Adviser appointed to help shape County’s road tax plan

The panel that will develop a plan for road improvements across Lexington County – projects paid for by a penny sales tax increase – now has an experienced coach in place.

Alliance Consulting Engineers for Columbia was appointed by Lexington County Council last week as the adviser for the six-member panel that includes banker Allan Risinger of Batesburg-Leesville. The company was the only one of 101 Midlands firms invited to seek the job to apply for the task of evaluating proposed projects, County Administrator Joe Mergo said.

Many firms passed on the job after learning that acceptance would limit their ability to be hired for subsequent projects, he said.

The advisory role is a repeat performance for Alliance. The company served in the same capacity for a package of road repairs and other improvements that county voters rejected 2-1 in 2014.

It’s vital to have expertise to look over proposals to see if the ideas are practical in design, impact and estimated cost, Councilman Larry Brigham of Batesburg-Leesville said. “You need to have engineers to see if these can be done,” he said. 

Alliance will be paid up to $125,000, a fourth of what it earned previously. Less work is expected since many improvements suggested to the commission probably will be updated versions of those in the first penny tax plan, council members said.

The plan rejected included $25 million to pave dirt roads mainly in the western half of the county and elsewhere, as well as $14 million for intersection, widening and surfacing projects in the Batesburg-Leesville, Gilbert and Summit areas.

Mr. Risinger and other commission members will sift through a series of suggestions expected to come from county officials, municipal leaders and possibly civic groups seeking a share of the approximately $300 million the tax is expected to generate over eight years. The package that the group adopts will go to council members for acceptance or rejection.

The nine council members have made it clear that they will put the improvements plan and related sales tax increase on the November ballot only if the package is devoted mainly to road repairs, with perhaps a small share for long-wanted drainage fixes to end flooding in Irmo-area neighborhoods.

Anti-tax groups agree that major improvements are needed to ease congestion and make travel on local roads safer. Still, they remain skeptical about the penny tax until the new package is known.

County leaders say they can’t make significant improvements on many roads without more revenue. A state gasoline tax hike underway will pay for upgrades on interstates and other thoroughfares, with only a minimal share slated for local roads that connect to those heavily traveled.

The penny tax increase lost in 2014 amid a ripple effect of alleged mismanagement and mistakes surrounding a similar tax in adjoining Richland County as well as complaints about the inclusion of upgrades to parks, trails, sports fields, civic centers and libraries.

Concern persists among some county leaders about the second try for the penny tax running into another wave of resistance stemming from Richland County’s ongoing problems. Mr. Brigham is hopeful that resentment will not spill over anew. “We do things totally different,” he said. “It’s vital that our voters understand we can’t make these fixes because we don’t have money to do them.”

In other developments, Mr. Brigham stepped down as council vice-chair after two years.

By tradition, council leaders serve no more than two consecutive years in those roles. Veteran Councilman Todd Cullum of Cayce, who has been chairman as recently as 2017, was chosen to take the post.

Mr. Brigham, who declined comment on the change, is interested in becoming chairman someday. That step would give him greater say in council decisions.