After a year of campaigns, debates and elections, it’s time for Columbia’s new City Council to get to work. On Tuesday, council members will meet in an official capacity for the first time since three new members were elected in November and longtime member Daniel Rickenmann became mayor.
The council will see Columbia through what has been described as a pivotal moment for the city. A litany of projects are underway and new initiatives continue to emerge. Before the council memberrs first meeting on Tuesday, The State spoke to them about their priorities going into 2022.
Councilman Howard Duvall, who has been an at-large member for the last six years, said the initial learning curve can be steep but most decisions the council makes will be routine, unanimous votes. The extra projects the city takes on are where political differences may show themselves, he said.
Duvall is the former executive director of the Municipal Association of South Carolina. While he worked for the association, he taught a class to new town and city council members across the state called, “You’ve been elected, now what.”
“The first hour of that course was, ‘you got elected because you probably ran against City Hall. Now that you’re elected you are City Hall.’ You have to change your mindset from running a political campaign to governing,” Duvall said. “The quicker we can get our new council working together as a good team, sharing diverse ideas … the better the city will be governed.”
Council members who spoke with The State said they’re excited to “collaborate” with their colleagues and other city leaders. How they approach that goal will likely look different for each of them.
Tina Herbert, who is newly elected to north Columbia’s District 1, said she hopes to take “a novel approach” by working closely with community organizers, afterschool programs, churches and other hyper-local entities to address things like violent crime and food insecurity.
“I often tell people that the city itself can’t solve all of our problems, so it’s very important to bring together separate groups who are doing similar things to see how they can partner and scale,” she said.
For example, she referenced a nationwide push to have counselors or medical professionals rather than police officers respond to someone having a mental health crisis.
Newly-elected at-large member Aditi Bussells echoed Herbert, adding that first responders should include city employees trained to respond to mental health and substance use issues.
Bussells, too, emphasized community-driven solutions, adding that her work as an at-large member will revolve around stringing together diverse, sometimes competing needs across the city.
“Every solution… is not going to come from council chambers,” she said. “We have to recognize there are people who have been doing this work for a long time, and they should be our partners. Not necessarily the people we go to when we’re campaigning.”
Public safety, basic services at forefront, passion projects vary
Ensuring the city’s various public safety entities are fully staffed was another top priority for all council members.
It’s the issue Rickenmann, the new mayor, said he’d resolve before anything else, if given a magic wand to do so. His colleagues seem to agree, all stressing the need to fill open positions and retain current employees.
The members also agreed that maintaining and improving basic city services is the primary job.
“Getting the basics right is very important to me,” said District 3 councilman Will Brennan, who oversees the eastern central portion of the city, incuding Five Points. “The services we provide, do we provide them to you efficiently and effectively… so constantly pushing for better approaches to services, whether it’s the solid waste division, whether it’s our public safety outlets … and then Columbia water … we make a lot of important decisions about our water system, not just drinking water but wastewater (and) stormwater.”
He added those things should take priority, as essential services are what the council is most directly responsible for.
It’s clear the council has a few debates ahead of them, about a laundry list of ongoing and proposed commitments as well as new ideas members may bring forward.
“What’s ongoing has to be the top priority,” said Joe Taylor, newly elected to the eastern District 4. “We need to get the Three Rivers Greenway finished, power lines underground downtown. We need Five Points to look presentable, we need to make our city attractive.”
The Greenway is a system of riverfront trails that includes Columbia’s Riverfront Park, the Saluda Riverwalk and the Vista Greenway.
Among Taylor’s priorities is addressing a property tax study the city commissioned in 2020, which showed that Columbia is less competitive than other South Carolina cities because of high taxes.
That study found Columbia is stuck in “a continuous loop,” where high property taxes have meant slower growth, which has meant less tax revenue, which has meant tax hikes to make up the difference.
The cycle stymies growth, pushing private investment away and preventing young professionals from putting down roots in Columbia, according to the analysis.
Rickenmann helped urge the city to conduct that analysis, and previously said he hopes the council can start acting on the information.
“We have the data, now we need to work with our community partners to do everything we can in the most creative way to make ourselves competitive. The high taxes here affect affordable housing, they affect outside investment, inside investment and growth,” Rickenmann said of that study in a Q&A with The State earlier this month.
Bussells, too, mentioned the need to work with area partners, like Richland County and the Richland 1 school district, to determine how to address the property tax problem for the capital city.
The city’s undeveloped riverfront may also be a pet project, particularly for Brennan whose district includes the prime riverfront real estate between Gervais and Blossom streets.
He said if either city, state or federal resources go to building out roads, water and sewer infrastructure and other essentials, private developers would be drawn to the area.
“I think there’s potentially over a billion dollars worth of private investment if we just invest in some infrastructure,” he said. “(It) could change the overall face of who we are and what our priorities are as a city.”
Affordable housing will also certainly be on the agenda.
Council member Edward McDowell could not be reached for this article, but has said in the past that adequate affordable housing in his District 2 will be vital to ensuring the area remains diverse, particularly as higher-end housing units outpace construction of affordable units. His district is comprised of part of north Columbia and downtown.
Herbert said affordable housing will be a top focus for her as well.
The Columbia Housing Authority has received millions in federal pandemic aid to build more affordable units, but advocates worry market-rate and luxury apartments will outpace affordable units.
All agree they will have to prioritize their attention.
“It will be a fun discussion,” Taylor said.
The council will meet on the third floor of city hall at 4 p.m. Tuesday for its first meeting. Residents can attend in-person, or watch the meeting on the city’s various streaming services, including YouTube and Roku TV.