Bolton: Richland County, Columbia watchdogs must be vigilant, persistent

Associate EditorMarch 12, 2014 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— HERE’S A gentle reminder to voters and taxpayers in the Midlands: Watch as well as vote.

In case you forgot or missed it, I noted in a column at the start of the year, that “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.”

In other words, get engaged in your government.

In a Sunday column outlining woes in Columbia and Richland County — from the county elections board run amok to the sorry state of the Columbia Police Department (hardly the fault of the hard-working rank and file) to the infighting on City Council — I noted that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen things so bad.

And I didn’t even provide an exhaustive list. But since I write for a daily newspaper, I can come back and tell, well, the rest of the story.

There are several other issues at play that, if they’re not handled properly, will only serve to further damage the public trust. I will highlight two in particular here. Both are related to the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase approved in November 2012: Richland County’s handling of the competitive bidding process for firms seeking to oversee the mammoth program to construct roads and other projects and the Central Midlands Transit Authority’s effort to hire a new bus operator.

Two-thirds of the new sales tax — expected to generate a little more than $1 billion over the next 22 years — will be used to pay for roads and other construction projects while the remainder will fund improved bus service.

The understandable excitement and anticipation of improved roads have been overshadowed by County Council’s bungling of the bid process to choose an engineering firm.

In January, County Council selected Kentucky-based ICA Engineering from a field of five teams to oversee the program. The second-place finisher, CECS of Columbia, protested the award of the contract, which is projected to be worth $50 million over five years. The council would later rescind its vote to hire the out-of-state engineering firm. While the details surrounding the reversal aren’t all known, the fact that the vote to start over was unanimous makes it clear that there is a great deal of concern.

Meanwhile, citizens are left to wonder.

What we do know is that the Transportation Penny Advisory Committee, which the council established to be a watchdog over the process, as well as others had objected when the county hired the out-of-state company, pointing out that the council had promised local groups would get as much of the work as possible. That resulted in a dispute about the panel’s role and whether it had the right to see certain information related to the bid process. Questions also have been raised about whether the panel will have a say in prioritizing road projects.

But just as the promise to keep as much work local as possible was a selling point for the sales tax, so was the council’s promise to establish this watchdog group to monitor projects and the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on them. The panel was County Council’s way of addressing concerns that the council might turn the sales tax revenue into a slush fund.

The problem with the engineering contract as well as questions about the council’s commitment to allowing the advisory committee to do its job have raised eyebrows. People are watching to see how the council handles these matters.

To be clear, the council has final say over how sales tax revenue is spent. But it is critical for the watchdog panel to be given access and support to monitor progress, give public reports and raise red flags as the council oversees the $769 million construction program approved by voters. And the council’s handling — or should I say mishandling? — of the engineering contract begs for ongoing outside review of this entire process.

County Council must provide the advisory panel sufficient access and support. And the citizens committee must have the courage to ask questions and be persistent in pursuing answers and shining a light on any flawed or potentially corrupt activities.

There’s also quite a bit of interest in the operation of the public bus system. Again, there is obvious excitement over the fact that the woefully inadequate bus service is in line for substantive service upgrades.

Much focus also should be on the results of the first-time-ever competitive bid process to determine what company becomes the new bus system operator. The transit authority is wisely focusing on a number of important elements of a contract, including making sure local, minority-owned and small businesses participate in the process.

But it’s also important that a new agreement require the operator to provide financial details that allow the public to see how its money is spent. That’s not always been the case under the arrangement with Veolia Transportation, which has operated the system for over a decade.

Some worry about where negotiations to hire a bus operator might be headed, given that the process has gone months longer than expected. But transit officials suggest a key holdup is ensuring that the operator is committed to hiring local and minority-owned subcontractors. With this possibly being a 10-year contract, it’s important to get the best deal for the community, including meeting expectations to keep as much money as possible here.

Veolia, First Transit and Keolis are the companies competing for the deal. The contract is expected to be worth $7.5 million for the first year, growing to $12 million to $15 million per year by 2020 as services are added.

The bus board had been negotiating with one operator, which it hasn’t identified, but switched gears to begin talks with Keolis, the No. 2-ranked firm.

It appears to me that the bus board could make a deal in the best interest of the citizens sooner than Richland County unravels the engineering mess. But it’s important that both be resolved without taxpayers taking a hit.

But even after those are done, it’s imperative for people to keep an eye on how the bus system is operating as well as how the county moves forward with the massive construction program.

Come on, watchdogs, be vigilant and persistent.

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

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