AFTER HER appointment in the spring as executive director of the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, Henri Etta Baskins noticed that the organization got tons of calls from people seeking all sorts of help.
As she tracked the inquiries, a few issues rose to the top: homelessness, transportation problems and neighborhood violence. While the Community Relations Council connects individuals who call for aid with agencies that can help, Ms. Baskins began to ponder whether it could help address some of these issues in a broader way.
With the effort under way to get Richland County voters to approve a transportation sales tax that would, among other things, provide permanent funding for the Midlands’ woeful bus system, it seemed a natural thing for the council to get involved in.
“A lot of those people who were calling about transportation were also on the verge of being homeless because they couldn’t get to their job,” Ms. Baskins said.
She said the council reached out to many of the nearly 60 people who had called over a two-month period seeking help with transportation to see how much they knew about the sales tax proposal. “I was surprised that 35 percent of the people who called in were against the penny tax, but they were calling about needing transportation,” she said.
Many of them didn’t have much information or were simply skeptical of it all. Ms. Baskins said a recurring response was: ‘They’re not going to spend that money the way they say they’re going to spend it. They’re going to spend it in the rich neighborhoods.’”
Ms. Baskins sensed an opportunity for the Community Relations Council to play a role in helping voters get the facts so they could make an informed decision. The organization is hosting a forum on the sales tax proposal at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 22, at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.
“CRC is not taking a position in this forum,” Ms. Baskins said.
This will not be a debate, she said, calling it instead an opportunity for the public to hear from both sides at once in a civil environment. The council will require participants to agree to a civility pledge.
As much as this could be helpful to county residents, it also could pump new life into the Community Relations Council, which hasn’t taken on any high-profile issues in recent years. The council, established in the 1960s to help address racial division and inequality in our community, has struggled to find its place. If the forum is successful, expect the council to convene forums on other high-profile issues — homelessness? — in the future.
With November fast approaching, the sales tax proposal is the biggest issue there is in Richland County. As a matter of fact, it’s huge: The tax would be collected up to 22 years and generate more than $1 billion for the bus system and the other projects.
Those organized in favor of it say this is a pivotal moment in which Richland can grab hold of its own destiny by improving its entire transportation system — from transit to roads to bike paths — to not only improve quality of life but also promote development and stimulate the economy. Detractors say quality of life could well take a hit as county residents, poor people in particular, are saddled with a burdensome tax that could, at best, be wasted on projects that will have minimal impact or, at worst, end up being used simply as a slush fund by elected officials who can’t be trusted.
“This is a very heated issue,” Ms. Baskins said, which is why she says it’s important to provide a de-poisoned environment in which the community can hear both sides. “I think this will give people a chance to ask the questions they haven’t been able to ask or that haven’t been answered fully.”
“This is not going to get down to name-calling. You must be civil; you must be polite,” she said. “If they can’t sign off on that, then we’ll get some other participants.”
While the council’s forum might be one of a kind, it’s hardly the only way for voters to learn more about the sales tax. Frankly, there have been far more opportunities for the public to hear about the proposal this time around than in 2010,
County staff have been offering information forums across the county and are taking requests to appear before groups and at community meetings. More importantly, this time, County Council allocated money to pay for an educational campaign to inform residents about the referendum and how the penny would be used. The effort has allowed information to be circulated more widely. The county has been able to pay for television, radio and newspaper ads in addition to the community forums. “We’re even doing some of the commercials in Spanish,” county spokeswoman Stephany Snowden said.
Last time around, the county made a very limited effort to share information, relying on staff members to make presentations without providing dedicated funds. Sales tax opponents objected to using public money even to share information; the concern obviously was that staff might slant the information.
In addition to the county’s efforts, Citizens for a Greater Midlands, a well-funded group supported by the business community and others, has been aggressively pushing its pro-penny message while Not Another Penny, an anti-penny group, has been making its rounds in opposition.
Add the mounds of media coverage, including in-depth pieces by my colleagues here at The State, and this issue has gotten significantly more attention than before.
During a public hearing on the penny sales tax referendum held before County Council, several citizens said they weren’t clear about what they were voting on in 2010. That claim will be harder to make this time around.
If for some reason you still have questions, get busy and attend the forums and visit the county’s web site.
Then, come Nov. 6, go to the polls and make your feelings known.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or email@example.com.