He’s audacious and a go-getter who is getting results and ruffling feathers.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin’s cheerleaders point to his eloquently crafted vision for Columbia balanced by his pragmatism in pushing through a deal to construct the Capital City’s largest, /possibly most innovative neighborhood and helping to revitalize its commercial core.
“I don’t know that he’s absolutely right, but I commend him for being bold enough and courageous enough to go beyond our racial pockets, past our neighborhood pockets to lead us to where we will all benefit,” said Bishop Redfern II, a longtime city activist and one-time mayoral candidate. “He’s willing to take the hit for what he believes in.
“In this one mayor we have someone who has the wherewithal to go down to the chamber (of commerce) and say, ‘I need your money’ and go to the African-American community and say, ‘I need your involvement,’” said the leader of the Ecumenical Church of Christ.
Benjamin, a 43-year-old attorney, is seeking his second term in the Nov. 5 election.
Benjamin became Columbia’s first black mayor in 2010 with a 10 percentage point margin. His victory was built from a solid African-American voter base that broadened into support in white and upscale precincts. Benjamin’s win three years ago made Columbia the last of 11 Southern states’ largest cities to elect an African-American mayor.
Retired attorney Kathryn Fenner, who’s active in city issues, said she dislikes the way Benjamin has steamrolled decisions such as the contract with Greenville developer Bob Hughes to build the 181-acreBull Street neighborhood.
But she’s resigned to support the incumbent because he’s “a very effective leader.”
Benjamin’s detractors question his allegiance to his roots, to monied interests or to his political ambition. Some ask question whether taxpayers can afford Benjamin’s big plans.
“I think that Steve is a great marketing tool for the city,” said former councilman Daniel Rickenmann. “The question is he’s not very good with the details – the loosey- goosey-ness of the Bull Street deal. To this day, nobody’s shown me how we’re going to pay for that, and we’re on the hook for $71 million.”
In his re-election bid, Benjamin returns to his themes of optimism and broad appeal. Yet he prides himself on taking action and decries incessant deliberation.
“If we’re willing to think big and work together, Columbia can become the most talented, educated and entrepreneurial city in the Southeast, if not America,” he tells audiences.
Main Street revitalization
Benjamin claims credit for at least $282.6 million in downtown investment since May 2011 – about a year after he took office.
His mayoral staff has compiled a list of 39 businesses that have invested $5,000 to as much as $80 million. The Hub student housing complex under construction on Main Street tops the list.
The list has 19 other projects, but the mayor’s staff has not determined the extent of those investments. The list also does not include businesses that have closed since spring 2011.
Benjamin regularly cites “about $300 million” in investment during his term. He says he could do even better with the authority that would come to him if he is elected Columbia’s first strong mayor.
Yet Rickenmann and others take issue with some of Benjamin’s claims, arguing the net increase in the tax base is negligible and that some of the projects were lined up well before Benjamin took office in July 2010.
“If those numbers were truly that much, then our taxes ought to be going down,” Rickenmann said. “And I don’t think our tax collections are going up.”
The city’s financial office repeatedly has told City Council that the tax base is barely growing in a city where more than half the property is tax exempt because it is owned either by state government or the University of South Carolina.
The $26 million Benjamin lists for AgFirst bank, for example, is simply the relocation of a business from one building to another, Rickenmann said.
“The ($60 million) Edens Building was planned before he came into office,” council’s immediate past chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee said. The $6 million expansion of Holy Trinity Church and the $4.8 million investment in the Mast General store were during former mayor Bob Coble’s administration, Rickenmann said.
Benjamin’s campaign staff counters that the purchase price of the old AgFirst building “greatly increased” the taxable value of the property. That means the higher value will generate more tax revenue.
Further, said Benjamin campaign spokesman Adam Fogle, the bank could have left town and taken all of its taxes with it.
Regarding Holy Trinity and Mast General, Fogle said it doesn’t matter which mayor gets the credit as long as Columbia prospers.
“The bottom line is that Columbia always will have naysayers," Fogle said, "and I regret that former councilman Rickenmann is now one of them.”
