Benjamin gives first State of the City Address: "We have a long way to go"

By Logan Smith - bio | email and Tim Pulliam - email

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin gave his first State of the City Address Tuesday evening, saying the city has come far in a year -- but still has a long way to go.

Benjamin began by listing Columbia's many accomplishments, including ending the 2010 calendar year $4.8 million under budget. He then said to "put it aside" because "we have a long way to go."

The mayor cited an FBI report stating violent crimes in Columbia rose 14% between 2009-10. "How can I be satisfied with that?" he asked.

Benjamin said everything the city does begins and ends with public safety, and added "It's time to stop the revolving door at 1 Justice Square." He then offered the Chief of Police job to interim Chief Randy Scott, which Scott accepted.

Additionally, Benjamin said he plans to opt Columbia back into the state's accidental death insurance plan for firefighters and police following firefighter Chance Zobel's death last year. The city opted out of that plan five years ago, and the mayor said he's going to "rectify that mistake."

A large portion of the mayor's speech focused on improving the openness of city government with initiatives like broadcasting every city council meeting online starting next week. Benjamin also announced plans for the first independent city ethics commission in the state, as well as publishing layman's budgets and conflict of interest guidelines for public officials.

Benjamin also announced plans to connect Main Street, USC, Five Points and the Vista as a "powerhouse business and entertainment district," and turning the recently-purchased Bull Street property into "a thoroughly modern landscape."

One of the biggest challenges ahead is upgrading the Midlands bus system. The mayor envisions a world-class mass transit system that more professionals and college students will want to ride.

But first, he has to change people's perceptions. "They're dirty, they smell bad, they're not the type of system most people want to use unless they have to use it," said Wiley Cooper.

Benjamin says he wants every bus rolling through the Capital City to be Internet-ready, cleaner, safer and energy efficient.

Would the upgrades make a difference? Benedict student Tiffany Sorrells thinks so. "If I can go downtown or on my way to my internship, type a paper and email it to my teacher? Yes, I would definitely take advantage of using the bus," said Sorrells.

"It's kind of 50/50," said local realtor Robert Wilder. "I'm not sure if it will work or not for me and people trying to pinch pennies younger professionals and college students. I think it could be a possibility because they don't have to put $3.00 worth of gas in their tank."

"I like his vision," said Cooper. "I want to see it be put together soon."

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