Roads, public safety, libraries and jobs, jobs, jobs remained the topics of conversation for local government. Sometimes, the conversation was about their own jobs ...
• Online retailer Amazon says it exceeded its goal of 2,000 new full-time jobs well in advance of the Dec. 31 deadline at its distribution centers near Cayce and in the Upstate. It was a deal the company made to get a sales tax collection break from the Legislature in 2011. The company also employs hundreds of part-time workers. Amazon’s payroll is among the largest in the Midlands.
• Battles over management of schools on the north shore of Lake Murray subsided after long-time critic Kim Murphy was ousted from the Lexington-Richland 5 School Board. Her removal came after a determination that her home near Chapin is just inside Lexington County instead of Richland County as long thought. She is challenging the decision but hasn’t pushed for rapid reinstatement.
• Batesburg-Leesville officials dropped a plan to handle sewage disposal for part of adjoining Saluda County after complaints from environmental and paddling groups that it threatened to pollute the pristine Edisto River.
• County leaders are developing a package of improvements that would be financed through a new penny-on-the-dollar sales tax. Plans call for putting a referendum before voters in November. Some council members want a small property tax cut to be part of the deal.
• Homeowners and marinas on Lake Murray are crossing their fingers for sufficient winter rain so boating returns to normal by spring. Lake levels fell seven feet in the fall, a drawdown recommended by environmental experts to keep the lake healthy. The step turns many coves into mud and brings hazards normally well under water close to the surface while making dock repairs easier.
• Christian prayers that commonly open many public meetings may disappear or become moments of silence or nonreligious expressions if a legal challenge to the practice in Lexington-Richland 5 schools succeeds.
• The Richland County Elections and Voter Registration Office stayed in the news all year because of nearly $153,000 in legal fees related to 2012 elections, a mishandled search for a new director that left just one candidate in the running and, in November, 1,114 absentee ballots that went uncounted in the library funding referendum. Voters are still waiting to hear whether someone will be held responsible – maybe even lose his or her job – for the absentee-ballot mistake.
• Absentee voters aside, the Richland Library got a resounding go-ahead from voters to spend a $59 million increase in property taxes for expanding facilities, with many branches adding meeting rooms and kitchens.
• Richland County Council backed off a new initiative requiring residents in some areas to bag leaves and other yard debris for trash pick-up. When approved, officials said the measure would eventually go countywide to protect water quality and keep storm drains from clogging. But by November, some council members were saying it was a physical and financial strain for elderly residents. They reversed course.
• Property values will be reassessed in 2014. Assessor John Cloyd expects property values to decrease slightly, though taxes will increase for higher-end property.
• Work should begin by summer on the first suburban resurfacing projects to be funded with the local penny sales tax for transportation. And the Midlands bus system will choose which company will run its buses.
• Richland County Council may continue to wrestle with whether to offer incentives – or how much to spend – to land retailers such as Costco and its many jobs.
• Get pumped for election season: Richland County will roll out 25 new precincts this year, which is sure to add a little extra drama to June primaries. Voters will elect state representatives, five members of Richland County Council and four countywide officials.
It was a raucous year at City Hall.
• 2013 began with the hiring of a new city manager – an internal candidate, Teresa Wilson, with a divided vote from City Council.
• Council members would go on to snipe at each other over spending of meal taxes, the purchase of the Palmetto Compress warehouse with public money, the signing of a binding agreement for the city’s contribution to the development of the Bull Street neighborhood and, most loudly, the strong-mayor form of government.
• Voters re-elected Mayor Steve Benjamin in November, then resoundingly rejected a strong-mayor system of government in December. That leaves Benjamin to deal with a council majority who fought him to keep the powers of council members as they have been for 64 years.
• City residents have yet to see if public money was well spent on rehabilitating the nearly century-old Palmetto Compress warehouse or the estimated $70 million committed to aid the construction planned for Bull Street.
• Council must decide how it will pay for water and sewer systems, roads, street lighting, parks and parking garages on the 183-acre Bull Street site. Construction of a minor-league baseball stadium would add even more public debt to the price tag for the neighborhood that is projected to produce $1.2 billion in revenue by its completion in 20 years.
• Wilson will hire a new police chief as a national search winds down – if council doesn’t find a way to interfere with what is supposed to be her decision.
• City Hall also will face tough decisions for the 2014-2015 budget. Council’s new budget committee chairman says he will seek to focus spending on public safety and a few other key issues. That would mean belt-tightening for other departments.
• Ratepayers will have to see how much their water and sewer bills will climb as the city decides how to meet a $750 million commitment to the federal Environmental Protection Agency to rebuild Columbia’s crumbling sewer system. Rate increases will be part of meeting that commitment.