Columbia, SC — THE IMAGE is still fresh in my mind of hundreds of people packed into the Earlewood Park Community Center in July, eager to provide input and observe as Columbia City Council hurriedly and prematurely approved the agreement that will guide the development of the old State Hospital property on Bull Street.
While its hard to sustain the kind of energy and effort put into attempting to sway the council on that issue, its important for citizens to remain engaged as their local elected officials carry out the publics business. No level of government can inflict as much pain or pleasure on citizens lives daily as cities and counties, which have more influence over peoples wallets (from property taxes to parking fees to water and sewer and garbage fees) and quality of life (think zoning and planning, local laws, street beautification and the like) than any other government.
Notwithstanding the Columbia City Councils rush job on the development agreement, local elected officials are generally more deliberative and responsive when voters and taxpayers are engaged and watching. As 2014 commences, the watchword for the year for citizens in the Midlands should be watchdog. While that role is understandably and often necessarily relegated to journalists, the fact is that local citizens have a role to play; theyre the ones with the power to oust poorly performing officials come election time.
Yet some people are far more concerned about whats going on in the White House a position they have the least ability to affect than they are about the actions of the government that is closest to them and over which they have the most influence.
Given the important matters on the table in Columbia and Lexington and Richland counties this year, that needs to change.
• By far the top issue for Columbia this year and for years to come will be how the city handles the Bull Street development. We still dont know how the city will fund tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure water, sewer and roads it has committed to provide. Yet theres a strong push to build a city-funded baseball stadium at Bull Street that could cost another $42 million, using money from who knows where.
• City water and sewer customers are understandably antsy, knowing that their bills will rise yet again this year to pay for major system upgrades. How much is unknown. Columbia already had planned to spend $500 million over five years on water and sewer improvements, but the price tag mushroomed after federal environmental regulators insisted on major sewer upgrades due to spills over the years. Ultimately, Columbia could spend well beyond $1 billion on its utilities over the next decade, and consumers will shoulder that burden.
By the way, will this be the year City Council seriously considers ending its practice of spending water and sewer revenue on things other than system maintenance and improvement? Its hard to justify drawing more than $4 million out of that fund when the system is falling apart and consumers bills are skyrocketing to pay for upgrades.
• Columbia supposedly is closing in on hiring a new police chief, who would be the eighth person since 2007 to hold the position. While its critical for city manager Teresa Wilson to hire a good law officer and manager who knows how to connect with the community, that alone wont determine the persons success. The next chief must be allowed to do his job without the interference of the council, which has been far too meddlesome in police affairs over the years.
Even with efforts to hire a chief advancing, dont be surprised if the discussion about placing the police department under Richland Sheriff Leon Lott gets hot and heavy again. What a way to welcome a new police chief, right?
• As it helps guide the effort to address homelessness in a way that is beneficial to some of the regions neediest as well as improve the environment for shoppers, businesses and visitors downtown, Columbia must get the entire community, including homeless advocates and service providers, involved. Also, Im still wondering what role providers such as Oliver Gospel Mission and Transitions are to play as the city works to reduce homelessness downtown.
• Roads, roads, roads. Thats what tops the agenda in Richland County this year and, yes, for years to come, as County Council eyes the beginning of infrastructure improvements that will be paid for by revenue from the transportation sales tax that voters approved in November 2012. Two thirds of the tax expected to generate a little more than $1 billion over the next 22 years will be used to pay for roads, sidewalks, bike paths and other projects.
But things have gotten off to a rocky start as the advisory panel the council established to watch out for taxpayers interest and promote transparency has questioned whether ICA, the Kentucky-based engineering firm the council hired to manage the massive program, was the right choice. ICAs team includes four engineering partners with Columbia offices, but some people think a local company should have been chosen for what could be a five-year, $50 million deal.
One selling point for the sales tax was that as many dollars as possible would be kept local. Im not sure what County Council could do at this point, but it should at least explain itself. Meanwhile, its critical that the watchdog committee continues raising questions, and equally important for the council to keep that panel in the know on the front end.
With the engineering firm in place, road paving and resurfacing could begin this summer. And the more that work ramps up, the more closely the public needs to pay attention: The competition for that work and the hundreds of millions of dollars attached to it will be fierce.
Ever since it became clear that Richland County would have this opportunity, lawyers, engineers and others have been courting council members relentlessly. As one council member told me: I probably could eat free every day of the year.
He was kidding. But when this kind of money is on the table, the media and the public must be ever vigilant in holding public officials accountable.
• Lets not forget about where the remaining third of the transportation sales tax revenue goes: to support the public bus system, which has begun implementing improvements and building a new brand. In addition to making substantive, visible service upgrades, its critical that the transit authority bids out the bus operations it would be the first time ever and gets an agreement that requires the operator to provide financial details that allow the public to see how its money is spent. Thats not always been the case under the current arrangement with Veolia.
• While County Council has no authority over the Elections and Voter Registration office, its compelled to levy taxes to fund the department, which in 2012 oversaw the biggest election debacle in modern history. Arent we all waiting to see if the office, which got a new director to make improvements but still failed to count 1,100 absentee ballots in this past Novembers countywide library referendum, will pull off clean elections in this Junes primaries and the November general election, which includes a gubernatorial and local races?
The biggest issue in Lexington County this year will be a plan to ask voters to approve a penny-on-the-dollar increase in the local sales tax to pay for infrastructure such as roads and sidewalks.
An advisory panel is putting together a list of infrastructure needs that could be funded by the new sales tax, and town, city and county officials are submitting ideas for panel members to select from. The plan is slated to go to voters Nov. 4.
The desires run the gamut from widening roads to adding turn lanes and sidewalks to making drainage improvements to building new buildings, walking trails and playgrounds. The tax is projected to generate $35 million a year. It would last eight years and could be renewed. Groceries and prescription medicines would be exempt.
While all of these issues are of the high-stakes variety, there are many other important issues known and unknown that will land on the agendas of the Midlands local governments that bear watching.
Just dont blink.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keeping a watchful eye
• Columbia City Council meets at 6 p.m. on the first and third Tuesday of each month in its third floor council chambers, at 1737 Main St. Meetings are rotated throughout the city on the first Tuesday of each quarter. View council meetings live at columbiasc.net/livewebcast. Meetings are replayed on Time Warner Cable Channel 2.
• Richland County Council meets at 6 p.m. the first and third Tuesday of each month in its second floor council chambers, at 2020 Hampton St. Watch council meetings live or via archive at http://asparchive.rcgov.us/videostreaming/index.asp. Meetings are replayed on Time Warner Cable Channel 2.
• Lexington County Council meets at 4:30 p.m. the second and fourth Tuesday of each month in council chambers, located on the second floor of the administration building, 212 South Lake Drive, Lexington. Watch council meetings live or on demand at http://lexingtoncountysc.iqm2.com/Citizens/default.aspx. Meetings are replayed on Time Warner Cable Channel 2.