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Myrtle Beach residents face steep property tax increase

Myrtle Beach residents are facing the highest tax increase in nearly 20 years to hire more police officers and pay for a security plan aiming to get control of Memorial Day weekend crowds.

City residents will pay an extra 5 mills in property taxes next year, which equates to about $40 more on a $200,000 home. Property values in the city overall dropped about 5 percent after a reassessment this year, though owners of some properties have seen their value increase.

This is the largest increase in property tax millage since 1995, when that City Council increased the rate by 11 mills, city budget director Michael Shelton said.

With the latest increases, 2 mills – or $16 on a $200,000 home – will partially pay for a $1.65 million plan for safety enhancements during Memorial Day weekend, which turned deadly this year. City Council approved that increase last month, with Councilman Mike Lowder voting against it.

The other 3 mills, approved in June, will help pay for 20 additional full-time, year-round police officers. Those officers will be placed mainly on the waterfront area and on the south end of the city, such as neighborhoods on the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, where there has been a lot of growth with new neighborhoods.

Many Myrtle Beach residents have said they are angry at the idea of paying more in property taxes to fund changes to security plans during Memorial Day weekend, while others say they believe spending the money is necessary.

“Why should we have to pay taxes for something that keeps me boarded up in my house?” Emmens Preserve resident Kathy McGinty said of the overflow from Atlantic Beach Bikefest, a motorcycle rally based 13 miles north in Atlantic Beach during Memorial Day weekend that spills over to Myrtle Beach and other parts of the Grand Strand.

Leaders are developing the security plan after three people died and seven were injured in eight shootings on Ocean Boulevard during Memorial Day weekend this year. Tens of thousands of people travel to the Grand Strand that weekend to participate in Atlantic Beach Bikefest or Military Appreciation Days, or for a three-day weekend at the beach.

The plans include re-establishing an emergency lane on Ocean Boulevard and designating one-way traffic on the boulevard from 29th Avenue North heading south to Kings Highway.

Plans also are in the works for changes to the traffic pattern Memorial Day weekend, with several options on the table, including a 40-mile loop that would take drivers on Ocean Boulevard between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. on Memorial Day weekend south to S.C. 544, west to S.C. 31, north to S.C. 22 and east to U.S. 17, where they would head south back toward Myrtle Beach. It takes about an hour to make the drive in normal traffic.

Leaders in Horry County and North Myrtle Beach have pitched a smaller traffic loop, saying the 40-mile loop takes traffic into areas that didn’t see bikers previously and could cause people to stop and party along the way.

While McGinty does not support the 2-mill increase to pay for Memorial Day weekend security changes, she said she is not opposed to the 3-mill tax increase that would pay for more officers to patrol her neighborhood.

Council had increased property taxes by 1.5 mills in the past few years. The increase initially was 3 mills in 2009, but that rate was reduced to 1.5 mills the following year, Shelton said.

“Councils are so reluctant to increase millage that you typically don’t see it happen just a little bit year-to-year,” Shelton said. “You typically see it when you’re just about to reach a breaking point.”

Melissa Carter, research and legislative liaison with the Municipal Association of South Carolina, said the millage increase is within state law that caps the amount municipalities can increase property taxes.

“I understand that (5 mills) sounds fairly dramatic, but it’s not unheard of,” Carter said.

Carter said that several municipalities across the state did not increase property taxes during the recession and instead put off spending money on things such as replacing police cruisers or made small changes to the way money was spent.

“Now they’re to the point where they’ve got to catch up,” she said.

After the 11-mill increase in 1995, council made other rate adjustments so that by 1998, the rate was 6 mills lower than it had been in 1993-94, Shelton said.

“The typical criticism is that once you raise [property taxes] it never goes away,” he said.

Councilwoman Susan Grissom Means said last month that she hopes a future council will consider decreasing the tax rate once the city has gotten control of Memorial Day weekend.

Craig Teller, who organizes the South Myrtle neighborhood watch group, said that no one ever is happy about paying more for property taxes, but he understands the city’s position.

“My personal view is that while it is a shame tax funds have to be spent for an activity most residents do not want, the city has got to get this event under control before it has a long-term adverse impact on tourism and property values, and unfortunately it costs money to do that,” Teller said. “We just can’t have another weekend like the one this year.”