HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) — A new bill proposed by South Carolina state Sens. Greg Hembree and Shane Massey looks to end a dispute over the constitutionality of user fees in the state.
The bill introduced last Thursday changes the wording of the previous statute so that the “general public” would be a benefactor of the user fees paid by residents.
The proposed change stems from a summer South Carolina Supreme Court ruling that said two user fees imposed in Greenville County were unconstitutional because those paying the fees were not getting exclusive benefits.
Counties with similar fees across the state had to consider their options. Horry County chose to continue to collect its $50 road-maintenance fee charged for every registered vehicle while keeping the collected funds in escrow until the constitutionality of Horry County’s fee could be determined.
Horry County Councilman Gary Loftus supports the new bill.
“Let’s get it through and get it passed,” Loftus said.
Since July, Horry County has collected a little more than $9 million in its road-maintenance fee. The county has not spent any of the money.
“We have contracts out, and we’re fulfilling those contracts out of our own pockets right now and just escrowing all of the money we collect on the road maintenance fee, so that pot is building up,” Loftus said.
Loftus said the county’s fee is primarily for maintenance and not new construction. He said most visitors don’t even travel on county roads outside of the main highways under state maintenance.
“If we’re going to fix roads, we’ve got to get the money somewhere,” Loftus said. “‘Where do we get the money?’ There’s only one other place and that’s property taxes and we don’t want to do that because I don’t think that’s a proper use of property taxes.”
The county’s fee has been in place since 1987. The state supreme court previously affirmed the fee in 1992.
“Been working fine for us,” Loftus said. “Nobody’s complaining and people are getting their roads fixed.”
Since the summer 2021 ruling, there have been two class-action lawsuits filed against Horry County seeking refunds for collected fees. The first lawsuit was dismissed.
While the status of the county’s road maintenance fee is still up in the air, cities like Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach are left without their share of the pot. Myrtle Beach receives roughly $1 million, and North Myrtle Beach normally gets about $800,000 from the county’s fee.
Coast RTA gets much of its funding from Horry and Georgetown County user fees. The transit agency gets $6.50 per car from both counties, which totaled close to $2.5 million in fiscal-year 2020.
With the user fees in limbo, Coast RTA hasn’t gotten its share this fiscal year. Brian Piascik, the agency’s CEO and general manager, said the funding is “central” to Coast RTA’s operation.
“It was huge for us in terms of being able to handle inflationary costs, and as I said earlier, adding some new service out on the street,” Piascik said.
Piascik said both counties have been very helpful to temporarily find other sources of funding to plug the gap. He added that he hopes the proposed bill passes quickly.
“We’re a small fish as it relates to the overall scheme of things as it relates to these counties and maintaining the transportation system, but we’re just happy to be a part of it,” Piascik said.
The bill currently is in the Senate Finance Committee.