Richland County voters passed the transportation penny in 2012 believing that this small sales tax increase would bring positive changes to our community. The reality is that although the penny still offers potential, we must have accountability and transparency in how these funds are used.
As you probably recall, in exchange for raising the local sales tax by a penny on the dollar, the program promised to generate more than $1 billion over 22 years to improve our roadways, infrastructure and bus system.
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It has come to light, however, that a number of questionable activities have been supported by this money. In December, the S.C. Department of Revenue revealed concerns that some funds have been misused, and there are even allegations of illegal activity. Unfortunately, this lack of accountability echoes the fears critics raised when the tax increase was debated.
At its heart, this program was founded to provide residents and businesses a safe, dependable solution to our serious infrastructure needs. Our region suffers from a deteriorating road system, which has worsened with the October flooding.
The Columbia Chamber endorsed the penny program wholeheartedly. But within that endorsement was a clear call for transparency and accountability, which unfortunately has gone unanswered. While our leadership has changed since the endorsement, we continue to see potential in the program — but it absolutely must be managed properly.
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This is why I urge Richland County Council to take action now to protect the public trust and create an appropriate accountability system. The only way this can be accomplished through these four critical steps:
1. Richland County Council must implement a single procurement system to eradicate biased selection of vendors for penny-funded projects.
2. Funds must be used only for transportation-related expenditures specified in the referendum passed by voters.
3. Penny accounts should be reimbursed for all expenses that the Revenue Department found fell outside of legally permitted uses. For example, $619,457 used to create the Small Local Business Enterprise Program should be refunded to the penny account; while this has a good purpose, it clearly is not a transportation-related expenditure as required by law.
4. The Transportation Penny Advisory Committee should have the ability to hire an independent auditor to oversee the program.
There appear to be signs of mismanagement or lack of oversight. Making these adjustments will safeguard taxpayer dollars and provide foundations for an accountability structure that benefits everyone.
The public trust is at stake. Without proper accountability, there is too much opportunity for dealings that give the perception of being unethical or relying on favoritism. If contract awards or the expenditures appear not to be above board, it throws a shadow on the whole program.
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On the other hand, this is a fantastic opportunity for our elected officials to substantially improve the quality of life for our region. By using these funds to improve infrastructure, they open the door for new businesses and jobs.
Now is the time for County Council to responsibly manage the penny sales tax and ensure that it is operated with integrity. The reality is that the penny tax is in place for the next two decades, so there is ample time for the ship to be turned and the benefits to be realized. Action must be taken now for the long-term good.
The penny program was promoted as a long-term solution to some serious and pressing needs facing the Midlands. I believe it still can be a viable tool for economic development and improving the lives of Richland County’s citizens. But that requires proper supervision and accountability.
Enforcing these changes is the only way to make this program fulfill that vision over the next 20 years, as well as live up to the promises that were made to all of us.
Mr. Blackstone is president and CEO of the Columbia Chamber; contact him at email@example.com.