IN JANUARY, I wrote a column in which I declared that the watchword for the year in the Midlands should be “watchdog” and encouraged us all to get engaged in our local governments and pay close attention to what our elected officials were up to.
Why? Because some pivotal issues — including the proposed Bull Street development in Columbia, Richland County’s roads plan and a proposed capital improvement sales tax increase in Lexington County — were on the table and elected officials needed to be held accountable for making good decisions and being good stewards over the people’s money and their government.
So how did things turn out?
Here’s a look back:
• Things began to come together for Columbia Common, the project being developed at the old State Hospital site on Bull Street.
City Council approved a controversial baseball stadium that initially was to cost $35 million, with the city kicking in $29 million and Hardball Capital, which will bring a team to Columbia and operate the stadium, providing $6 million. We recently learned that the price tag had jumped to $37 million, with the city shifting $1 million from infrastructure costs for the larger Bull Street development and Hardball adding another $1 million. Mayor Steve Benjamin said City Council has declared no more city money would go to the baseball project. Keep watch.
The city chose Populous to design the stadium and hired a group to build it that includes three local companies — Contract Construction, Construction Dynamics and Enviro AgScience — and Michigan-based Barton Malow Co.
The city and Hardball announced that Columbia-based Spirit Communications has purchased the naming rights to the stadium; the company will pay about $3.5 million over 10 years in exchange for the stadium bearing the name Spirit Communications Park.
Last month, developers said 41 stores and restaurants have signed letters of intent to locate at Columbia Common. First up will be a 120,000-square-foot retail and office building that will be built just feet away from the first base side of the minor league stadium. The First Base Building and the baseball stadium are expected to open in January 2016, just in time for baseball season that April.
Columbia Common is expected to add thousands of new residents, stores and offices to the city core; if successful, it could transform the Midlands economy. We all should be pulling for it to succeed. That said, we all also should raise appropriate questions and challenge decisions made by city officials and developers when necessary.
While things are moving steadily forward, we still don’t know how the city will fund tens of millions of dollars in infrastructure — water, sewer and roads — it has committed to Columbia Common. Going into 2015, all eyes should be on how the council conducts the people’s business as this project moves forward.
• City water and sewer customers entered 2014 concerned about how large a rate increase they faced to pay for major system upgrades. Well, the year is coming to an end and they still don’t know. The council rejected a proposed increase and did nothing. While that might sound good for customers, it’s not. Something must be done; continuing to delay could cause even higher rates. Council members were told recently that they would receive recommendations on new water and sewer rates at their Feb. 17 meeting.
• In April, Columbia city manager Teresa Wilson hired Skip Holbrook as its new police chief, making him the eighth person since 2007 to hold the position. Also City Council once again rejected efforts to place the police department under Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott. Given the revolving door at the police chief’s office, Columbia needs Mr. Holbrook to succeed in a big way. By all accounts, things are going well thus far.
• One of the best decisions the city made was to choose the United Way to coordinate homeless efforts in the region.
• Richland County Council stumbled terribly in its role to oversee infrastructure improvements that will be paid for by revenue from the transportation sales tax that voters approved in November 2012. Two thirds of the tax — expected to generate a little more than $1 billion over the next 22 years — will be used to pay for roads, sidewalks, bike paths and other projects.
Things didn’t go so well initially, as the advisory panel the council established to watch out for taxpayers’ interest and promote transparency questioned whether ICA, the Kentucky-based engineering firm the council voted to hire in January to manage the massive program, was the right choice. After a protest by the second-place finisher, the council scrapped that decision and restarted the bidding process. In June, County Council chose the team of ICA/Brownstone/MB Kahn Construction Co. The question now is how soon we will begin seeing construction across the county.
• Lest we forget, a third of the county’s transportation sales tax revenue goes to support the public bus system, which has done a credible job of implementing improvements. We’ve seen weekend service restored. On Labor Day, buses rolled for the first time in three years as part of a series of improvements that included route changes, some expanded route frequencies, longer service hours and two brand-new routes.
But the transit authority board still must choose a new bus operator. The board seemed close to choosing a new operator near the first of this year as it negotiated with Veolia, the top bidder in an earlier competitive process conducted by the transit authority, known as The COMET. But in March the transit board broke off negotiations with Veolia in an apparent attempt to get a better deal from the No. 2 bidder, Keolis. But despite coming up with what some termed a reasonable deal with Keolis, the board failed to approve the contract and instead decided to go through the process a second time.
The board is reviewing bids from transportation firms and could make a decision soon about who the next bus operator will be. The public was expecting a new operator to be in place a year ago.
• Lexington County ends 2014 with the same big question it had entering the year: How will it pay for much-needed road improvements? Voters rejected a proposed penny-on-the-dollar increase in the local sales tax to pay for roads and other projects. Frankly, voters bludgeoned the sales tax at the polls. The plan, which called for an eight-year tax to raise $268.1 million to pay for roads and other projects, was rejected by more than 2-to-1 — 52,696 to 22,991. The resounding defeat suggests that people simply don’t want to be taxed more. Now some in Lexington are scrambling to see if they can revive the effort in the future by scaling it back or whether there are other ways to at least meet some of the county’s road needs.
Most of these critical issues will carry over into 2015 and beyond. Keep watching, watchdogs.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or email@example.com.