Cindi Ross Scoppe

Columbia- Richland merger makes immense sense, just like it always has

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin gets a hug from his daughter while talking with Col. James W. Ellerson, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Command Sgt. Major Lamont Christian, after delivering the State of the City address in January.
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin gets a hug from his daughter while talking with Col. James W. Ellerson, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Command Sgt. Major Lamont Christian, after delivering the State of the City address in January. online@thestate.com

I HAD BEEN AT The State a year, covering the Richland County Council as a reporter, when county and city council members started talking seriously about mergers. Columbia officials brought up the subject, because they wanted to unload their jail; county officials wanted to go all the way, with a full political merger. That was 1987.

As a fresh-out-of-college political science major, I thought the idea made a lot of sense: It eliminated a world of duplication and inefficiency, it encouraged one vision for the community, and it had worked well to cut costs and political frictions in Nashville and Jacksonville, Fla. But of course it didn’t happen — not the jail merger, not the planning and zoning merger, and certainly not the full city-county merger, which wasn’t even possible under state law at the time.

Merging Columbia, Richland County getting serious consideration

It made sense again in 1990, when voters rejected an advisory referendum on a merger; that vote was doomed to fail for lack of official support and probably wouldn’t have done any good anyway, since state law still didn’t allow consolidations. It made sense in 1994, two years after the Legislature finally legalized it, when local officials brought it up again, only to be stymied by concerns over disenfranchising black voters.

It probably made sense in 1972, and in 1963, when serious efforts were mounted but opposed by most elected officials, but I haven’t studied those efforts as closely. They all ended the same.

And now, as The State’s Clif LeBlanc reported a week ago, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and a small group of local government, business and community leaders are putting together a consolidation proposal. And it makes a lot of sense. Again. Still.

The most talked-about benefit of a city-county merger is efficiency: Instead of paying a police chief and a sheriff, you pay a sheriff, and you eliminate a lot of administrative staff and either spend the savings on more cops on the street or else cut taxes. Ditto the city and county administrators and the planning and zoning staff and pretty much every other department of which we have two in Columbia and Richland County.

But there’s an even bigger benefit, one that’s less easy to quantify: having one policy for the whole community. Having one set of zoning regulations, instead of one on this side of the street and one on the other. Having water and sewer expansions planned with the interests of both the city and county in mind. Having one place where residents and business owners and would-be business owners can go to take care of whatever business they need to conduct with their local government. Putting an end to doughnut-hole annexations — where tiny little outcrops of neighborhoods remain in the unincorporated county while they are encircled by city property. Putting an end, for that matter, to all the fights over annexation. Having one elected body that can focus on a vision for our community — rather than two competing bodies, which too often seem to disagree just to demonstrate that they can.

PREVIOUS EFFORTS Ill-timed effort hurt future talks of merger between Columbia Police, Richland County Sheriff’s Department Joint planning needed in border areas

Of course, that whole vision thing would be easier still if we had one government for the entire county, but that’s highly unlikely, because the consolidation law legislators finally passed — 20 years after voters approved it in a constitutional referendum — was so heavily compromised.

Every municipality — Arcadia Lakes, Blythewood, Eastover, Forest Acres, Irmo — has the option of opting out, as I fear many would. And let’s not even talk about the obscene opt-out provision for special-purpose districts, which shouldn’t even exist, as the Richland County Recreation Commission seems determined to remind us, year in and year out. Or why this community remains divided between two counties.

There also are no clear provisions for cities that cross county lines. So the parts of Columbia that are in Lexington County would be … who knows? Even less clear: What would happen to the part of Richland County that is part of Cayce?

But that’s not the biggest problem that would have to be overcome for this to work; after all, Richland County legislators could always just pass an unconstitutional single-county law to make that problem go away.

The biggest problem is political: It’s elected officials who fear their position would be drawn out of existence. It’s neighborhood leaders who have learned how to work the system. It’s the same special interests that lobbied the Legislature to make sure the consolidation law was all but impossible to use.

READ THE STATE CONSOLIDATION LAW

Ultimately, this was what killed consolidation in 1963. And 1972. And 1988. And 1990. And 1994. And all those times the city and county talked about merging their planning and zoning departments — or even just housing them in the same building, to make life easier for the public. And 2010, when we toyed with letting the super-popular sheriff run the then-leaderless Columbia Police Department. Not a whole government merger; a contract for running a single department, for a limited time. And it was defeated. Just like all the larger and smaller efforts.

I support this latest effort with all of my being. But you’ll understand if I don’t get my hopes up this time. Not yet anyway.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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