IF COLUMBIA and Richland County officials get their way, this community soon could embark upon a public infrastructure spending spree of mammoth proportions.
While much of the spending is necessary, such as improvements to the city’s water and sewer system, a substantial amount falls into the categories of “nice to have but not required” and “straight from politicians’ wish lists.”
We’re not talking about tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars. When it’s all said and done, the total price tag could be in the area of a couple of billion dollars. Here’s where it would come from:
• The biggest chunk would be funded through a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax that would provide much-needed money to operate the Midlands public bus system and to build roads, sidewalks and other projects. While about a third of the $1 billion that would be raised over roughly 22 years would be dedicated to the bus system, the majority would go toward other projects, largely roads. In November, Richland voters will be asked not only to approve the sales tax increase but also to allow officials to borrow $450 million, to be repaid via the tax, so they can get started on roads and other projects as soon as possible.
• The second large chunk comes in the form of improvements to Columbia’s water and sewer system. The city has already begun some work on a multi-year effort to upgrade its dilapidated system. Some of the city’s lines are more than a half a century old and must be replaced.
The city increased water and sewer rates in July, and is expected to do so each of the next four years, to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements. It’s quite possible that, in the end, the city could spend in the neighborhood of a billion dollars for these necessary improvements. While the city has no choice but to make the improvements, customers might not be facing the level of increases headed their way if it had spent more water and sewer revenue to maintain the system over the years. Instead, the city transferred millions annually from the water and sewer fund to the general fund even as the system was crumbling — more than $80 million since 1999 alone.
• A city plan to establish two special tax districts to fund USC’s Innovista and public projects in north Columbia, including the old State Hospital site on Bull Street, calls for raising up to $110 million. The tax increment financing districts, or TIFs, would capture taxes from new development and divert the money toward improvements aimed at jump starting growth in and luring private investment into the districts.
While local officials like to assert that TIFs don’t increase taxes, they do shift the burden for city and county services and schools to taxpayers outside the prescribed areas. The city’s plan attempts to blunt that by using only 75 percent of the new revenue for TIF projects while allowing the remainder to flow into city, county and school district coffers.
There are some smaller public infrastructure projects under way or planned as well, including the county’s proposal to build a $22 million soccer complex, $32 million in improvements at Riverbanks Zoo (a cost Lexington and Richland county taxpayers will share), and ongoing construction on park improvements in Richland County, whose Recreation Commission is halfway through a $50 million campaign. Property taxes will pay for the work at the zoo and county parks while revenue from a 2 percent tax on prepared foods and beverages will pay for the soccer complex.
Whether you’re for or against these potential and ongoing projects, there are some questions worth exploring: Who is watching over all these proposals and considering their collective impact on the city and county? Who is asking whether the city and county — more specifically, residents and taxpayers — can afford it all? Although they are being proposed separately, there will be some cumulative impact. If everything is approved, some residents will be paying increased water and sewer rates, an additional penny-on-the-dollar for transportation and increased, no matter how small, property taxes.
Who will make sure all the work ahead is coordinated and that any clashes are minimal? And does this community have the capacity to manage multiple mega-projects at once? I’m not saying it can’t be done; I’m asking who is going to do it. There is a plan to have a project manager to oversee the construction funded by the transportation sales tax, but isn’t there also a need to at least have discussions about timelines, locations and other aspects of the various projects, to include the city’s water and sewer work, just to make sure there are no overlaps, delays or other consequences?
Things got pretty hectic for Columbia back in 2005 as it tried to simultaneously manage street improvements on Main Street, Lady Street and Harden Street. The projects seemed to drag on forever, leaving people wondering how long they would take. Some understandably questioned whether the city was trying to do too much construction at once and whether sufficient planning and coordination had taken place.
Obviously, there is much still up in the air. The sales tax vote won’t occur until Nov. 6, and Columbia, Richland County and Richland 1 have yet to agree on TIFs for north Columbia and Innovista, something that could happen — or be rejected — by year’s end.
Leaders ought to be having open discussions about how all of this affects consumers’ and taxpayers’ wallets and why all of it needs to be done. I’m certainly not convinced that all of this public investment should be on the table right now. I’m not convinced on the TIFs. And my main interest in the sales tax is keeping the buses rolling.
But if Columbia and Richland indeed do embark upon this public infrastructure building spree, there must be some coordination. Discussion should begin now, not after the fact. I hope someone’s thinking from a macro level and officials aren’t simply thinking about what’s coming to their district or to their street or to their particular constituents or special area of interest.
Residents and voters need to know that someone among their elected leaders, in particular, is trying to make sense of it all and is working to ensure that it all fits, not just in terms of whether all the projects can be done, but also whether they fit within personal and public budgets. The last thing we need are fresh water and sewer lines, improved buses and better roads while local citizens collapse under the weight of having to pay for them all.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.