Our mayoral hopefuls - Where do they stand (or float?)
August’s filing deadline formally set the field for those vying for Charleston City Hall. We asked the candidates about the issues that matter most for Charlestonians — flooding, traffic, planning and development. We hope what follows is informative and offers insight into the ideas key candidates wish to accomplish should we, the citizens, raise them to the Holy City’s top job.
What is your specific plan for fully funding flooding relief efforts both on and off the peninsula?
Sherri Irwin: The first thing I would do regarding funding for flooding is quit taking grants for things like building a hotel. Last year the city took a $60 million dollar grant to build a hotel. Not one penny of our tax dollars should be used for hotels. I would have tried to use that grant money for mitigating flooding.
I would also stop the scam called “public/private partnerships,” which is a clever way of saying the taxpayer pays for part of it. This is one reason why the development is so out of control, which is making the flooding worse. I would try to use those tax dollars for mitigating flooding as well.
Renee Orth: Flooding relief projects must address the main cause of flooding — climate collapse. Thankfully initiatives that will shrink our carbon footprint while mitigating flooding are generally far less expensive than old-paradigm large public works projects. As described in the Dutch Dialogues we must build with nature, respect the force of water and capitalize on natural storm protection. Climate Victory Rain Gardens — in front yards, churchyards, anywhere there are ornamental lawns — will sequester carbon in the soil and vastly expand the water holding capacity of our land while growing food and natural habitat. This is an example of a low-capital initiative that will add to community prosperity on multiple fronts. Additionally, we must cease shortsighted development of wetlands and filling lowland areas that are exacerbating already dire conditions. All new developments must include the ability to retain rainwater. Citizens must be encouraged and supported to install rain barrels and water retaining techniques — this is a critical civic duty.
Capital needed for conventional projects will come from a combination of federal funds, half-cent sales tax revenue (where roads are implicated) and local taxes on those most able to pay which will be used as leverage to secure bond funding.
Mike Seekings: The city of Charleston, with its 135,000 residents, is currently operating on a balanced budget of $215 million, which is up nearly 23 percent since 2014. However, except for the Low Battery Seawall project (which is designed and has an identified funding source through completion, including $25 million already in the bank), no money has been reserved for addressing flooding relief efforts, nor has a specific plan been mapped out for prioritizing or funding large-scale flood mitigation infrastructure throughout the city.
While many studies have been produced, we still lack a unifying plan. Such a roadmap for fully funding flooding relief efforts must, by definition, begin with identifying projects in order of importance and magnitude. Here are my top five (with the estimated cost to implement or complete):
Calhoun West/Hospital District ($400 million)
Church Creek Drainage Basin Improvements, Rezoning and Water Management Infrastructure ($100 million)
West Ashley Drainage Easement Acquisition and Maintenance ($25 million)
King & Huger Flooding Relief ($30 million)
Johns Island Implementation of Dutch Dialogues Water Management Plan ($25 million-plus)
These are not prioritized to the exclusion of other projects but represent the most critical and unfunded efforts. Our current sources of revenue are limited and primarily include our General Fund, Drainage Fund, and Stormwater fund, none of which produce the resources necessary to tackle flooding infrastructure. We must, instead, look to effective leverage other sources, including:
State Infrastructure Bank: On Day 1, I will have the city begin the application process for $200 million dollars to commence work in the Church Creek Basin and on the Calhoun West project. These efforts will both address flooding and critical mobility infrastructure.
Charleston County half-cent sales tax: These funds are in largely derived from sales in the city and should be used for critical flooding infrastructure needs, all of which, when complete, will alleviate the problem of water collection in our roads.
Cruise ship passengers: Consistent with the unanimous vote of Council in 2015, we must implement a $25 per head landing fee which, based on current size and frequency, will raise an annual revenue of $10 million.
John Tecklenburg: With flooding relief now the largest item in our budget after public safety, it’s clear that our residents are already doing their part to help finance flooding relief. That’s why our city funding plan is currently focused on strengthening the other four legs of the stool: asking our visitors to pay their fair share; working with federal and state officials, including the Army Corps of Engineers and the State Infrastructure Bank, to help finance specific, large scale projects; requiring developers to build stormwater systems and infrastructure that actually leave the area better off than it was before; And, starting in 2020, propose a new round of stormwater bonding, supported by stormwater fees and hospitality fees.
With regard to asking more of our visitors, I continue to believe that we must get authority from the state in terms of drainage expenses from our current accommodations and hospitality taxes. With regard to state and federal assistance, I’m pleased to report that they will be considering at least one billion dollars in direct flooding assistance to Charleston over the next six months, as by-far the largest infrastructure projects in city history are brought forward in partnership with our federal and state officials. And finally, as we’ve already seen with the new stormwater rules in Church Creek, it is absolutely essential that the soon-to-be-unveiled citywide stormwater rules require developers to make real investments in the overall health of the drainage basins they’re working in, thereby leaving residents throughout the area better off than they were before any additional construction was considered.
