I first started thinking about this past weekend's editorials on county recreation fund spending about three months ago. Throughout November and December I slowly put together the data when I had 20 minutes here or there. And after thinking about the issue for so long, I perhaps understandably had a lot of thoughts on the process. So many that there just wasn't room in the pair of editorials for all of it. So if you're not tired of hearing about the issue yet, a few more tidbits that didn't make the cut for the paper (including what I think is the most fun visualization of the data):
Is this unique to Horry County?
I tried briefly to figure this out. I chatted with Johnny Morant, chairman of the Georgetown County Council, for example, who told me that no, down in Georgetown they don't have any similar budget program.
I also chatted with Robert Croom, over at the S.C. Association of Counties. He said that discretionary funds aren't that unusual in all levels of S.C. government. (And Horry County certainly has a history of them; the road fund that was killed in the late '90s comes to mind.) But many of the examples he listed, such as A-Tax committees or PARD, while discretionary, are much more formalized than Horry County's recreation funds. They require applications and proposals and are voted on by panels that don't rubber stamp the suggestions of single members.
While I didn't survey every single S.C. county, I'm willing to bet, however, that Horry County is not particularly beyond the pale in this matter; this type of spending probably isn't unique to us. But that doesn't mean it's a good idea.
Why does it matter where in the budget this is?
So what? This was one of the big questions I tried to answer. Why should I care about this money? I laid out some of my reasons in the editorials: It can engender distrust of our leaders, it's just unnecessary, it's spending without any sort of formal oversight. But I also wonder if the money could be put to better use in the regular budget because then it could be used to secure bonds.
If we really do want to build a boat landing up at S.C. 22/U.S. 17, like Brent Schulz is slowly funding bit by bit, then why not issue some bonds, build the project now and pay for it over the next X number of years at $20,000/year? It would cost nearly the same (excepting interest) but would get the project done much quicker. Under the current system, however, this just isn't possible. An election or change in membership could instantly change the spending priorities, meaning it's impossible to plan years in the future and making us unable to leverage this county tax money to pay for bigger projects now. Instead, we have to wait slowly for council members to build up their accounts.
A similar problem: What happens if a member has a big project halfway done, loses an election and then the next member doesn't care about their boat landing or park or nature trail?
Do we really need oversight of this money?
Another big question I tried to figure out. What does it matter if council members are giving out $2000 here and $8000 there? What are the chances the money would actually go to waste? Well, the easy answer is that we'll never know unless we check. But there are some very good examples and reasons that oversight should be in place. CASA, for example, received $5,000 in council donations in April, just about six weeks before it was forced to close down and its director was charged with embezzlement for improperly spending a federal grant. Now, I've always been fairly confident that CASA's heart was in the right place and they just made some poor decisions, but that doesn't change the fact that they very likely broke federal law (I don't think the case has been completed yet) and any funding headed their way deserves extra scrutiny.
Go back a few years and I turned up a 1998 case in which council members gave thousands from their rec funds to the Horry County Council on Aging. That agency then gave $6,000 of the money to a former council candidate who used it to start her own business, a senior life newspaper that in turn donated space to one of Mark McBride's mayoral campaigns here in Myrtle Beach. Fishy business all around.
In other words, yes, oversight is warranted, even on these relatively small disbursements.
Where do the council chair candidates stand on the issue?
I also tried briefly to nail this down, but was stymied a bit by the relative obscurity of the topic. Al Allen seemed in favor of the current system when I talked with him. Liz Gilland tried to end it in the past and wasn't very complimentary of council members current use of the money. Mark Lazarus was a little fuzzy on the details, not surprising given that he's been off council for more than six years. Nevertheless, he and Debbie Harwell both said that in general they support the idea on the premise that individual council members know their districts the best. Big caveat though: Both Lazarus and Harwell said that they'd need more time to look into it to really have an informed opinion. And as for Fonzie Lewis, I just couldn't get him on the phone.
Other nifty data things
One of the biggest reasons I embarked upon this was just to familiarize myself with a few more online tools, specifically when it comes to analyzing and visualizing data. So I spent a lot of time fiddling with Google's tools. If you want to see the big data file behind it all, feel free to take a look. I also made a few charts that I just didn't include with the editorials on here or on the main site, because I just wasn't sure how useful they were.
The first was a basic graph showing spending over the years we looked at (it starts in mid-2005 because we there just wasn't any spending between Nov 04 and then).
I didn't get a whole lot out of it. No big patterns leaped out at me, except perhaps that council members spent more when they had more to spend, and 2007 and 2011 were pretty tame years for some reason.
The second was a lot of fun, a network graph that shows how all of the council members are connected to the beneficiaries, which are weighted by the amount given to them. It's kind of fun to pull the pieces around and look at the interplay. But I didn't get much real useful information out of it, except perhaps the idea that lots of stuff in Horry County is related. Enjoy.