RICHLAND COUNTY, SC — A unanimous state Supreme Court has denied an anti-tax group’s protest of Richland County’s results of the Nov. 6 penny sales-tax referendum, paving the way for improvements to the bus system starting June 1.
In a short, to-the-point order that came out Friday, the court declined to hear a case that threatened to overturn a local penny-on-the-dollar sales tax to pay for $1.07 billion in transportation-related improvements. It let stand an earlier decision by the S.C. Election Commission.
“We can start rolling now,” Kelvin Washington, chairman of Richland County Council, said Friday.
In the four months since the vote, the protests halted any effort to put the penny’s plans in motion – to hire a county transportation director, select the first construction projects or give bus riders relief.
The additional sales tax should show up May 1, with the tax increasing to 8-cents-on-the-dollar for most purchases.
Michael Letts and his Citizens for New Elections in Richland County challenged the results, because the county did not have the number of voting machines per precinct required under state law.
But with voters approving the tax by a 9,345-vote margin, he failed to provide evidence – either in documents filed for the Supreme Court or at protests to county and state election officials – that the long lines frustrating voters could have affected the outcome.
“At the end of the day, what we know is that over 154,000 people stood in line on election day for as long as it took, and they cast their ballots,” said John Moylan, an attorney for the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority. “And the Supreme Court chose rightfully not to disenfranchise those people.”
While the county’s sales-tax plan addresses roads, sidewalks and nature trails, too, it was the bus system under real funding pressure.
With routes and hours cut over the summer, Columbia bus rider Damond Wilson has been catching rides with friends and paying for cabs.
He was relieved to hear the uncertainty is over.
“That’s excellent,” he said Friday. “The only thing I can say is, I’m glad the Supreme Court made the right decision.”
While Letts’ group could ask the Supreme Court to reconsider, Moylan said he’d be “very surprised” if the outcome were to change.
Letts’ lawyer, Jim Carpenter, of Greenville, seemed resigned Friday.
“The fact that they did not give reasons for the decision would make it more difficult to file a motion to reconsider,” he said.
Bob Schneider, director of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority, said the agency is positioned to resume morning, evening and midday hours during the workweek by June 1.
It also should be able to restore service along major corridors, such as Broad River Road, Forest Drive and Two Notch Road.
That will require rehiring and retraining 12 to 15 people, including bus drivers, mechanics and one supervisor.
Next will be buying new, smaller buses and putting in shelters with an eye toward expanding service by the end of the year.
“It’s about time the community was allowed to do what they voted to do in November,” he said.
Efforts to reach Letts Friday were unsuccessful.
In an emailed statement, he decried “a system in which no one seems to be held accountable.”
Frannie Heizer, another attorney for the bus system, said: “I don’t think anybody involved in this appeal could take the position that our success or defense of the penny is an endorsement of the manner in which the election was conducted on Nov. 6. Our job was to focus on what does the law require a challenger to show in order to overturn a successful vote.”
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.