” is the political environment of today. Most politicians occupy a fake reality where they say one thing when campaigning, do another when in office and cry “fake news” and attempt to change the narrative when their duplicity is pointed out. It often works because voters do not have the time or desire to acquaint themselves with the issues and, instead, rely on sound bites for their information.

The few who try to stick to the facts and have a reasonable discussion of the issues are too often defeated because of their honesty.

Four years ago, Lazarus committed to the voters to “Oppose new taxes” on his Lazarusforchair.com website under issues.

This commitment quickly went by the wayside. After being re-elected, Lazarus became the biggest proponent on council for raising taxes with the largest tax increase in Horry County history resulting. Property taxes were raised 7.2 mills and the annual vehicle fee paid to the county was raised from $30 to $50 per vehicle.

To sell the tax increase it was billed as an increase for public safety. Voters bought into this narrative during budget discussions only to be fooled after the tax increase was approved. As councilman Harold Worley said at the time, “Not one penny of the tax increase will go toward putting one extra officer on the street. Response times will not go down nor will community policing increase because of the tax increase.”

Worley was correct in his assessment. What most voters didn’t know was the tax increase was the result of a huge outcry by county employees after County Administrator Chris Eldridge received a large pay increase from council between first and second reading of the budget. A large portion of the “public safety” tax increase went to a pay increase for all county employees, not to improve public safety.

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Horry County – A Fork In The Road

March 11, 2018 4:34 AM
Horry County – A Fork In The Road

(Ed. Note: This article was published in Alternatives Magazine nearly 20 years ago, four years before Marion Foxworth was the District 3 member for Horry County Council. It is reprinted here with permission from the former owner of Alternatives. It made interesting reading then and is even more so today. Carolina Forest was in the very early stages of changing from a tree farm to the most densely populated area in the unincorporated county. I would contend we have headed down the retirement community fork, with tourism on the wane, as witnessed by controversies over bike weeks and adult entertainment, the decline in golf, amusement parks and other entertainment venues as well as continuing issues with infrastructure and public safety. One only has to look at the history of the last 40 years in St. Augustine, FL to see the trend being repeated in Horry County.)

Quite a bit has been said and written about the tremendous growth that we have seen during the last few years.  Both Horry County and the City of Myrtle Beach have undertaken extensive efforts to establish updated comprehensive Masterplans.  The local daily newspaper devoted countless columns to a series entitled ‘Living in a Boom Town’. And most recently, residents have turned out in record numbers in an effort to influence the direction taken by various governing boards and regulatory agencies.

As a lifelong student of public policy and as an observer of the political environment of South Carolina, I have to opine that we are coming upon a very definitive moment in our history.  In short, Myrtle Beach, the Grand Strand and Horry County are at a fork in the road.  Which direction we take will determine the type of community we have for generations to come.  It also will determine how many of us will make a living and support our families.

The Fork in the Road is represented by two extremes.  The fork to the left is one that the direction is dictated by those in power and positions of influence who would have Horry County become ultimately a ‘live-in theme park’.  This option would be marked by a continuation of the tremendous building boom of late.  Pine trees would continue to fall in record numbers.  Our beautiful natural settings would give way to additional growth as our rivers would one day resemble the current ocean front.

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