Benjamin routinely tells voters that to build the tax base, the city must come up with “creative funding.” He often speaks of a new meal-tax bond, public/private partnerships and tax anticipation notes.
Yet three and a half months after committing the city to about $70 million to install basic services in the Bull Street project, neither he nor council has spelled out how City Hall will come up with that much money.
The Columbia Police Department is under white-hot scrutiny. Its interim chief, Ruben Santiago, and a fired captain are being investigated for allegations of corruption or misconduct.
Last week, simmering complaints that the Five Points commercial district is unsafe at night erupted after a University of South Carolina sorority pledge was shot and paralyzed by a random gunshot. The crime incited the president of the university to declare the popular entertainment district unsafe after midnight and to ask for help from other Columbia-area police agencies.
Benjamin called together concerned residents last week to help find an answer to what he said is a deeply rooted, difficult citywide problem with violent criminals, courts and frustrated young people. The session let the community vent its frustrations. No new, specific initiatives emerged from the two-hour meeting.
Despite police department figures showing violent crime continues to drop across the city, he and Santiago have said they must address the perceptions of crime and focus on the parts of town where crime is worse.
Benjamin is quick to point out that under the current form of government, which leaves day-to-day decisions to the city manager, he can’t hire or fire a chief or any other city employee.
“The first thing I’ll do as a strong mayor is make the police chief report directly to the mayor,” Benjamin said in an interview. “If the police chief doesn’t do a good job, he gets fired, and if he doesn’t get fired, then the mayor is responsible for that.”
He also plans to return the embattled department to abiding by a strict chain of command that would minimize micromanaging from City Hall and strengthen the chief’s authority, including on hiring and promotion decisions.
“It was par for the course (that) if officers had an issue, they would circumvent the chain of command and go to the city manager, assistant city manager or a City Council member,” Benjamin said.
That will stop if he becomes Columbia’s first strong mayor, Benjamin said.
The least-known challenger for the mayor’s seat, former Richland County deputy Larry Sypolt, said Santiago should be allowed to independently fill some two dozen empty jobs, including those in his inner circle.
A second Benjamin administration
An advocate of a strong-mayor system since his days as USC’s student body president, Benjamin has said little publicly about how he would run the office if voters on Dec. 3 adopt that form of government.
He said he has been restrained to avoid the appearance of being presumptuous.
Broadly, Benjamin said, his inner circle would be streamlined from the current City Hall structure of a city manager and three assistant city managers. The police chief answers to two bosses and, in practice if not by law, to seven council members.
Benjamin would not say whether as a strong mayor he would name a chief of staff or to ask council to approve one or more administrators for an executive staff. “I’m undecided,” he said. Anyone who is part of his inner circle would have to meet Benjamin’s “measureable expectations.”
State law allows council to approve administrative positions. But once authorized, council cannot control them or fire them. Hiring and firing of the city’s 2,230 full- and part-time employees would be left to a strong mayor.
Council cannot remove a strong mayor, but it can cut the salary for the position. Still, state law allows a strong mayor to have other jobs and income.
Benjamin has said he will give up practicing law and would be a full-time mayor.
If re-elected, he said his top three priorities would be:
• To remain focused on improving public safety, especially crime fighting, with more police cruisers and better equipment.
To pay for new equipment, Benjamin said he plans to propose that council cut the general fund by 1 percent next fiscal year. That should free up about $650,000 for the police department, which already consumes 46 percent of the general fund. That’s the fund that pays for most city services.
• To attract new or expanded businesses that will bring more jobs. The city recently hired a new economic development director and a business ombudsman to help applicants for city permits get results faster.
• To improve the city’s quality of life, especially by addressing programs for young people through mentoring and expanding sports in city parks.
“We’ve got to figure out thoughtful, strategic ways to do more with less,” Benjamin said.
His highly organized campaign has brought in at least $410,000 in contributions, Benjamin’s campaign has said. He does not have to reveal exact figures, contributors or expenditures until Monday, under the state’s disclosure laws.
Benjamin said his campaign plan calls for use of television ads as Election Day draws near. That is in addition to an active social media presence, reams of news releases, billboards, radio ads, fliers, mayoral forums and scores of media interviews.
