When Joyce Omega Delk began knocking on doors, asking people to support Richland County’s penny-tax program in 2012, she believed a small portion of the $1 billion raised would pave dirt roads and improve transportation in long neglected, rural areas.
Delk told neighbors the proceeds would pay to widen and pave their own street, Wilson McCoy Road in Eastover — a promise frequently relayed over the years by county officials. The bumpy road floods during heavy rainstorms, making it difficult to drive and nearly impossible to evacuate.
But in the years since voters approved the referendum, the paving plan for Delk’s road has been scrapped. Her community isn’t alone. Hardly any work has been done in Lower Richland eight years into the program.
“What are they doing with the money?” asked Delk, 69, sitting on a wooden bench in her front yard. “Where is it going?”
The answer: The University of South Carolina.
Nearly one out of every $6 the county plans to spend on referendum roadway projects will directly benefit the university and its sports facilities, according to an analysis of penny tax projects by The State Media Co.
That’s more than $100 million of the $656 million voters approved in 2012. The remaining amount benefited The COMET bus system, including increased services around the USC campus.
Meanwhile, the bus stop near Delk’s home has been discontinued and her disabled 29-year-old son, Jamal, who uses crutches, has one less option to get to doctor appointments.
“It’s upsetting because you go into the city and see all the work being done for USC and you think, ‘Why can’t the county come and do our road?’” Delk said.
Twenty-four of the referendum’s 50 top-ranked dirt roads won’t be paved. County staff also stopped 25 other roads on the list from being paved due to staff recommendations or “property issues,” 16 of which are located in the Lower Richland area.
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“It doesn’t ring fair to me,” Delk said.
It’s a common refrain heard across the county these days.
Many Richland County voters supported the referendum to not only pave dirt roads but to widen heavily traveled routes, making their work commutes quicker and safer.
And yet, residents like Berry Marcus Jr. are still sitting in traffic along Clemson Road in Northeast Richland. The revised $15 million project is nearing a 2021 completion date — nearly two years behind its original schedule.
Countywide, nearly all 14 planned road widening projects have seen delays, nine of which are currently on hold or still in the pre-construction phase.
And the dirt road Marcus lives on, Elton Walker Road, is no longer slated for paving. Of the nearly 600 dirt roads the county hoped to pave, only 66 have been completed so far, accounting for just 11 miles. Lower Richland has seen just 10 roads paved for a combined 1.1 miles.
“To put the penny sales tax around the university is not what the tax was supposed to be used for,” Marcus said.
Other referendum projects have been significantly scaled back. For example, Lower Richland’s Pineview Road was trimmed from a $40 million project to an $8 million because the county didn’t have enough money. Plans to widen the nearly 3-mile road to five lanes was shortened to approximately 1.7 miles instead.
County officials point to incorrect project estimates as part of the reason along with rising construction costs.
Additionally, the county misspent and must repay at least $32.5 million of the referendum’s proceeds, according to an audit by the S.C. Department of Revenue. County officials wrongly paid for public relations and program management costs not related to transportation, according to the audit.
To date, county officials have repaid about $1.5 million — using taxpayers’ dollars — and are fighting DOR in court to keep from paying the remainder.
Top funding for USC
Oddly, USC was not supposed to be a top beneficiary of the referendum, according to several people involved with its planning.
J.T. McLawhorn Jr., president of the Columbia Urban League who served on a Richland County study commission that helped birth the penny tax referendum in 2010, said the original goal was to meet transportation needs for the county’s most vulnerable residents and improve dilapidated roads in overlooked communities.
After the county’s 2010 referendum did not pass, he said, more projects were added to garner additional support. The county also sought input from the city of Columbia and Columbia Chamber of Commerce, which campaigned in support of the referendum.
The new list of referendum projects included many USC ones, some of which didn’t seem to be transportation related: a plaza and a water fountain surrounding USC’s Colonial Life Arena at the corner of Columbia’s Greene and Lincoln streets, improvements to the Innovista technology campus and the development of the Smith/Rocky Greenway to connect the Congaree River to USC’s athletic fields and Five Points.
According to USC master planning documents, the purpose of the Innovista and greenway improvements were to create a “live/work/learn play community” that increased opportunities for housing and business development around USC.
