Bolton: Midlands residents should be concerned about what happens in Columbia

Associate EditorAugust 4, 2013 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

“Have you let your readers know that you don’t live in Columbia anymore? I sure don’t remember reading that.”

ALTHOUGH I’ve written many times over the years that I don’t live within Columbia’s city limits, readers still sometimes accuse me of hiding that fact.

They proceed to imply — or tell me outright — that I don’t have any right to share my opinions about city policy and politics. As far as they’re concerned, I’m an outsider who has no stake in what happens inside the city.

They’re wrong. Not only do I have a right to follow what happens in Columbia, but I have a responsibility.

First of all, it’s my job. As the associate editor who monitors Lexington and Richland counties on behalf of the editorial board, I’m obligated to write about a range of issues dealing with public bodies or of public interest.

Besides, I grew up in Columbia. I have family and friends living in the city. My wife owns a business in town. We are Columbia water customers.

More importantly, Columbia is our capital city and the hub of the region. As goes Columbia, so goes the Midlands. A lot of what Columbia does affects all who live in the region. That should compel us all — whether we live in Lower Richland or Blythewood or the town of Lexington or Red Bank — to keep at least one eye on what’s going on in the capital city.

If you don’t believe that what Columbia does can affect those outside its borders, just ask the folks in Lexington County and Irmo who are still steamed over the shoestring annexation Columbia used to take in Columbiana Mall — and the taxes that came with it. Or ask Richland County officials how it feels to have to deal with sprawl and unexpected growth caused by where Columbia unexpectedly ran water and sewer lines. As the dominant water and sewer provider in the region, Columbia has significant power; it even uses water service to force some people to accept annexation.

The reader who recently raised concern about me not being a Columbia resident did so during an email exchange over opinions I’d shared in regard to City Council’s approval of the agreement that will help guide the development of the State Hospital property on Bull Street. That project, once completed, could change this entire region, not just the city.

Not only does the region stand to benefit, but depending on how the city funds its commitment to provide the project with tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure, some non-city residents might have to shoulder some of that burden.

What if the city decides to use water and sewer revenue and has to increase rates? Water customers who live outside the city pay twice as much as Columbia residents. Or what if the city pursues a tax increment financing district to help pay for the improvements? Not only would incremental property tax dollars be siphoned off from the city, but money that would otherwise fund county and school district operations could be diverted as well.

If residents outside of Columbia help fund development and growth in the city, are subject to annexation and pay a premium for water — in addition to being influenced in a number of other ways — shouldn’t they care about what the city is doing?

Whether residents — or readers — understand it or not, other local governments on both sides of the river know that Columbia is the hub of the region, even if they have come to that conclusion reluctantly.

Do you know why Lexington and Richland counties helped build the convention center and buy land for the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia’s Vista? The counties know their citizens and businesses gain from visitors, new tax revenue and industry drawn to a strong, viable city. That’s why Richland County and Richland 1 helped fund development in the Vista via a special tax district.

While many businesses and industry are drawn to unincorporated Lexington and Richland counties, they are very interested in what’s going on in downtown Columbia. Is it stable? Is it vibrant? Does it offer amenities, attractions and a quality of life that would satisfy a robust workforce?

One Richland County official told me recently that Richland often has to sign on the dotted line when new industry relocates to area, but the business owner wants to talk to the mayor, not the chair of County Council.

That’s because Columbia is the head of the economic city and the mayor is seen as the CEO, although a weak one under the city’s council-manager structure.

Although we have more than a dozen municipalities in the two counties and are divided by a river, there is only one “economic city.” The political entity we know as Columbia makes up only a small portion of the real city. The true Columbia is splintered into many jurisdictions that, together, make up what most of us embrace as “Columbia.”

When those of us who live outside Columbia travel, many of us tell people we’re from Columbia.

As Columbians, it would behoove all of us to keep a close watch. I certainly will be.

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

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