Work on International Drive Can Continue

January 21, 2017 5:52 AM
Work on International Drive Can Continue

A state appeals court yesterday lifted an order issued last month stopping construction work on International Drive.

This reversal means the county can continue work stopped last month after the appeals court issued an initial injunction halting construction. According to the Friday order, work on the road may continue with the exception of connecting it to adjacent properties until a final decision in the appeals court is reached.

This latest ruling continues a pattern that has evolved in the International Drive saga in both federal and state courts as well as other administrative rulings. The county wins a decision to go forward, the environmentalists find a new roadblock to stop progress until the next court ruling sides with the county’s arguments.

The environmental groups’ attorney Amy Armstrong was quoted in media outlets saying a reconsideration of this latest order would be sought.

The environmentalist strategy of delay, delay, delay has been successful in stopping or seriously altering projects many times through the years.

Just to see how it works, below is a capsule synopsis of the delaying tactics used against the International Drive project:

Seventeen years ago, the Horry County Solid Waste Authority board discussed using authority funds to pave International Drive as a means of reducing garbage truck traffic on SC 90.

The environmentalists were never heard from during these discussions.

When the project began being talked about seriously at the county level (in the early to mid-2000’s), SCDNR chief counsel Buford Mabry showed up at a county council meeting to talk about the project affecting a pair of red cockaded woodpeckers that were allegedly nesting near the proposed road bed.

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South Carolina’s Public Pension Problems

January 17, 2017 5:02 AM
South Carolina’s Public Pension Problems

Six years after SC Treasurer Curtis Loftis began complaining about the poor performance of public pension investments under the SC Retirement Systems Investment Commission, legislators in Columbia have finally heard the message.

Fixing a seriously underfunded pension system has become a priority for this legislative year, The problem is you don’t fix an approximately $25 billion shortfall overnight.

When Loftis assumed the office of SC Treasurer, he became a statutory member of the investment commission. As a statutory member of the South Carolina Retirement System Investment Commission, Loftis criticized the high fees, low performance and lack of transparency associated with South Carolina’s public pension funds.

Almost immediately, the ‘good ole boy’ system in Columbia struck back. Loftis was subjected to allegations in 2011 that he and Mallory Factor were partners in what was called a “pay to play” scheme involving state retirement funds.

Despite the best efforts of members of the SC Retirement System Investment Commission, Gov. Nikki Haley, then state senator Greg Ryberg and others, Loftis was cleared of all allegations by SLED and the SC Attorney General’s office.

A couple of years later, Loftis was censured by the same SCRSIC he serves on for “false, deceitful and misleading rhetoric.”

At the time, Loftis said the commission members didn’t like him looking under rocks and asking questions about investments made by commission staff.

Things changed last spring when the CEO of the investment commission, Michael Hitchcock, told members of a Senate committee that the returns of the state pension fund have “underperformed” in recent years. He said the approximately $16 billion shortfall in the pension fund accounts has been aggravated in recent years by the gap between the assumed rate of return set by lawmakers (7.5%) and the actual rate of return (1.6%).

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Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

January 15, 2017 5:40 AM
Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yesterday was the thirtieth anniversary of the first Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Dr. King was only 39 years old when he was shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968.

Rarely has anyone in history packed so much into 39 years.

Dr. King is best remembered as an outspoken advocate of civil rights.

He became the voice of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery bus in December 1955.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation on public buses unconstitutional in 1956, the doctrine of “separate but equal” was truly dying. This decision followed on the heels of the Brown v. Board of Education, decided in 1954, which was the first major chink in the armor of Jim Crow laws established after the Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the Court in 1896.

Dr. King was the Montgomery boycott’s protest leader and official spokesman, a position which thrust him onto the national and international stage for the remainder of his life.

In 1957, Dr. King was joined by other ministers and civil rights activists in founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC was committed to achieving full civil rights for African Americans through nonviolent means.

Perhaps Dr. King’s most remembered moment is his “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. in August 1963.

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HCSWA Asking for Fee Increase

January 9, 2017 5:17 AM
HCSWA Asking for Fee Increase

The Horry County Solid Waste Authority (HCSWA) will ask Horry County Council to approve an increase in tipping fees at the authority’s Hwy 90 landfill site.

The increase will be part of the HCSWA budget submission to council for the coming fiscal year which begins July 1, 2017.

The requested increase results from a Cost of Service and Rate Study recently completed for the HCSWA by independent consultant HDR Engineering.

According to that study, HCSWA has one of the lowest tipping fees in the state for municipal solid waste (MSW). The Hwy 90 landfill currently charges $29 per ton for MSW while the average MSW tipping fee at public and private landfills around the state is $42.71 per ton.