The new approach worked. The referendum passed, and voters were promised at the start of 2013 that tax dollars would be put to use in areas of dire need.
But McLawhorn and others interviewed by The State newspaper paint a picture of betrayal and frustration that followed.
“If you look at how those projects were implemented, you’ll find the African American communities were short changed,” said McLawhorn.
Both the Innovista and the greenway projects were already under design or planned prior to the referendum’s passage and were detailed in USC master plans years earlier. Innovista, along with USC’s desired widening of Bluff Road, were bumped to the top of the county’s to-do list and quickly started once the referendum passed, pushing past improvements to Clemson, Atlas and Leesburg roads, according to county documents.
“This is where the money really went,” said Virginia Sanders, a Lower Richland resident and community activist, who served on the study commission with McLawhorn. “Every time I pass the Williams-Brice Stadium, I get angrier because they took all that money and used it for (USC) instead of paving dirt roads for people who have been paying taxes to Richland County for years.”
While road widening projects have been scaled back and dozens of dirt roads cut entirely from the county’s paving plans, few of the university-related projects have been delayed, much less scrapped.
In some cases, USC projects have received more money than originally planned, including an extra $2 million for Bluff Road, a major artery leading to USC’s Williams-Brice Stadium and other south Columbia spots.
Improvements to Shop Road, which also leads to the stadium, was projected to cost $61 million at one time — nearly double the $33 million voters approved. The project, which connects an expansion of the road to the commercial development park where China Jushi Co. is located, was ultimately scaled down to $32 million due to a lack of funds.
Cost overruns for Bluff and Shop roads were primarily caused by significant utility relocation costs, requiring “extremely large” stormwater drainage pipes and a culvert for a creek, according to county documents.
Details on how USC got top billing from the county are unclear.
USC has yet to turn over public documents requested by the newspaper more than 11 months ago that could help answer the question. Calls and emails in recent months, requesting interviews with university officials within the administration, have also been unsuccessful.
The State Media Co. has filed a lawsuit against the university for failing to turn over documents in accordance with the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
USC Board of Trustee Miles Loadholt, who served as chairman around the time the penny tax passed, said the university’s decision to include its master plan projects into the referendum was “pretty much” a unanimous decision among board members and that the school’s administration fully supported it too. The widening of Bluff and Shop roads, he added, were done to make pedestrian travel to the football stadium and nearby practice fields safer.
“The University of South Carolina is a big part of the city of Columbia and we tried to work with them for the benefit of both,” he said. “We just thought it was the right thing to do at the time.”
Richland County officials and construction team members say it’s reasonable for the school to have received a chunk of the funding, given its important presence. They add that the university’s projects did not delay other referendum projects.
A major player in all things related to the Midlands and even the state of South Carolina, USC is a powerhouse that yields an economic impact of more than $4 billion for Columbia and is responsible for tens of thousands of jobs, according to a 2017 study. Average attendance at a home football game is between 70,000 to 80,000 visitors while about 32,000 students attend classes at the Columbia campus.
The university’s plans moved along quickly because USC and Columbia already owned the land slated for improvements, so the county didn’t lose time negotiating right-of-way acquisitions like it did with other landowners, according to county leaders.
“They got priority right at the beginning because (their projects) were ready to go,” said former Richland County Councilman Greg Pearce, who was on council when the referendum passed. “The feeling was the public needed to see something happen.”
Pearce, however, acknowledged that too little has been completed in the eight years since the referendum passed and he doesn’t know why Bluff Road is still the only completed widening project.
“If I lived on a dirt road and I saw something getting built and my road wasn’t, I’d be upset too,” he said.
Prioritizing over rural needs
Once the referendum was passed, county officials say two citizen groups selected, then ranked the 60 projects to be done. But members of those groups told The State that didn’t happen and that county leaders and other behind-the-scene players called the shots.
McLawhorn and Sanders said USC’s larger projects, like the $50 million Innovista improvements around Colonial Life Arena and the Greene Street bridge, were never recommended by their group and that USC projects were first brought up by the county’s transportation department.
Louis Dessau, another member of the group, and a senior manager of employee relations at USC, echoed that sentiment, saying university projects were never discussed.
“I think there was a breakdown in communication between the committee and what was carried out,” he said.
