Richland’s county office plan may cost $250 million. Critics say it will be much more

This is a conceptual rendering of a proposed new county courthouse on the grounds of the 2020 Hampton St. site of the administration building, which would be demolished.
This is a conceptual rendering of a proposed new county courthouse on the grounds of the 2020 Hampton St. site of the administration building, which would be demolished. PROVIDED IMAGE

An ambitious, little publicized plan that’s intended to transform Richland County is being criticized as too expensive, too ambitious and too secretive.

Still, Council Council last week approved the plan by the slimmest of margins without answering questions such as its ultimate price tag or how it will be financed.

“I will give you all those details tomorrow after” a news conference to unveil “Richland Renaissance,” council chairwoman Joyce Dickerson said Monday. “And for everyone to go out there and be negative about it, it’s just annoying to me. Everything we do, there is some kind of backlash.”

An official statement about the cost has not been publicly released. County staffers have estimated the price tag at $250 million, Councilman Seth Rose said. But he and other critics say the cost is likely to balloon.

Here’s what’s in the plan:

▪  Tearing down the county’s administrative headquarters at 2020 Hampton St. in Columbia and consolidating a range of county offices at Columbia Place mall off Two Notch Road. The county intends to buy and renovate the mall.

▪  Building a county courthouse along Harden Street where the administration building holds offices for the treasurer, property assessor, county auditor, building permits, County Council, elections and voter registration and other county government services.

▪  Constructing a multiuse center in Lower Richland that would have government offices, an aquatics center, an agribusiness hub and medical services.

▪  Adding a transit and tourism center along with a business incubator on Broad River Road.

▪  Installing a trail that meanders through historic sites in the county and city of Columbia.

▪  Invigorating economic development by changing blighted areas and erecting signs that promote the county.

Councilwoman Gwen Kennedy, who voted for the plan, said Monday that she does not know the final cost or how the county will pay for it.

“I don’t know the exact price tag of it,” she said. “We should have a pretty good idea tomorrow.”

Asked whether the county will borrow the money, take it from county reserves, raise taxes or a combination of those, Kennedy said options have been discussed by council members but nothing has been settled. Yet council voted last Tuesday in a binding 6-5 vote to endorse the plan and proceed with buying property. The vote followed an extended closed-door session.

The county issued a news release late Monday afternoon in which it said property taxes will not rise because of the Renaissance project. Rather, the costs will be financed by using at least $11.5 million in unspent bond revenue, new bond anticipation monies, installment purchase agreements and the proceeds of selling land. The statement did not provide details.

“Richland Renaissance will not bankrupt the county,” according to the statement.

Kennedy, when asked earlier in the day whether the plan can be realized without a property tax increase, said, “I’m hoping so ... and if it’s not, I’m hoping it’s not something that’s major.”

Those kinds of answers don’t satisfy critics such as Columbia attorney Dick Harpootlian, who was on a citizens panel that advised council on whether to build a new courthouse.

“$250 million for a Taj Mahal of a courthouse and a Taj Mahal new county administration doesn’t make sense when we have roads that need repair,” said the former chairman of the S.C Democratic Party. “An aquatic center for Lower Richland? Really? The folks down there don’t have paved roads. They don’t have city water or city sewer.”

Somehow, he said, talks about renovating or constructing a courthouse morphed into a countywide initiative.

“This is a runaway train, and there’s no need. There’s no emergency,” said Harpootlian, who was once a county councilman and the chief prosecutor in Richland and Kershaw counties. “Do we just build a edifice to the County Council so they can put their names on it?”

Council was uninterested, he said, when he suggested changing the use of the courthouse on Main Street by moving the offices of prosecutors and public defenders to other buildings and using the courthouse narrowly for trials and court proceedings. That’s how federal prosecutors offices are organized here. Harpootlian said he sees that approach in other U.S. cities he has visited.

Rose voted against proceeding with the Renaissance Plan for many reasons including the estimated $250 million, which he called “a staggering number.”

He doubts the price tag will stay at $250 million.

“There’s an enormous project cost and, in my opinion, this is going to far exceed it,” he said, floating numbers like a half-billion dollars or more.

Rose, an attorney, said he supports a new county courthouse. But he bases his reluctance on the rest of the plan because, Rose said, the projected cost for moving the county administration building is too low; the lack of a formal appraisal on that property; an estimate on the cost of buying and renovating Columbia Place is too low; how the other projects will be paid for; and insufficient time for public reaction.

In addition, Rose said, it doesn’t make sense to demolish the county administration building just after council approved spending more than $1 million to renovate its chambers and adjoining offices. Those renovations were completed late this summer.

“One way or another, the county taxpayers are going to be paying for this,” Rose said.

Councilman Paul Livingston is among those who voted no last week.

He suggested that council go forward only on renovating the mall into an office complex that would consolidate not only county agencies but also county offices of state agencies such as the Department of Social Services, Probation, Parole and Pardon Services and the Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“For the other stuff, I need more input from the public,” Livingston said, adding that his idea fell one vote short.

Harpootlian, Rose and Livingston all say the plan was not explained to the public adequately so that taxpayers had time to respond before a binding vote was taken.

Council members who voted for Richland Renaissance are Dickerson, Kennedy, Chip Jackson, Norman Jackson, Yvonne McBride and Dalhi Meyers.

Voting no were Livingston, Rose, Bill Malinowski, Jim Manning and Greg Pearce.

If you go

Richland County will present details of its Richland Renaissance plan and how to finance it Tuesday.

WHEN: A 3 p.m. news conference

WHERE: County Council chambers on the second floor of the county administration building at 2020 Hampton St.