The HCSWA tipping fee has not increased in 18 years.

According to the HDR study, if the tipping fee at the Hwy 90 landfill does not increase, by 2024 the HCSWA will experience a cumulative budget deficit of over $32 million.

This calculation is based on a test year of 2016, with projected revenues and expenses at the HCSWA for years 2017 through 2024 inclusive.

What is interesting to note is the HCSWA had excess revenue of $4.093 million in 2016 with $8.46 million in tipping fee revenue against a revenue requirement of $4.369 million for the authority to break even.

In 2017, the excess revenue required jumps to $11.397 million against tipping fee revenue of $8.624 for a deficit of $2.77 million. The projected deficit increases year by year from that point.

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Thoughts for 2017

January 3, 2017 5:15 AM
Thoughts for 2017

As we move into 2017, there are some random thoughts I wish to share about what I foresee as potentially newsworthy.

First and foremost for South Carolinians, congratulations to Clemson for making it back to the National Championship game. It took an entire season of play to get the same result for the final game.

The Tigers will again face Alabama in a game many think they can’t win. Something about this season feels more like 1981 than last year did. Clemson to win its second National Championship and move Dabo Swinney into the same breath as Danny Ford.

A new law heralded as tougher on ethics says public officials must disclose the sources of their private, taxable income. Not the amounts, just the sources.

We are watching a corruption investigation on state legislators play out with the recent indictment, on 30 counts, of former House Majority Leader Rep. Jim Merrill. This law would not have changed anything I can see about what Merrill did to allegedly break the law.

The investigation will continue and I believe we will see more indictments of current legislators.

What will be more interesting is to see what organizations get named in the indictments. One of the counts against Merrill alleges money was laundered from the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau to Merrill through his brother’s firm, Pluff Mud Public Affairs, LLC.

A cursory look at the internet showed the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce wrote checks to Pluff Mud Public Affairs, LLC in 2011 totaling just over $60,000. That information comes from the Chamber’s own reporting of its public fund expenses.

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Happy Hogmanay

December 31, 2016 5:26 AM
Happy Hogmanay

Forty-three years ago, I was preparing to celebrate my third and last Hogmanay in Scotland, an event that is celebrated as widely as Christmas in that country.

For those of you not familiar with Hogmanay, it is the Scots word for the last day of the year and is synonymous with the New Year’s Eve celebration that lasts until the next morning. It is an experience you never forget nor never totally remember.

For a little perspective, four decades ago the western industrial world was still in the grip of an Arab oil embargo. Many Americans were still sitting in lines to buy gas and the price of that commodity was beginning its steady rise that led to the 1973-74 stock market crash. Prices of oil helped fuel hyperinflation for the remainder of the 1970’s.

However, the U.S. national debt was still below one trillion dollars and would not breach that benchmark until seven years later with the economic policies of Ronald Reagan and the total lack of fiscal discipline in Washington since.

Watergate was still much in the news and Richard Nixon was in his downward spiral which ended eight months later when he became the only American president to resign from office.

Scotland and the entire United Kingdom would shortly experience a second coal strike in three years, which would lead to a general election and the downfall of the government of Prime Minister Edward Heath, but also to the eventual rise of Margaret Thatcher five years later.

And the Soviet Union was still perceived to be a colossus threatening world peace while China was not far removed from its Cultural Revolution, its backyard steel furnaces and its ‘Great Leap Backward.’

Much has changed in the intervening forty plus years, but those changes are a mere microcosm of the changes in the world since the Scottish poet Robert (Rabbie) Burns wrote his Hogmanay and New Year’s classic “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788.

May you all have a blessed, prosperous and Happy New Year in 2017.

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The Case of Skydive Myrtle Beach

December 27, 2016 6:00 AM
The Case of Skydive Myrtle Beach

New court filings could provide interesting revelations in the treatment of Skydive Myrtle Beach by the Horry County Department of Airports.

As county taxpayers will shortly hear of new court actions filed by Skydive Myrtle Beach against Horry County and others, a short historical perspective on the relationship between Horry County Department of Airports and Skydive Myrtle Beach follows:

Skydive Myrtle Beach is a tandem skydiving business owned and operated by armed services veterans.

It began operating its business in Horry County in 2012 after signing an eight year lease with Ramp 66, the county’s general aviation operator of Grand Strand Airport at that time.

After Horry County government bought out Ramp 66 in 2013, it appears that concentrated efforts were made by HCDA to close down the operations of Skydive Myrtle Beach.

