News13 Investigates: Where are Horry County recreation funds going?

CONWAY, SC (WBTW) – Horry County Council passed its first of three votes this week to change how thousands of taxpayer dollars are spent each year.

Horry County’s recreation fund has allowed individual council members to give money to local groups, agencies and organizations. Approximately $240,000 from the county’s general fund budget goes into council district recreation accounts every year. Of that, each councilman receives $20,000 per year. Click here to see account balances as of November 1, 2017. 

According to county regulations, that money must only be spent on community recreation purposes – such as community sports or leisure activities. Applications are filled out for the money and the county enters into an agreement with organizations.

After some viewers questioned where that money was going, News13 requested approved county recreation fund requests between March 2014 and October 2017. We found more than $950,000 has been given to local organizations and agencies, but questioned several uses of some of the money. Click here to see the documents.

Documents show the Horry County Parks and Recreation Department is among the organizations benefitting the most from the money, receiving more than $300,000 since March 2014. Funds have been used towards new parks, facility upgrades, sports programs and community events. Councilmen have also invested $37,000 for Beach Ball Classic sponsorships, more than $29,000 in the Horry County Police Department’s Shop with a Cop and Camp Pride programs, and more than $45,000 in Savannah’s Playground.

The Grand Strand Miracle League is among the local community organizations that have applied for recreation funds and use accordingly. The Grand Strand Miracle League is a non-profit that gives people with special needs the opportunity to play sports in a safe, adaptable environment.

Founder Carson Benton says that money goes towards critical needs – such as the league’s sporting programs, facilities, promotional materials and equipment.

“We built the field and now we have 150 (participants) any given weekend playing baseball. We’ve expanded our league into soccer and golf, as well,” Benton said.

Documents requested by News13 show Horry County Chairman Mark Lazarus is a main supporter of the league and its mission by appropriating $40,000 in recreation funds since 2014. Councilmen Al Allen and Cam Crawford given money to the league, as well.

“Mr. Lazarus has been very generous with his recreation fund to help fund these kids,” Benton explained. “That $10,000 would be $10,000 we’d have to go find somewhere else. By having that [security] from the past, I think he’s comfortable with the way the organization’s spending his money and he sees where it’s been used wisely.”

Horry County Councilman Tyler Servant, too, wants to support local organizations like the league.

“The organizations and charities that a lot of this money has been going to – these organizations are great organizations and benefit our community significantly,” Servant said.

However, Servant has been vocal on wanting more scrutiny on how recreation funds are spent.

“Having said that, this is taxpayer money and at the end of the day, this money should be spent on core government function.”

As News13 dug through the nearly four years of county recreation fund approvals, we also found thousands of dollars have gone towards trapping and neutering feral cats, expenses at shelters, food and emergency assistance.

We questioned County Attorney Arrigo Carotti about those requests and whether they fit the requirements of what recreation fund monies must be spent on. We e-mailed him twice with our questions, but he never responded. We then approached him at the November 14 Horry County Council meeting. He acknowledged he did not respond to our inquiries and then decided he had no comment on the matter.

“I think there’s been some concern by council members that some of these funds weren’t really fitting the law of recreation and leisure use,” Servant told News13.

Servant wants to see an end to the recreation fund all together.

“I put forth a plan this year. It was voted down by council. I did have support from Chairman Lazarus and a few other council members. Overall, it was voted down,” Servant explained.

Despite that, Servant and Lazarus were able to accomplish two things when it came to the funds.

“One thing that myself and Chairman Lazarus were able to accomplish were getting these resolutions broken out and these recreation requests individually on the agenda, so there is more transparency on where this money is being spent. Each recreation request is voted on individually now, instead of grouped together in a consent agenda and being voted as a whole. Each of these recreation request are going to be broken out on the agenda specifically. So, they’re listed out on each agenda that’s published on Horry County’s website,” he added.

While Servant wants the county to ultimately do away with the funds all together, Horry County Council moved in the opposite direction this week.

It passed the first of three readings to change the recreation fund name to “community benefit fund” and broaden its uses. The amendment would require all community benefit fund moneys “must be spent on community benefit purposes only.” Such purposes include “furthering social welfare; protecting public health; promoting education; developing youth and children; supporting senior citizen needs; enhancing public safety; supporting parks, recreation and leisure; or other community needs,” according to the amendment.

While Horry County Council continues to hash out the recreation funds debate, Benton hopes to see the county continue to support local organizations and missions like his.

“We stretch it a long way for these kids,” Benton said. “By having that money is less we gotta go out and bed and plead with the private people to get this money.”