COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The City of Columbia and Richland County councils are both meeting Tuesday night, and each will spend time dealing with ways to bail out the Midlands bus system. City leaders announced their plan on Monday, and now it's the county's turn.
Keeping the Midlands bus system up and running will take more than $6 million a year. More than $5 million of that amount has to come from local government. "We will not allow this system to fail," said Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.
On Monday, Benjamin and other city council members said the best way to raise the city's share, about $3.6 million, involves tacking a two percent increase onto the fee it charges SCE&G for the company's right to provide power to the city.
That action would add almost $19.50 to the average customer's annual utility bill. The questions then are how and to what degree Richland County might pitch in with the remaining funds needed.
For years, the county has propped up the bus system with a vehicle fee that wasn't popular to begin with. The county's vehicle fee is $10 for private vehicles, and $15 for commercial vehicles.
That funding expires next June, but it is critical in efforts to prevent a drastic cutback in bus service. "We extended it once and we certainly, those of us who did it, a lot of us went on record as saying this would be it," said Richland County Councilwoman Kit Smith. "We would find another way and not use the car tax."
County council members don't know whether the fee can or should be extended, but they do know Richland County needs bus service. "We as a society need to help people who cannot afford private transportation to move them to get to jobs," said Smith. "People that work in the hospitals and nursing homes that take care of us and our aging parents and our little children when they're sick.
The county is being asked to contribute around $1.7 million. At least two council members told us the county might be able to find a way to tap into its reserves if it can find a way around restrictions that limit the use of property tax dollars.
Councilwoman Smith said members are keeping in mind the impact of extended county fees on city dwellers. "If the city goes forward and raises their franchise fee, they would be paying for the car tax and the franchise fee," she said. "Which to me seems overly burdensome to those residents."
Council members Joyce Dickerson and Val Hutchinson also said the county will do its part to keep the system from going under. They say the council needs to know what options it might have and those will have to be outlined by the county administrator.
None of the council members we spoke to indicated the county is ready to automatically extend those unpopular vehicle fees.