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City of Columbia to spend more than $8 million in COVID relief on public safety

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Published: Mar. 10, 2022 at 7:18 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 10, 2022 at 7:19 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The Columbia City Council is expected to spend more than $8 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds on several key initiatives geared toward public safety.

City leaders discussed the allocation of these funds at a work session this week.

The city has already received this money as part of the first batch of $27 coming to Columbia through the American Rescue Plan Act.

It will provide more resources to the Columbia Police Department and the Columbia-Richland Fire Department, and go toward the demolition of vacant properties, which have been targets for crime.

“We’re really putting our money where our mouth is and ensuring that our communities and our first responders have the equipment that they need in order to do their jobs well, and incorporating that holistic approach of addressing mental illness and addiction as well,” At-Large Councilwoman Dr. Aditi Bussells said.

The largest portion of these funds, $2.5 million, will go to Columbia firefighters. It will improve living conditions by upgrading ventilation at stations, with the goal of reducing the risk exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.

The funds will give firefighters an extra set of gear.

“A lot of our firemen and women don’t have that gear, and that keeps them from being able to stay in the position,” Bussells said. “It also keeps us from being able to recruit new folks because that second set of gear is critical when we have multiple incidents that we need to respond to.”

$2.3 million aims to reduce violent crime in Columbia.

“Our greatest threat here is violent crime,” Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said in a statement.

Columbia Police will receive additional surveillance and DNA technology to address repeat offenders.

Another $1 million will go toward expanding the Pathways Initiative, which embeds a South Carolina Department of Mental Health clinician with a Columbia Police officer to respond to calls involving citizens in mental crisis.

Finally, $1 million will be set aside for the demolition of more than 30 abandoned buildings in the capital city.

“The funds can complement existing public safety initiatives that reduce and prevent violent crime such as Code Enforcement officers demolishing dilapidated homes that cause blight and attract nefarious people,” Holbrook said.

A number of summer 2021 fires in the Booker Washington Heights neighborhood happened in buildings that were characterized as vacant by the Columbia-Richland Fire Department.

As of June 2021, the city had hundreds of neglected property cases.

Data from the city showed that there were 139 residential demolition cases, 112 residential boarded building cases, 18 commercial demolition cases and 45 commercial boarded building cases.

The total number of cases was 314, but that translated to 256 individual addresses.

Joe Summers, a Columbia resident, said that the city should do more than demolish these vacant and dangerous properties.

“I’d love to see it, the neighborhoods and the abandoned buildings get fixed up,” he said. “Make the neighborhoods and the abandoned buildings look a whole lot better.”

WIS asked Bussells what plans the city has for these properties in the future. She said this effort only covers demolition, and that councilmembers will weigh various options moving forward.

“There’s certainly opportunity there to then use those lots to continue to provide affordable housing as Columbia still has a shortage when it comes to being able to house those that may not make a certain income, those that are homeless, those may be dealing with mental health concerns,” she said. “So I think the possibilities are really endless in terms of what we do with this housing.”

The $5 million in COVID relief funds that the city has already spent has gone toward public health expenses, including PPE, bonus pay for frontline workers and incentives for city employees who received the vaccine.

The city is expected to receive another $13.5 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds sometime this summer.

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