After the referendum passed, Richland County Council soon created a 15-member group, known as the Transportation Penny Advisory Committee, to provide an extra level of oversight for the program. The group was told it could offer county council recommendations and re-rank projects.
But members say it was a farce.
“The African American community was betrayed because once the penny sales tax passed and they provided funds for the public transit transportation system, there was no interest in taking a more equitable approach for the African American community,” McLawhorn said.
The board’s first chairman, Hayes Mizell, said he felt the group had little authority, much less any say in the prioritization of projects.
“I know that part of the dynamic of the TPAC, particularity at the beginning, was that there were people who expected or thought they had a say in rankings,” he said. “I don’t recall the details of a meeting where that actually occurred.”
McLawhorn and Mizell described their experience on the board as frustrating, saying the entire ordeal felt like a rubber-stamped process.
A scoring system, approved by county council, was used to determine what projects would be done and in what order. The USC ones were among the highest ranked — and costliest — projects.
In an October 2019 interview with The State, Rick Ott, the principal in charge of the PDT and vice president at M.B. Kahn Construction Co., said the county was fully aware of all work being done, adding that the county signed off on each project before it was started.
“We’ve got approximately 100 work authorizations that tell us the services we need to do and the projects we need to work on,” he said. “... The county controls all of that through their transportation director and county transportation staff.”
County Council Chairman Paul Livingston, who voted in favor of the rankings, sees it differently, saying he didn’t think any projects were more important than others.
Other current and former members of council who voted on the ranked list said they didn’t know how USC ended up on the referendum list or how it got top billing, despite voting on the referendum’s project list and pushing projects along on multiple occasions.
Council member Bill Malinowski said he didn’t know how it happened, while former council member Norman Jackson added that USC’s involvement to this day remains a mystery to him.
“It’s sad that the City of Columbia and USC area are taken care of and the people who spent their hard-earned dollars have gotten nothing,” he said. “It’s unfair. And someone should be held accountable.”
Asked for the most successful project completed thus far, Livingston pointed to the Innovista, calling it “a tremendous economic benefit” which benefits everyone in the county, adding that it is “one of the most significant things to happen in the county” since he took office.
USC’s Innovista research campus aims to transform the region by creating private, high-tech jobs in nanotechnology, alternative energy and other fields. The county’s referendum dollars paid for the Innovista’s new cobblestone brick roadway, new trees, a bridge over train tracks and a sparkling new water fountain in front of the Colonial Life Arena — improvements that, critics say, have little to do with improving transportation.
McLawhorn said he believes the bulk of blame shouldn’t be placed on USC but rather the county elected leaders who voted and oversaw the program.
“We were misled,” he said.
Striking a deal with USC
An arrangement described by Councilman Livingston explains how USC received preferential treatment.
Included in the $31 million shelled out for university-related projects so far is more than $2.5 million county taxpayers sent directly to USC. Nearly half that money was for design work completed by USC before the sales tax passed.
Invoice records show approximately $735,000 was first paid to USC in 2015, days before the county and the university signed a contract for the Greene Street and Fountain Square improvements. Another $500,000 was paid less than three months later. Other receipts over the years are labeled as the “beautification” of Greene Street and don’t appear to be transportation related.
Livingston said that the school agreed to pay for some of the work up front with the understanding the county would reimburse USC as its projects progressed. As a result, USC jumped ahead of other projects on the county’s approved priority list.
“It just so happened it was the university (that loaned the county money),” said Livingston of the agreement. “I would’ve done that for anyone else.”
But few institutions in the region can afford to dish out millions for projects — and none have the amount of penny projects that USC has.
Former Richland County Administrator Gerald Seals, who was hired in 2016, said he never received adequate answers as to why taxpayers had to pay for work already completed by USC or why the county overrode its own priority list. And the USC receipts turned in, he added, were too vague for him to know exactly how the money was spent.
“It appeared some work was done prior to the referendum,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
Ashley Landess, president of the libertarian think tank, The SC Policy Council, who has been an outspoken critic of the penny tax and Innovista project, said the USC deal is likely legal but violates the spirit of the referendum.
“When people have their taxes raised like that, there is an impact,” she said. “But then they turned around and spent that on the pet projects of university bureaucrats and politicians ... The promise had been to fix the roads that people drive on every day and they have not done that.”