Richland County’s transportation penny sales tax watchdog group wants to hire its own independent staffer to help it effectively scrutinize the county’s management of the more than $1 billion transportation improvement program.
In a two-hour work session Friday morning, 11 members of the citizens Transportation Penny Advisory Committee, or TPAC, hammered out a re-examined identity for themselves as a body to monitor the use of the tax that has recently come under investigation by the state Department of Revenue and State Law Enforcement Division for potential misuse and possible illegal activity.
The TPAC, which is considering changing its name to the Transportation Penny Oversight Committee, is still figuring out how it can – and what resources it needs in order to – provide a more effective layer of accountability that was promised to voters when they approved the tax program in 2012.
The biggest step the group might take in growing more teeth as a watchdog is having a paid staffer – someone who is not a current county employee – to provide independent expertise for the TPAC, committee members said.
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“I think one of the first things we need as a committee is ... someone who has an overall knowledge of research,” committee member James Faber said. “Someone who understands data gathering, someone who can crunch numbers and be able to give us something definitive in terms of how we ourselves can understand how the funds are being distributed.”
The committee has not yet drafted a description of that staffer’s responsibilities, but it would be seeking someone who, for instance, could procure, review and explain contractual and financial documents from the county related to transportation projects.
The TPAC already has the ability to request and review any contracts and expenditure reports from the penny program. Though, when that was pointed out to them by County Councilman Paul Livingston, a number of TPAC members indicated Friday they were not aware that they could do that.
Council will have to give the TPAC the authority and the funding for any staff hire to be made, but the TPAC wants the authority to choose itself whoever is hired.
A TPAC staff person could be paid for by transportation sales tax funds as part of the program’s administrative budget if council chooses to do so, said Rob Perry, the county’s transportation director.
While maintaining its responsibilities as a recommending and advising body to council, an early draft of the TPAC’s redefined roles includes more emphasis on strong oversight of work being done by the county.
“If someone thinks that we are going to prevent any possible wrongdoing or any unethical or inequitable act, that’s not going to happen, and I don’t think we should be talking about this if we think that is the purpose of it,” TPAC chairman Hayes Mizzell said. “We’re a group of citizens who are going to be doing our best to see that this is the case. We can’t offer a 100 percent guarantee to anybody that we can prevent (wrongdoing) from happening.
“We’re going to provide greater scrutiny than is currently the case, but that’s about all we can do.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.
Other recommendations from the TPAC
The Transportation Penny Advisory Committee has drafted recommendations concerning its roles and duties that it plans to bring to County Council soon. They include:
▪ Have the authority to retain a certified public accountant as an independent auditor to conduct an annual financial audit of all expenditures of the penny tax program. And if the county conducts its own independent audit, the TPAC will review the audit and present its comments to council.
▪ Allow the committee to comment on drafts of public information documents intended to communicate the plans, status and results of the penny implementation, including financial reports.
▪ Advocate that future appointments to the committee have necessary experience – either public transit, business, community or professional – that gives them a background to effectively contribute to the committee’s purpose. Also ensure appointments sign a no-conflict statement, and have the commitment and time to serve diligently.
▪ Establish an anonymous whistleblower hotline that any person could call with concerns about the penny tax program that the TPAC should examine.