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October 19, 2012

Richland Council candidates address need for bus ‘Plan B’

At a Thursday candidate forum, Richland Councilwoman Val Hutchinson tossed out ideas about how to pay for bus service if voters again reject a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax for transportation next month.

Finally, a Plan B.

At a Thursday candidate forum, Richland Councilwoman Val Hutchinson tossed out ideas about how to pay for bus service if voters again reject a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax for transportation next month.

Hutchinson predicted the council would reinstitute a transit fee, paid by car owners, before returning in 2014 with a request for one-third of a penny – solely to pay for bus service.

At the same time, she said, the county could ask voters for a separate penny sales tax lasting five to seven years to complete a specific list of road projects.

Hutchinson said she would like to coordinate the local sales-tax effort with Lexington County so businesses would not feel at a competitive disadvantage in either county. Some council members in adjacent Lexington County have said they intend to seek a local sales tax for roads in two years.

“We’ll do it together,” Hutchinson said.

While Hutchinson was specific in laying out her ideas, she said later there is no consensus on the 11-member council about how to pay for bus service if the Nov. 6 referendum fails.

Much of the forum, sponsored by the Columbia League of Women Voters, centered on the sales tax for transportation.

Voters in five council districts will see races on their ballots, in addition to the penny question.

In District 2, Democrat incumbent Joyce Dickerson shared the stage with her opponent, Republican Michael Koska.

At one point, Koska accused Dickerson of accepting money from business leaders for a junket to China.

When it came Dickerson’s turn, she said, “We haven’t had the pleasure to really meet or speak ...”

Koska interrupted her. “That’s a lie.”

The crowd shushed him.

Dickerson then said she had a $1,800 receipt for the China trip.

Incumbent Jim Manning, meanwhile, commended his GOP opponent Michael Letts for being a “civil candidate” in District 8.

Hutchinson’s comments came after a question on whether there is a “Plan B” for bus service. Some of the seven candidates in attendance used the opportunity to criticize County Council for failing to have a fall-back plan.

Her comments were the most specific yet by a public official addressing “what if?” the sales tax doesn’t pass.

County voters are being asked to raise the sales tax by 1 percent, to 8-cents-on-the-dollar, to pay for roads, bus service, sidewalks, bike lanes and nature trails. The tax would last for 22 years or until it raised $1.07 billion, whichever came first.

Among other responses to the question about a “Plan B”:

“There is no contingency plan, and that’s a huge mistake,” Letts said.

Manning said council listened to voters who, after the 2010 sales-tax defeat, said they hadn’t known what was in the spending plan. So the council budgeted $50,000 for informational materials this go-round. State law requires the county to give out only neutral information, Manning said.

“If that’s not what the county’s doing, call SLED and have them investigate,” he said.

“I second that,” Koska said.

Torrey Rush, the Democrat in District 7, said the county does have alternatives to the penny sales tax – a road-maintenance fee and the transit fee.

And Helen “Ree” Daniels Taylor, running as a petition candidate in District 10, said if voters defeat the sales-tax, the council will find a way to keep the buses running.

Said Dickerson: “We got it on the ballot. It is up to you to vote, not me.”

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