Bolton: Pressure on Richland County leaders to make sales tax a success

Associate EditorFebruary 12, 2013 

— THERE ARE two sides to all coins, including the multitude that it would take to count out the $1 billion that Richland County’s new transportation sales tax will raise over the next 22 years.

In my Sunday column, I imagined the bright side of those coins: “If you believe that a rising tide indeed lifts all boats, then the infusion of cash expected from the transportation sales tax that voters approved Nov. 6 should bring with it a sense of hope and prosperity like we’ve never had in this community before.”

But while I am convinced that this community will be transformed for the better if our elected leaders demand accountability, there’s at least one other side to those coins: If our leaders fail to be good stewards over this money or mismanage projects, it would crush any remaining trust the public has in local government.

Any room for error disappeared when voters stood in ridiculously long lines during the botched Nov. 6 election. Although county officials had nothing to do with the fiasco — the elections and registration office is overseen by a board appointed by local legislators — many people don’t bother with such important nuances; as far as they’re concerned, government is government.

Unfortunately, when this kind of money is in the air, the opportunity to build wealth can be poisoned by graft, corruption, cronyism — and the arrival of a new crop of crooks. It would be poor stewardship to dole out money to friends and constituents based on relationships rather than ability to perform.

Many will be watching closely to see whether these projects are administered in an open, transparent and fair manner, whether all the public’s business and nearly all of the cash is steered to just a handful of well-connected law firms, engineers and construction companies.

Any hint of self-dealing, political deals or other unsavory activity will draw criticism and cries for investigations and audits — and a chorus of tax opponents singing, “I told you we couldn’t trust them.”

So, who should be feeling the pressure to make sure that money is awarded in the best interest of our community?

Richland County Council: The 11-member body will oversee the massive campaign to improve the county’s roads, sidewalks, bike paths, greenways and other projects. In addition to approving the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax, voters gave the council permission to borrow $450 million up front and repay it over time with revenues from the new levy.

County Council must make sure every “I” is dotted and every “T” is crossed. The council must put all the components in place necessary to make sure things are done the right way. That includes hiring bond attorneys, hiring an overall projects manager, enhancing or enacting rules that ensure all in this community have access to the procurement process, and so on.

Good stewardship is job one. There must be an accurate, timely and transparent accounting of what has been spent, where projects stand and what priorities remain.

The county’s municipalities. The towns and cities in the county must actively monitor the county. The public needs to know exactly how projects are prioritized and how the governments will cooperate when Richland is overseeing work being done inside a city or town.

I would be shocked if we get through this process without stumbling across a few political land mines. One could involve municipalities jockeying to get their projects ahead of others. Who’ll be the referee?

The citizens oversight committee. This panel is seen as the key safeguard to help Richland County stay on task and accountable. County Council has the final say, but the oversight committee is supposed to monitor its every move. The committee will provide quarterly updates to all jurisdictions involved, deliver an annual “State of the Penny” address and review and make recommendations if there are to be any significant changes to the projects list.

The business community. The business community, led by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce and a few key individuals, stepped out forcefully to support the penny. It even formed an organization that raised money to push for the approval of the new tax. Business leaders have said all along that they intend to stay engaged with local elected officials to help them make good, sound decisions.

The Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority board. The woefully inadequate bus system is about to get a huge funding increase. While the relatively new executive director and new board are generally considered up to the task, the proof will be in the pudding. So far, there has been few details about how the system will spend an additional $300 million over the next 22 years, creating worry among some. Transit officials, who are hammering out those details, had hoped by now to return some service that had been cut last summer, but they had to postpone action because of an attempt to get the courts to overturn the election.

That’s not all: Some citizens and elected officials are understandably concerned because 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 waste little time in bidding the bus service contract out, making sure that it requires full, open accounting of all public funds.

These groups shoulder much of the responsibility for making this mega-investment in our community a success. Some of them have put their reputations — and even their political futures — on the line. Here’s praying that when it’s all said and done, the coin toss will have been in our favor.

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

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