Columbia, SC — REMEMBER the development proposed at the old State Hospital site on Bull Street? You know, the one that is supposed to transform downtown Columbia and the surrounding area?
The developer said last year that certain deadlines had to be met in order to get the project off the ground and moving forward successfully, but there obviously was no big rush. Columbia City Council has approved a zoning plan, but little has been revealed about what is going to be built and when.
2013 should bring answers to lots of questions about Bull Street, from when this project will get started to what it will look like to how much city taxpayers will be asked to spend on infrastructure.
The future of Bull Street is among a number of important projects and issues the Midlands’ top three local governments — Columbia and Lexington and Richland counties — will tackle this year. While some deal with policy and others with leadership, many involve the expenditure of public dollars that, if handled correctly, could lead to better services, improved quality of life and economic development that could shape this region for the next generation and even beyond.
Here’s a sampling of what Columbia and Lexington and Richland counties will be confronted with this year.
• City Council is poised to hire a new city manager to replace Steve Gantt, who has ably and admirably led the city the past few years. The city has offered the job to assistant city manager Teresa Wilson; if she accepts, the council could vote on a contract on Tuesday.
Some city officials talk glowingly about Ms. Wilson, but I don’t know enough about her to say what kind of city manager she would be. I do wonder what hiring a new city manager will mean to the discussion about the city’s form of government. There’s no better time to talk about moving from an unelected, unaccountable manager to an elected, full-time mayor overseeing day-to-day operations than when one manager is exiting, as Mr. Gantt is. Once someone occupies the position, it’s harder to have that conversation, especially if the new manager is effective.
• Columbia voters will go to the polls in the fall to choose a new mayor and three council members. The council wisely voted last year to move city elections from the spring to the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November during odd years. The idea is to boost voter turnout, which is historically low in municipal elections.
The change required the council to shorten the terms of all seven sitting members by six months. The terms of Mayor Steve Benjamin and council members Sam Davis, Tameika Isaac Devine and Leona Plaugh end Dec. 31 rather than June 30, 2014. Here’s the big question: Who, if anyone, will run against Mayor Benjamin, who has proven very capable? I’m guessing no one. We’ll see.
• Late last year, Columbia, along with Richland County and Richland District 1, postponed action on proposed tax increment financing districts that would siphon off tens of millions in future tax dollars to fund improvements in North Columbia and Innovista. The matter is better off left dead, but don’t be surprised if these districts are revived. Mayor Benjamin has said he is working on a plan that could provide funding for projects in North Columbia without the special tax district. We’re waiting.
• Columbia ended last year wringing its hands over how — or whether — to adjust water and sewer rates after some large customers complained about increases that went into effect in July. The new revenue is to be used to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in improvements to the city’s aged water and sewer system. The problem before the council now is that it will soon begin discussing the next fiscal year’s budget, a discussion that is expected to include yet another round of water and sewer rate increases.
• While Richland must decide whether to participate in the TIFs Columbia is seeking, the county’s biggest task this year — and for years to come — will be overseeing the transportation sales tax that voters approved in November. The penny-on-the-dollar increase is expected to generate more than $1 billion over a 22-year period to improve the Midlands bus system and pay for roads, bike paths, sidewalks and other projects.
All eyes will be on the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority board, the director who manages the bus system and Veolia, the transportation company that operates the buses, as changes begin to take place. It will also be interesting to see if the CMRTA board will bid out the operation of the bus system, which it certainly should.
The public also will be watching closely as County Council oversees road construction and other projects. Many will want to follow the money as the years roll by: Who will get the bond work? Who will get the contract to oversee all construction? Who will get the work to construct individual projects? An oversight committee — appointed by various local governments — that should be fully assembled this month will be key to helping the public follow this process and keeping the elected officials on task and accountable.
• Richland County is expected to proceed with an unnecessary sports complex that, for the moment, will focus only on soccer. The $22 million complex is being pursued outside of the purview of the county Recreation Commission, which has the know-how and responsibility to run recreational facilities in the county. Even as County Council is talking about dumping money into this speculative complex, the Recreation Commission is hurting for money to fund new and newly renovated parks. What gives?
• Lexington County Council is expected to consider placing a penny-on-the-dollar tax question on the ballot in 2014. Unlike Richland, Lexington wouldn’t use any of the tax for transit. The county has huge roads needs and has struggled for years to find a way to address them. An advisory panel will develop a preliminary package of improvements that a new sales tax would finance.
• The county intends to continue making investments in an airstrip in Pelion. The council is considering $4 million in improvements in an attempt to make the strip more appealing to business travelers. But this has been a waste of money from the start. With Columbia Metropolitan and Hamilton-Owens Airport both in the region, there’s no need for this duplication. Instead of continuing to waste tax dollars — mostly federal — on this airstrip, the council needs to find a way to sell it without being penalized by the federal government.
• Lexington County and other local governments are searching for funding for the long-delayed new entry into Columbia Metropolitan Airport, which could cost as much as $80 million.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or email@example.com.