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Infrastructure: County balks at takeover of roads

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County Council Member Bob Anderson told members of the state legislative delegation Monday that counties would do a better job than the S.C. Department of Transportation maintaining rural roads — if they had the money.

Without the funds to maintain the roads, counties across the state are balking at a proposal put forward by a state legislator as a partial solution to the state’s $43 billion shortfall in road money over the next 28 years. Transportation Committee Chairman Gary Simrill, a Republican from York County, proposed increasing the counties’ portion of the state’s gas tax revenue and protecting state contributions to local governments if they would agree to accept responsibility for 45.5 percent of the state’s 41,414 miles roads — or 18,844 miles.

“I’m comfortable with accepting roads if state funds come with them,” Anderson told state Sen. Ray Cleary, Rep. Stephen Goldfinch and Rep. Carl Anderson. “I think grass-roots management is the best way to go. We know which ones need what. The big problem is that we’re struggling to take care of what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to have some kind of assurance that there are going to be funds there to do that work. It scares me that the legislature strikes a deal and starts messing around with the number.”

Anderson was referring to the Local Government Fund, state money promised to counties that came up $74 million short last year. That fund was another topic of discussion between members of the council and the delegation.

A higher percentage of the state’s gas tax is not enough enticement for counties to accept the financial burden of maintaining rural roads, according to officials with the S.C. Association of Counties. The roads being considered for transfer are the single largest class of roads in the state highway system and are in the worst condition, according to a statement issued by the association.

Anderson said he would need to see an algorithm that doubled or tripled the 10-year spending history on a road before he would consider accepting it. DOT estimates the annual maintenance cost per lane mile of road in the state highway system at $18,565, according to the Association of Counties.

Goldfinch said the proposal would offer a percentage of gas tax revenue to match the percentage of roads going to a county. County Administrator Sel Hemingway said the gas tax will be a decreasing revenue source as vehicles become more fuel efficient while paving costs go up because of inflation.

Robert Croom, deputy general counsel for the S.C. Association of Counties, said most counties are opposed to the suggestion largely because of distrust of the state. Also, the Department of Transportation no longer accepts new roads so local governments are already taking on a disproportionate share of the cost of development. “This doesn’t have a partnership feel to it,” Croom told a Greenville reporter.

Anderson said the proposal to shift the responsibility for rural roads to counties is just talk. “Even the governor doesn’t know how the roads will be taken care of,” Anderson said. “There’s no master plan, no formula. It will take a couple of years before action will be taken. It will take a long time to walk through it.”

Cleary said the Senate won’t give counties any roads until the system is fixed, and the bill for that is an additional $1.5 billion per year until 2040. “I’ve got a feeling we won’t do anything on roads,” Cleary said. “If we didn’t do anything last year, it will probably be delayed for three years. That’s kind of scary.”

County Council members have two other items on their legislative agenda: public nuisance property and the Local Government Fund.

Hemingway said the Association of Counties had adopted the nuisance proposal to give counties the same authority that cities have to have neglected properties cleaned up and the owners billed for the cost. Farms would be excluded from the law.

Goldfinch said the Republican caucus might have some concern over foreclosure power attached to the provision but said he supported the measure. Cleary said he introduced similar legislation in the past but saw it shot down. Sen. Lee Bright feared harassment of his trucking company by Spartanburg County and killed it.

The next year, Cleary said, “a crazy Tea Party person in Greenville” sent out a mass e-mail that the bill would allow counties to take private property if the grass was not mowed, and it died again. Cleary recommended talking to local leaders and explain what the bill does. “Get out in front of it,” he said, “That’s what you have to do sometimes.”

Georgetown County was scheduled to receive $5.5 million through the Local Government Fund formula last year that gives counties 4.5 percent of the state’s general fund, Hemingway said. It got $2.2 million.

Hemingway asked the delegation members how to eliminate the counties’ funding from the legislative agenda and provide them with financial certainty. Some counties are threatening to suspend state programs if funding is cut.

“We suspend the formula every year,” Cleary said. “If you try and take people head-on, you will lose. That formula will be destroyed.”

Goldfinch said he didn’t know if he would support giving counties the 4.5 percent promised next year because of conflicts with lobbyists. “When the Association of Counties tells you something patently untrue, it’s very difficult to support a formula they represent,” he said.

Cleary said the legislature needs to do better by the counties after last year’s $74 million shortfall. “If we’ve got a darn formula, let’s live with it. At the end of the day, it makes budgeting a lot easier.”

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