Columbia residents seek certainty on use of tax money at penny tax forum

September 19, 2012 

Mayor Steve Benjamin took command of a community forum on the penny sales tax Wednesday, telling skeptics that they wield power at the polls if public officials don’t make good on their promises.

One after the other, three members of the audience quizzed county presenter Roxanne Ancheta on whether a list of proposed road projects was guaranteed.

Ancheta, an assistant to the county administrator, responded: “That is a list of projects that council would like to see completed.”

But she acknowledged Richland County Council could make revisions that first went to a citizen “watchdog” committee, a public hearing and three votes of the council.

“City Council and County Council will do whatever they want to do,” Marvin Johnson Jr. said at one point from the front row.

Johnson also noted the city acquired the bus system from power company SCE&G – and that’s the system now needing the public subsidy of the proposed penny tax.

Benjamin walked from the back of the auditorium at the Richland County Public Library, where about 60 people had gathered for a forum on the sales-tax proposal.

The mayor said the county developed its project list through “a long, arduous process” but that “things change” and some projects could fall off the list.

“If council comes back and say, ‘Ah, we’ve changed our minds,’ then voters have the right to change their minds,” he said.

He continued to address Johnson’s comments. The two men stood to face one another at the front of the hall.

“This is not about SCE&G,” Benjamin said.

“This is about the future. … This is about building a city.”

The meeting was one of a half-dozen scheduled so far to explain the tax proposal appearing on Nov. 6 ballots in Richland County.

Three more citizen forums are scheduled. Two forums will be held Thursday, Sept. 20, at 6 p.m: Blythewood Park, 126 Boney Road in Blythewood, and Lower Richland High School, 2615 Lower Richland Blvd. in Columbia. The final forum is scheduled for Monday, Sept. 24, at 6 p.m. at Bluff Road Park, 148 Carswell Road in Columbia.

Increasing the sales tax to 8 cents-on-the-dollar for the next 22 years would raise $1 billion used to improve transportation: roads, bus service, sidewalks, bike lanes and greenways.

As much as anything, members of the audience seemed to be asking for certainty.

Doretha Bull said information provided on changes to bus service was too vague.

“I’m going to give you another penny, and I’m still not guaranteed a route,” she said.

Matt Woolsey said he’d been begging for a sidewalk along Harrison Road for years. It’s on the work list, but he wanted to know when it would be built.

“Is it going to be next year, or five years, or what?”

Ancheta said consultants would determine the order of projects, based on such factors as whether the city or county already owned required land and whether permits were in hand.

And Andrew Marion asked about the list of projects to be completed with the proceeds. He referred to it as “a wish list … that could be changed, rearranged.”

Richland Councilman Paul Livingston said that wouldn’t make sense.

“Why would we want to adopt a list, and then turn around and change it?” he asked.

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