Tandem skydiving is a recognized and approved use of publicly supported airport facilities by the Federal Aviation Administration.

It is illegal for an airport that accepts publicly funded grants to discriminate against one type of approved aviation activity, say helicopter operations, over another – tandem skydiving.

The only excuse allowed by the FAA for shutting down approved aviation operations is that those operations contribute to an unsafe environment at the airport.

Unsafe operations was the route taken by Horry County and its Department of Airports to justify shutting down Skydive Myrtle Beach on October 2015.

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Local Reflections on 2016

December 22, 2016 5:14 AM
Local Reflections on 2016

Reflecting back on the year’s events in these last days of 2016, several local issues stand out that will carry over unresolved into the New Year.

The International Drive project is a perfect example of what many citizens find wrong in the country today. The project is highly popular with a vast majority of citizens because of the ‘back door’ ingress and egress it will give to Carolina Forest neighborhoods.

Horry County spent the year winning one court hearing after another over environmental groups trying to block the project. Some construction work was done in the fall after permits were issued by SCDHEC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

However, a temporary stay issued by a federal court, since removed, and now a stay against the permits issued by the state court of appeals leaves the project once again stalled awaiting further court dates.

I first rode with General Vaught in his four wheel truck on what is now called International Drive when it was nothing more than a dirt track through the woods. There is no vast environmental disaster waiting to happen if construction of International Drive is completed.

Nevertheless, a small group of environmentalists continues to thwart the wishes of a vast majority of the citizens while completion of a much needed road continues to be delayed.

Staying with the county, much needed changes in the Horry County Police Department have begun with the hiring of a new chief in the fall.

After a year in which the county and its police department was hit with a series of lawsuits over the conduct of officers, notably those in the detective division, over a series of years, hopefully those transgressions will be ending.

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Public Corruption and Southern Holdings

December 18, 2016 8:00 AM
Public Corruption and Southern Holdings

Public corruption is a hot topic today with politicians making illegal deals and other powerful interests using their influence to evade the law.

Too often the courts are also included in the process providing the final piece to the public corruption puzzle.

When this happens, the entire fabric of American society is torn and it’s difficult to see how it can be fixed.

Such is the story of the case of Southern Holdings et al v. Horry County et al.

In the Spring of the year 2000, Southern Holdings was a nice little corporation valued at $20 million, by independent analysts, doing business in South Carolina, North Carolina and Las Vegas, Nevada. It was owned by 75 shareholders, some of whom were residents of Horry County, with varying stock positions.

The corporation had recently gained the rights to contracts to be the exclusive marketer of cigarettes in areas of South America along with the rights to an offshore bank license and other contracts. The total value of these contracts and rights was $12-$15 million, according to corporate records.

After Southern Holdings gained the rights to these contracts, former Southern Holdings shareholder Ancil B. Garvin, III, a resident of Horry County at the time, attempted to get Southern Holdings President James Spencer to cut the remaining shareholders out of the profits.

What Spencer didn’t know then was that Garvin was selling cigarettes in the black market as well as with legitimate outlets.

In an e-mail from Garvin to Spencer in early May 2000, Garvin urged Spencer to agree to buy out the other stockholders. Garvin suggested he and Spencer could then “take the remaining $10 million of assets and retire.” Spencer refused.

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Public Pension Fund Contribution Increase Approved

December 14, 2016 5:00 AM
Curtis M. Loftis Jr., South Carolina’s treasurer, has pushed to learn more about private equity fees. Credit Dale W. Ferrell for The New York Times

South Carolina government employees will be paying more into their public pension fund in the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2017.

This is a result of a 3-2 vote by members of the State Fiscal Accountability Authority to approve an increase of 0.5%, the maximum allowed by state law in any one year. Voting to approve the increase were Gov. Nikki Haley, Sen. Hugh Leatherman and Rep. Brian White.

S.C. Treasurer Curtis Loftis and Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom voted against the increase.

The increase will take employee contributions from their current 8.66% earnings to a new rate of 9.16%.

In addition, the state’s taxpayers will contribute more to government workers pensions. The current employer rate of 11.66% of an employee’s salary will increase to 12.16% for state and local governments and school districts.

The increased revenue for the pension fund will be little more than a finger in the dike of future liabilities. The total of 1% increase in contributions is estimated to bring in $100 million in new revenue for the Public Employees Benefit Association.

For the fiscal year completed June 30, 2016, the actuarial firm of Gabriel Roeder Smith and Co. estimated a shortfall of $1.4 billion in unfunded liabilities just for that fiscal year.

The overall future unfunded liability for the state employee pension fund is estimated at approximately $25 billion.

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