A conflicting fundraising event earlier this month that forced a change in the start time of a Columbia mayoral forum created buzz among Benjamin’s critics.
Benjamin asked that the Oct. 8 North Columbia Business Association forum be moved from 6 p.m. to 3 p.m. even though his opponents had agreed to the later schedule.
Benjamin told The State newspaper he had a scheduling conflict with a fundraiser at a Greenville restaurant.
One of the Upstate businessmen who was at Travinia Italian Kitchen was Jonathan Pinson, a longtime business partner and friend, the mayor said.
Pinson is under federal indictment on corruption charges during his tenure on the board of trustees of S.C. State University in Orangeburg. Pinson’s trial on kickback and influence-pedaling charges has been postponed from October to January.
Pinson is accused of asking a developer for a $100,000 Porsche SUV in exchange for brokering a land deal with the university. Pinson also is accused of profiting by steering a contract to someone he knew to promote the school’s 2011 homecoming concert. The mayor has said that as Pinson fights the charges, he will not cut his business ties to him.
Benjamin told The State that Pinson was not among the organizers of the fundraiser.
Co-sponsor and former Lt. Gov. Nick Theodore told The State, “Jonathan was there, and I’m pretty sure he was an organizer.”
Benjamin’s media adviser, Adam Fogle, said a search of campaign contributions dating to October 2010 found no donations from Pinson.
The mayor said he drove his car to the event and did not use the city vehicle and driver assigned to him by the police department because of security threats.
Business leaders at the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce have been loudly in Benjamin’s corner throughout his re-election campaign.
Ike McLeese and Lee Bussell have led the cheering section, crediting the mayor with closing the deal for Bull Street and organizing the campaign to get a strong-mayor referendum on the ballot this fall.
The mayor argues the city cannot cut off cold turkey the $9.3 million council has transferred each of the past two years from cash-flush water and sewer funds into the General Fund.
Benjamin proposed and council adopted a go-slow plan that caps the direct transfers at 5 percent.
Still, council cut this year’s transfer by a mere $250,000, to $4.25 million. The transfers that made up the rest of the $9.3 million included those that paid for the cost of providing water and sewer services ($2.27 million), helped the city’s development corporation ($1.25 million) and aided the economic development staff ($1.2 million), among other smaller transfers, according to figures from the city’s finance office.
The third mayoral challenger, Councilman Moe Baddourah, voted against any transfers that divert money from Columbia’s crumbling sewer system and maintenance of its water system. He hammers Benjamin on the campaign trail for endorsing any transfers.
Yet when a reporter pressed Baddourah for how he would make up the $9.3 million loss in the General Fund, his answer was to find efficiencies in city government.
City leaders are under new pressure to come up with enough money to cover the $750 million needed to make federally mandated improvements in the sewer system. City Council for years transferred millions out to pay for other city improvements, including streetscaping upgrades.
Moody’s Investor Services last month said the city’s debt level before the settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was heavier than that of most cities. The additional borrowing to meet the federal requirement likely will force the city either to cut back on what it pays toward its debt – risking a downgrade of its credit rating and making borrowing money more expensive – or to pass along “the full incremental cost of the new debt to customers through rate increases,” Moody’s said.
Council has a plan for covering $500 million of the total. But neither Benjamin nor council has outlined how to manage the rest. The city is hiring a rate consultant who is expected to present options during next year’s budgeting process.
“We must do whatever is necessary to avoid double-digit rate increases,” Benjamin said.
Fenner, who lives in a well-heeled neighborhood near the USC campus, said she opposes a strong-mayor system but will stick with the incumbent on Nov. 5.
“I think he’s the most competent for handling city affairs,” she said. “I don’t necessarily agree with his way of doing things.”
Redfern said Benjamin takes hits from some black residents for not doing enough for lower-income neighborhoods. But the mayor knows how to take his lumps and balance his base.
“He’s the best choice for the African-American community – and we have a lump in our throats – and he’s the best choice for the business community – and they have a lump in their throats,” Redfern said.
“Both of us see some hope in him.”