York County voters answered the question, if a slew of new road projects would be built. Now York County planners can get down to the next big question. When?
“We’ve been very busy,” said Patrick Hamilton, director for Pennies for Progress, the county roads program funded by a special voter-approved sales tax.
About 78 percent of voters choose to extend a 1-cent sales tax to fund road improvements for another seven years back on Nov. 7. It was a Tuesday.
“Wednesday morning I was on the phone all day calling consultants, assigning projects,” Hamilton said.
By the time he updated York County Council on Monday, Hamilton had met with six of them. Two more on Tuesday and three the planned the week after Thanksgiving. The South Carolina Department of Transportation is designing another project, which could save the county $100,000.
Bids should go out on nearly a dozen projects in February and March, with contracts expected by May 1, 2018.
“That’s important because the tax does not begin collecting until May 1,” Hamilton said. “So we are way ahead of the game of where we’ve been in the past.”
About six to nine months ahead of the 2011 Pennies campaign, he estimates. Itself an improvement from earlier referendums in 1997 and 2003. Projects have come with missed deadlines and cost overruns. They went from contracted consultant work to an in-house program. A citizen committee was formed to look at the Pennies program to identify past shortcomings. But, it also has miles and miles of new pavement in York County that wouldn’t have been here without it.
The first campaign in 1997 set a new course for communities statewide.
Council Chairman Britt Blackwell told Hamilton he’d like to see York County continue showing the state how well a program can run.
“Pennies 3 was a big improvement,” Blackwell said of the higher costs and missed dates, “but hopefully with your guidance we can really set another model for the state.”
Higher than expected costs and delayed construction are related. Hamilton and county staff set the wheels moving faster this time. Council pre-approved a list of consultants and $16 million contingent on a successful vote, allowing Hamilton to hit the phone running as soon as results came in from the election office. From that $16 million, $11 million will go to the state transportation department to get resurfacing projects going.
“They will bid it, they will manage it, they will inspect it, and then they’ll send us any money back at the end,” Hamilton said.
Leaving the county to focus on some of the larger projects in the almost $278 million Pennies 4 package. Initial time line estimates for the Pennies 4 projects are happening now.
“We developed a schedule for each individual project at the staff level,” Hamilton said. “We’re also asking each consultant to develop their own schedule, without seeing ours. Then we’ll compare theirs to what we came up with to come to a consensus.
Hamilton expects to have new information on the Pennies 4 projects posted soon on the county or Pennies website.
“We’ve put together a report that we plan to put on the county website for each program,” he said. “It kind of highlights the overall individual program, then it digs in deeper on each individual project as well.”
That information will be updated quarterly. Something council members say they want to see, especially the time lines should any changes happen. In past campaigns it’s been common to see projects show up at the end behind schedule and well over budget, with council members have limited choices but to approve changes and find the money from other road projects or sources.
Councilman Michael Johnson would like to see issues as they happen, rather than at the finish line.
“So that we can judge this not only by dollars spent, but are we meeting our own internal time lines?” he said. “And if we can keep track of that. I think one of the biggest knocks on Pennies, other than the cost overruns, is how long it takes.”
The public also will be able to hold leaders accountable with the time lines online. Council can get an explanation why deadlines aren’t met.
“And if we beat it,” Johnson said, “that’s even better.”
Even with knowledge from four Pennies campaigns now, and improvements along the way, council members say they understand issues can arise. There is a difference between finding something at a construction site that has to be dealt with to build a road, and having the county or utilities simply dragging their feet. Council members say they understand paying for and waiting on the former. Regular updates will give them an opportunity to say “no” to the latter.
“Of course with roads it’s really hard to be on time and under budget,” Blackwell asked of Hamilton, “but as close as you can make it.”
Councilwoman Christi Cox said she doesn’t want to get to the end of projects and see major cost differences or other problems. She also sees the value of Pennies, and with all but two precincts countywide voting in favor of it, she believes others do, too.
“It speaks volumes to what the people want,” Cox said.