MAKING COLUMBIA WORK
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Columbia has a new mayor, two new council members – and a long to-do list to turn the city into a modern, workable, fiscally sound city.
Job No. 1 is remaking the Police Department, which has an interim chief, and a history of financial and management concerns. Those include a cheating scandal, high-profile crimes in popular entertainment districts, overtime costs that are far more than other city departments and, despite a weak labor market, a continual shortage of officers. Meanwhile, the FBI and the State Law Enforcement Division are investigating allegations of officers’ improper conduct in the Five Points area, near USC.
But there are other issues.
• Developers complain the city’s planning department is a frustrating, dysfunctional, bureaucratic maze. It’s enough to send developers to Charleston or Greenville instead, some say.
• In a $150,000 report in March, a consultant told City Council that Columbia has too many employees for its size – 75 too many, it said then, including too many clerks. What to do? Lay off less-senior employees? Restructure? Outsource some of the jobs, something Mayor Steve Benjamin wants council to consider? Council struggles each spring to balance the city’s budget. Eliminating 30 of 100 clerical positions would bring savings of $1.6 million a year, the report said. Some employees have retired early and aren’t being replaced. But council is taking a long time to decide what to do.
• As the Midlands’ economic engine, Columbia needs to find a way to attract jobs – retail jobs, construction jobs and high-tech jobs. Will first-year Mayor Benjamin become the city’s rainmaker? Taking on the big stuff must be at the top of the list: Reviving Main Street, shaping the Bull Street development, opening up the river to more development and recreation, and getting to the bottom of what USC’s Innovista research campus means to the city.
In the “must-be-fixed” category:
• The money-losing, anemic bus system.
• A municipal court system so antiquated it can’t properly collect fines (lost revenue!) or track cases because it is not computerized.
• The slap-dash, year-round, wildly inconsistent way that City Council handles requests for money from arts and community groups.