Columbia SC council poised to reduce 2-year-old fee that once kept public buses running

cleblanc@thestate.comFebruary 5, 2013 

  • Other agenda issues Today, City Council is scheduled to meet at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. During its 3 p.m. work session, council is expected to: •  Discuss whether to change water and sewer rates that last year drew strong opposition from some customers. •  Update its policy on public notification of water outages. At its 6 p.m. meeting, council is scheduled to: •  Cast the first of two required votes to lift a bus fee it imposed two years ago. •  Approve the consumption of beer and wine in designated areas near the new Main Street open-air market. The 3 p.m. meeting will be at the former Eau Claire town hall, 3905 Ensor Ave., at Monticello Road. The 6 p.m. meeting will be next door at the Eau Claire print building.

Columbia City Council is scheduled to vote today tentatively to lift the 2 percent fee increase on utility bills that it imposed two years ago to help bolster the sagging finances of the metropolitan bus system.

The boost in the “franchise fee” produced an estimated $3.5 million to $4 million each of those years and helped stem deeper cutbacks in bus service during a deficit in transit budgets up to $3 million as recently as last year.

The bus fee is to drop back from to 3 percent from 5 percent at the end of June, when transit supporters expect that a lawsuit challenging the approval of the penny sales tax will be settled and the city’s fiscal year ends.

The fee shows up on monthly power bills and is charged to South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. for the use of power lines that are in public rights of way. SCE&G passes the fee on to its in-city residential and business customers.

City Council adopted the temporary bus fee in mid February 2011 with the condition that it would be dropped once voters adopted the sales increase.

The fee was the city’s attempt to provide a steady though temporary source of income for buses at a time when they were running out of money and facing cuts that would have sliced as much as 80 percent of the routes. The infusion of money from Columbia and Richland County Council kept the cutbacks to a minimum, but still resulted in stoppages for several months of weekend and holiday service.

If the S.C. Supreme Court were to overturn the tax increase, Columbia and Richland County would have to come up with more stopgap measures, Councilman Brian DeQuincey Newman, who also chairs the CMRTA, said Monday.

As of now, plans are that people who shop in Richland County would start paying the higher sales tax – 8 cents on the dollar instead of the current 7 cents – on May 1, Richland County Treasurer David Adams said.

Once the sales tax increase is fully in effect, it is expected to generate an average of about $14.5 million yearly for Central Midlands Transit Authority, which oversees the bus system, said Bob Schneider, who heads the company that handles day-to-day operations.

Richland County voters approved a referendum Nov. 6 to increase the sales tax and generate $1 billion-plus during the next 22 years for transportation improvements. That works out to about $311 million earmarked for improvements in the transit system that serves Richland County, Columbia and small portions of Lexington County.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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