Maurice Washington: Flooding is an existential threat to our city; however, Charleston cannot be entirely free from flooding. Currently the city is addressing flooding problems in eight major drainage basins according to its sea level rise plan. It is cost prohibitive to fix this problem all at once, and therefore must be prioritized. To ensure that the most urgent of the projects are fixed first, benefit to cost analysis will be conducted. This benefit cost analysis what help determine to a rough degree of accuracy, the ratio of dollar value of benefits to the dollar value costs for a proposed project. Projects with higher benefits to cost ratios likely justify a higher priority ranking than those with lower ratios. I will ensure that the most knowledgeable individuals (hydrologists, geologists, meteorologists, engineers, certified floodplain managers, etc.) are placed in the proper supervisory positions of the current flood abatement projects. Individuals with the right skill sets are needed to execute, manage and/or oversee execution of these current multimillion dollar drainage projects. Also, as effective flood abatement cannot occur without the most current data, an immediate priority will be an assessment of the city’s flood hazard plan, flood map, and rainfall data to work towards protecting the city from known flood risk. In part, I will seek Greenbelt, Storm Water, State and Federal funds in addition to an impact fee on cruise ship passengers to pay for.
Gary White: The city of Charleston currently has two specific funding sources dedicated to providing resources to address flooding, the Drainage Fund and the Storm Water Fund.
The Drainage Fund is funded every year by four mills in property taxes and creates an estimated $4.8 million annually. The drainage fund also receives approximately $700,000 every year in funding from business licenses, permits, and fees.
The second source is the Storm Water Fund, which is funded by storm water fees that are charged on business and consumers’ water bills. The current storm water fee is $10 per equivalent residential unit, which generates an estimated $11.36 million annually.
The city has received funding from other governmental entities in the past, such as the State Infrastructure Bank, Department of Transportation, Charleston Water Systems and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These funds are tied to specific capital projects and are normally received via a competitive grant processes and therefore are not considered guaranteed sources of revenue.
The current expenditures that are funded from the two recurring sources of revenue are the operating expenses for storm water operations, which are projected at $7.38 million for 2019, and $3.5 million in annual debt services payments, associated with the 2012 Storm Water Revenue Bonds, that will continue annually until 2033.
There are numerous other drainage projects currently identified. Three examples of such projects are the Calhoun West Project that is estimated to cost in excess of $400 million, the Lower Battery Project, that is estimated to cost $50 million and the Church Creek Drainage Basin Project, that is projected to cost $50 million.
Clearly the city will not be able to solely rely on these funding sources to complete these large drainage projects. It will need to seek additional funding sources from the federal, state and county governments. Those funding sources are future and uncertain. So to have an immediate impact, as mayor I will create a fiscal mandate within the city’s budgeting process that requires the city to appropriate resources annually to support a more structured approach to maintaining our current drainage infrastructure, which will result in an immediate effect on these flooding issues. Additionally, I will propose a long-term strategic plan that outlines very specific actionable items that are financially obtainable with measurable and sustainable outcomes.
What plan or project is at the top of your list for improving traffic congestion?
SI: As far as the traffic congestion, I would stop with trying to increase the population density. It will only make traffic worse. I would also try to have the buses pull into a parking lot when they are ahead of schedule instead of just sitting in the right lane. I have sat in the right lane a number of times because of that reason.
The city needs to sync lights during rush hour to move more cars through congested intersections quicker and have the lights stay greener longer when cars are backed up. Those two things aren’t major projects, but they would certainly help and would not cost much.
RO: All traffic improvement projects must shrink our carbon footprint. We are at ground zero of the effects of climate collapse so it is incumbent on us to lead our nation on this front. A key plank of my platform is the launch of a real ride share app that will put our fleet of public vehicles — owned by we the people — at the service of an efficient and ecologically responsible public (as in owned by the public, not the government) transportation system. This app will make carpooling easy, fun, affordable, and financially rewarding for drivers. We cannot afford — financially or environmentally — to build new roads for more fossil fuel burning vehicles. Our future depends on our ability to put our underutilized resources (here, our cars that we often drive with no passengers) to their best use for the growth of community prosperity.
MS: Since our founding in 1670 as Charles Town, the city and surrounding region have never had a large-scale, regional, multimodal public access transportation system or network. The closest we came is the streetcar/trolley system that operated on the peninsula in the early-to-mid-1900s. At its peak, that network provided residents and visitors car-free access to the peninsula. It also included a link to ferry service and was, for a time, wildly successful.
Today, as a city and a region, we cannot pave our way out of ever-increasing congestion. While major projects such as 526 move through the approval process, there are several other identified road projects that must be completed in short order and include: a flyover at the intersection of Highway 17 and Main Road; a flyover/loop at Folly Road and the James Island Connector; and construction of the northern and southern pitchforks on John’s Island. Improvements along Central Park Road and Maybank Highway and the long overdue bike/pedestrian bridge across the Ashley River are also vital and need to be completed in rapid course.
The primary key to ensuring long-term transportation stability and economic growth of our region, however, is Lowcountry Rapid Transit. With a dedicated corridor from Summerville to the Medical District, it will be the first –—very large — step in a transit system that will branch throughout the city and the tri-county area. LCRT will provide a true alternative to congestion and smart zoning along the corridor will allow for transit-oriented development, live-work-play communities, and attainable, work-accessible housing. The project is funded locally, is in design, and is of vital importance to our community.