As the volunteer chairman of the Friends of Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District, I led the very successful campaign in 2014 to pass a 40 percent tax increase at the ballot box to help the fire district end a financial deficit and maintain its excellent fire protection rating. It was the right thing to do.
The fire district board has called for another tax increase referendum on Tuesday, July 16th, this time to increase taxes by 36 more percent. I’m still a friend of the fire district, but will vote “no” to the increase because it’s also the right thing to do.
While the firefighters, paramedics and EMTs continue to deliver top-notch protection and service, the board has stumbled badly in its fiduciary duties over the last five years. Last year it was revealed that the board failed for four consecutive years, 2014 to 2017, to have required annual independent financial audits done. It’s important to remember that in 2014 a district employee embezzled over $80,000 from the district, yet the board didn’t even follow through with the required annual audit.
According to the financial audits for the years 2014 through 2017, the fire district took in enough revenue to not only fund $2.4 million in spending that was over and above the approved budgets, but to also generate a surplus of $1.1 million for the period. As of the end of 2017, the district’s surplus or fund balance stood at $4.3 million, enough to almost fund the district for a year.
You just can’t make a case for any tax increase with these numbers, much less another nearly 40 percent increase. However, they do raise an important question as to the financial oversight and transparency of the board in spending taxpayers’ money: where did the $2.4 million in excess spending go and how did it get approved?
Incredible as it may sound, we don’t know the answer because there is no public record of any votes by the board to spend any of this money. Check the board meeting minutes.
I’ve been involved with county government as a county councilman and have closely followed other local governing bodies and I have never before seen anything like this.
For months, state legislators representing the district, Sen. Stephen Goldfinch and Reps. Russell Fry and Lee Hewitt, have been trying to get answers. In April, they sent a letter to the board asking for “a detailed explanation as to how these expenditures were approved so this can be explained to taxpayers.” The board has refused to respond.
Our legislators have also asked the board to wait until after the 2018 financial audit is available, which should be in weeks, to consider a tax increase because taxpayers are owed the most recent and comprehensive financial information prior to considering any tax increase. The board has refused.
It’s no wonder there are no public officials or community leaders publicly endorsing a “yes” vote, unlike the 2014 referendum where there were scores of endorsements.
The fire district board cannot make a legitimate case, based on audited financial information, that any tax increase is needed. The board also has a lot of explaining to do to taxpayers as to how and where it spent millions of our dollars.
Yes, I’m still a friend of the Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire District, and it pains me to write this. But I’m going to vote “no” on Tuesday, July 16th. There is no doubt, it’s the right thing to do.
Tom Swatzel is a resident of Murrells Inlet and served two terms on the Georgetown County Council.