When Columbia and Richland County started seriously discussing merging their planning departments, George Michael’s “Faith” was No. 1 on the Billboard chart and the Soviets were withdrawing from Afghanistan.
That was 1988, and the effort died with a whimper.
“People in the city thought it would be a good idea if the city ran it,” said Jim Papadea, a merger-minded City Council member at the time. “People in the county thought it would be a good idea if the county ran it. It was all about control, control, control.”
Today, city and county officials are renewing the merger discussion with a new mayor, new City Council members and a relatively clean slate when it comes to the traditionally testy relationship between the city and the county.
There are other factors — most City Council candidates in April’s election said they supported a merger and the planning director jobs in the city and county soon both will be vacant.
Proponents say a merger would save taxpayers money, streamline the permitting process and allow better growth management.
But some warn political considerations — such as the appointment of planning commissioners and urban-rural land-use disparities — could make a complete merger untenable.
Outgoing city director of planning and development services Marc Mylott said the planning system can be improved.
“But I don’t know if full-blown consolidation is the correct answer or integration,” he said. “But there are opportunities to improve deficiencies and collaborations.”
New Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin wants to take a look.
“The city and county may have some opportunities,” he said. “It’s something we’ve talked about for years. And if the result can be better planning, we need to study it.”
Richland County Councilman Greg Pearce agrees.
“I would love to see it happen,” he said. “This would be a good time to do it. I don’t think we would have a better time to do it.”
Some proponents say a merger of the planning departments, like a combined police department, would be one of the first steps toward having a consolidated city and county government.
“In the past, I even suggested calling (a consolidated government) Columbia County,” said Papadea, the former City Council member. “But (total consolidation) is a bridge too far. Nobody is going to give up their council seats.”
Others say having a merged planning department would eliminate duplication of services and be cheaper to operate.
“It would save the taxpayers a bunch of money,” said developer Stan Harpe, a former city planning commission chairman. “You don’t have to have all that top leadership.”
But most proponents say the biggest benefit would be streamlining permitting in both the city and the county.
“It’s about ease of use,” developer Ben Arnold said. “Everything in one place.”
Arnold said the city, under Mylott, has made strides in streamlining its process through its Columbia Development Center.
Combining the two departments is the next logical step.
“And the codes need to be updated for the 2010s,” he said. “This is our opportunity to come up with a set of building codes that can work for both the county and the city.”
Former City Council member Anne Sinclair agreed with proponents that joint planning would have its benefits.
“Like where water lines should go,” she said. “The benefit would be in deciding (together) how we grow.”
But Sinclair warned the political ramifications could be daunting. How would the planning commission be appointed? And the zoning board of appeals? And what would become of the city design development review commission?
“When you start talking about things like that, it’s easier said than done,” she said.
City administrator Steve Gantt said he is mulling whether to have the popular Mylott do a merger study before he leaves for the Chicago suburbs.
Mylott, a Chicagoland native, has taken a job as director of community development in Elgin, Ill., near his hometown of Chillicothe, Ill. He leaves Aug. 13. “With three kids, this puts us in the epicenter of grandmas and grandpas, uncles and cousins,” he said
County planning director Joe Kocy resigned in December after he wrote a controversial e-mail saying environmentalists and developers “should get ready to rumble” over new water pollution rules.
Mylott noted the city and the county are dramatically different in terms of land use — the city is mostly urban, the county is suburban and rural — and they have very different codes.
“What happens in downtown Columbia from a land-use perspective doesn’t impact someone with 40 acres on the edge of Richland County and vice versa,” he said. “The greatest opportunity is in the area where Columbia’s jagged municipal boundary intersects with Richland County.”
How a merger discussion will evolve has yet to be decided. Benjamin was just sworn in on Wednesday.
“Right now, I hope and pray that we can focus on delivering good government no matter who delivers it,” Benjamin said. “And we’re going to have that discussion. I can assure you of that.”
As George Michael sang: “You gotta have faith.”