Like many of you, I was concerned by the findings of a state Revenue Department review of Richland County’s transportation penny. With more than $1 billion coming in penny by penny over the next 20 years, I believe our county leadership owes it to citizens and taxpayers to make sure all tax dollars are spent legally and ethically.
Other local governments in South Carolina, including Dorchester and York counties, have similar transportation programs funded by a one-cent sales tax, which tells me that such a large program can work here in Richland County. However, success is contingent on us reviewing our processes, modifying them as needed and improving our transparency and accountability.
The transportation penny tax program is one of the most important initiatives ever undertaken by Richland County. In addition to paving dirt roads, making long-needed improvements to dangerous roads and intersections and building connecting streets ignored for too long, it also provides funding for the Comet bus system and projects to preserve and protect natural green areas.
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That’s why I have made the following three motions to restore trust in the program:
(1) Revisit the form and mission of the Transportation Penny Advisory Committee. Our promise to have an independent committee of citizens to serve as watchdogs over how tax funds were spent was important for many who voted in favor of the tax in 2012. However, oversight was not included in the list of duties when the committee was created; its best-known duty is delivering the annual State of the Transportation Penny address. I believe County Council must give this independent group oversight duties and enforcement abilities.
(2) Fund the county’s small local business enterprise program through the general fund rather than the penny tax fund. Although this program grew out of the transportation penny program, the Revenue Department noted that its purpose goes beyond projects related to the penny tax. Penny tax revenues should be used solely for our bus system, road projects and walkways, bikeways and greenways. I have proposed that we not only fund it with general revenue but that we also reimburse the penny tax fund for all the money that has been spent on this program.
(3) Rescind the transportation penny’s significant-purchase ordinance, which allows some penny-related programs to circumvent regular procurement procedures and which the Revenue Department questioned. Although this ordinance was properly vetted by outside experts, it can give the appearance of impropriety, and that needs to be corrected immediately. We need to use the normal county procurement rules for the penny transportation program. This would require an evaluative committee to review and score proposals and qualifications, and then staff would present its top selection to County Council for approval or rejection. Under the significant-purchase ordinance, proposals and qualifications are reviewed and scored, but the council chooses from the three (or eight, in some cases) highest-ranking bidders.
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These are probably not the only corrections County Council will need to make, but I believe they are important first steps that go a long way toward addressing citizens’ concerns. For me, nothing is more important than eliminating improprieties and restoring trust in the operation of our transportation penny tax program.
I am but one of 11 voices on County Council, but I am committed to making this program transparent and accountable to all citizens of Richland County. I encourage everyone in the county to contact their council representative and urge him or her to adopt these recommendations.
Mr. Rose represents District 5 on Richland County Council; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.