Bolton: Can Richland County Council be trusted with transportation sales tax?

Associate EditorOctober 21, 2012 

OF ALL THE REASONS critics give for opposing the transportation sales tax plan proposed in Richland County — it will raise the rate too high, it includes too many extras, it will last too long and collect too much, it should fund buses only — it’s quite likely that none of those will determine the fate of the measure.

Based on all I’ve observed, I believe the success or failure of the proposed penny-on-the-dollar increase hinges on whether a majority of voters feel like they can trust local government officials, Richland County Council members in particular, to be good stewards over the plan to spend over $1 billion on the public bus system, roads, sidewalks and other projects.

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear someone, even some supporters, raise the trust issue as a key factor in whether voters will say “yes” on Nov. 6.

“A lot of people do not trust council, and they’ve done it to themselves,” said one woman who called me recently.

Michael Letts and Don Weaver, members of the anti-penny group, Not Another Penny, came back to the trust issue over and over during a visit to the newspaper.

Henri Etta Baskins, executive director of the Greater Columbia Community Relations Council, which isn’t taking a position on the sales tax but is sponsoring a forum on the issue on Monday, told me that a number of people who have called her office were skeptical about whether public officials can be trusted. They said such things as “ ‘They’re not going to spend that money the way they say they’re going to spend it,’ ” she said.

I understand the concerns. Our local elected officials have made poor policy and spending decisions, held questionable — if not illegal — closed-door meetings and done other things to erode trust.

It wasn’t that long about that Columbia was mired in a fiscal mess that included two years of deficits and revelations that the city had paid some bills at least twice, gone years drafting budgets and spending money without knowing what it had taken in and for years received late, unreliable financial statements. Richland County’s spending and decision-making has come into question as it has used hospitality taxes earmarked for tourism-related projects on things such as a $1 million property along Garners Ferry Road for a speculative park; another $22 million on a sports complex in Northeast Richland raises questions as well.

Why give Richland County Council, which at times has struggled to manage a dirt-road priority paving list, nearly three quarters of a million dollars to oversee road improvements?

Sales tax supporters and County Council members point to the many safeguards on the planned projects, from a high-priority list to an oversight committee. Yes, County Council has the final say, but the oversight committee would monitor its every move. The committee would provide quarterly updates to all jurisdictions involved, hold an annual “State of the Penny” address and review and make recommendations if there are to be any significant changes to the projects list.

As for the bus system, there is every reason to believe that the new executive director and new board, which includes reputable and trusted citizens, will work hard to be accountable. But the lack of details about how the $300 million the system is expected to receive over 22 years is to be spent has some worried. That concern is heightened by the fact that Veolia Transportation Services, which operates the buses, has in the past refused to detail how public money it receives is spent.

The transit authority board must follow through on plans to bid out the contract and make sure that it requires full, open accounting of all public funds.

While I’ve got concerns, I intend to vote for the sales tax. It’s important that the bus system I grew up riding and that many I know still depend on not only continues to exist but is improved and expanded. On top of that, some of the transportation-related projects could spur growth.

And I’m comforted by the fact that a broad cross-section of the community is embracing the plan. Such influential business people as Mike Brenan and Lee Bussell are strong supporters. “I’m a business guy. I’m the last person in the world that’s for taxes,” Mr. Bussell said.

Yet he and others have led a very public and passionate effort to get the sales tax approved, stressing its potential impact on the economy. And more groups are openly supporting the effort than when the tax failed in 2010. The list includes the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, the Midlands Business Leadership Group, United Way of the Midlands, Sustainable Midlands, the League of Women’s Voters, the Eau Claire Community Council and others.

These individuals and groups have put their reputations on the line. They’re not going to tolerate shenanigans from County Council or other elected bodies.

Besides, while the sales tax would last for up to 22 years, local elected officials’ terms expire every four years. If they can’t be trusted, they shouldn’t be reelected.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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