Thursday, June 19, 2014
The battle to raise the millage cap for the Murrells Inlet Garden City Beach Fire District rages on.
A move to override Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto of Sen Ray Cleary’s bill to raise the cap from its current 10 mills to 14 was undecided as of press time Tuesday.
If the override vote should fail, district officials have a backup plan – they hope to place the question on the November ballot.
“We’re going to do what the law allows us to do,” said Al Hitchcock, chairman of the fire district board, which has been spearheading an effort for the past two years to lift the millage cap.
The effort seemed to be heading to approval – the state Senate gave its OK 20-3 Feb. 6 on second reading and by a voice vote two weeks later, and the House passed the measure by a 22-18 vote on second reading May 27 and a voice vote third reading the following day.
Cleary said that it is not unusual for lawmakers to abstain on what is considered a local bill, which affects only one community.
The fire district serves parts of two counties – Georgetown and Horry – which is why any millage increase must be approved by lawmakers.
Hitchcock said that fire district officials have been in touch with the election commissions in both counties, and that he sees no reason that the issue could not be on the November ballot.
However, both he and Cleary stress that any vote would be advisory.
The governor said in explaining her veto that she was turning thumbs down on the legislation because it was a “back door approach to raising taxes” without voter approval.
The voters gave approval in 1966 to the establishment of the district and were kept informed of millage increases through public forums.
When fire district officials realized they might need additional funding to provide the level of services district residents have come to expect – the district’s population has grown and the fire department added paramedic duties to its plate – they went to the community with a series of public meetings, a number of visits to chambers of commerce and other community associations.
During those meetings, fire district officials said the money would allow the district to build and staff a fourth fire station on McDowell Shortcut Road.
The board has a $500,000 grant for the station construction, which expires in 2017.
Hitchcock said that with the new station, he anticipates that the district would keep its ISO rating of 3, a better rating than that enjoyed by neighboring communities despite their higher millage.
Both he and Cleary have said that retaining the ISO rating would keep insurance rates at a more affordable level for the next decade.
The two added, however, that even if voters were to give support to the millage cap increase, there is no guarantee that the timing would work out to home and business owners’ advantage.
“We would have to pass a law and get it signed [by the governor] before the end of the year to get the money to build the station in 2015,” Cleary said.
“If we miss that deadline, there would be no guarantee that the fire rating would not rise.”
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