Editorial: Richland County must live up to voters’ trust

November 11, 2012 

— ALTHOUGH Richland County’s voting fiasco has spawned a challenge to voters’ approval of a transportation sales tax to pay for bus service and construction projects, there’s little chance the results will change.

So leaders should focus on the fact that voters have upheld their end of the bargain by coming together to give this community a 22-year, $1 billion shot in the arm, and now elected officials must return the favor.

How can they do that? The ways are many:

For starters, Columbia City Council must deliver on its promise to rescind the portion of the utility franchise fee that has been used to fund the bus system the past couple of years.

The city and county also should abandon any efforts to create special taxing districts to pay for projects in USC’s research campus and north Columbia. Those areas will get at least some benefit from the transportation penny, which will provide long-term funding for buses and pay to improve roads and construct sidewalks, bike paths and other projects. Any attempt to extract even more public funds could — and should — be seen as purely a money grab.

It would be unfair for the councils to seek even more money after voters proved willing to increase the already-too-high sales tax, which is 7 percent on most items but 9 percent on prepared foods; those rates will rise to 8 percent and 10 percent, respectively, on May 1.

That’s just the beginning. Richland County, which will oversee this gigantic undertaking, must manage this money and these projects well and be open and transparent in doing so. Despite the public education campaign the county conducted, residents are unclear about many details, some of which were not yet available. The county must take great care to keep the public informed and engaged every step of the way. Part of that can be addressed by County Council and other elected officials selecting sharp, trustworthy people to sit on a citizens oversight committee that will monitor the process, sign off on significant changes in construction projects and make regular reports to the public.

While this is a complex issue that will take time to work through, the county must develop a timeline as soon as possible outlining what steps it will take when, from naming the oversight committee and hiring a project manager and bond attorneys to borrowing $450 million voters approved to get projects started as soon as possible and identifying which projects will be among the first to be constructed.

Similarly, the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority must reveal far more details about how the $300 million it will receive over the next 22 years will be spent to improve and expand the bus system.

The most compelling reason to support this effort was to provide stable, adequate funding to meet the Midlands’ overriding need for a vibrant bus system.

That said, this is a rare opportunity for this community to make a collective and meaningful investment in its future. There is little doubt that, if administered properly, this effort can transform the county’s transportation network, enhance quality of life, improve traffic safety, stimulate the economy and promote long-term growth.

Considering voters’ significant sacrifice, County Council, transit officials and other leaders must exercise due diligence, proper care and good stewardship in overseeing this monumental undertaking.

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