WMBF Investigates: Florence Co. road projects

FLORENCE, SC (WMBF) - Almost $145 million of taxpayer money was collected and set aside for six road projects in Florence County. Leaders called it the Florence County Forward Project back in 2007, but many know it as the penny tax. Seven years later, the status of that project may surprise you.

One cent for every dollar spent in Florence County since 2007 has added up to roughly $144 million, to be matched with another $340 million in state funds.

Florence County Council Chairman James Schofield said, "[The] whole time money was put in the bank, my understanding; interest to date is $9 million.

Those tax dollars are earning interest instead of paving roads. To date, only one of the six projects is complete.

Though it's the only project completed so far, the Pine Needles expansion is surely appreciated. West Florence Fire Department services roughly 24,000 people, so going from two lanes to four lanes, plus a turn lane is critical.

"The contractor went out of business in the middle of doing it," said Chairman Schofield.

But Schofield said even that first project came with delays, turning the $17.6 million two-year project into a three year effort.

According to Schofield, they couldn't do all six projects at the same time. They had to do one at a time in order so when the Pine Needles Road project expansion got delayed, they all got delayed.

"The state law when you set up the ballot says you must put it in the priority order, so that voters understand priority between one and six, so that if the funding doesn't come, they'll understand what might be in jeopardy of not getting finished," clarified Schofield.

The other five projects include widening of Highway 378, widening US 76, widening TV Road, extending US 301 Bypass and widening Alligator Road, and widening SC 51 to Pamplico Highway.

All of them add up to roughly 60 miles of roadway improvements, and here's where the major hurdle comes in. If you disturb wetlands and streams, you can't build roads without mitigating those impacts.

Schofield said, "When they finally got the drawings done, there was no mitigation area for wetlands large enough to handle this size project around close to us, so a mitigation area had to be developed. Then they found an Indian burial ground down 378. You can't move forward; historical people have to get involved in that situation, so it just took time to get where we are."

A representative with the SC Department of Transportation said mitigation for the entire program had to be identified and purchased before any of the permits for the individual projects could be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers.

And the state said the mitigation approach is the first of its kind in South Carolina history.

Work is underway at the Lynches River stream and wetland mitigation site four miles south of Lamar in Darlington County. These hundreds of acres of wetland and stream impacts took time to certify.

"They told us last year that we were going to be bidding these projects, you know, a year ago and they slipped. Because every time they'd send something up and mitigation didn't get approved, it'd kick it back six months," added Schofield.

But the improvement plan now has earned transportation officials the permits for the next three projects, with the final two expected soon. The wetland work will mean the completion of most the remaining road projects in the next two to three years and the final project expected to be done within six years.

WMBF News Anchor Michael Maely: Do you sympathize with the tax payers?

Chairman James Schofield: Very much so, and we saw that when we were working to pass the penny again and keep the penny in place. A lot of frustration on the part of the tax payers. Saying I've paid the penny, where's my money, where are my roads? I want them, these six projects are very critical to Florence County.

Schofield said he's even heard accusations. "Even people said you spent the money somewhere else, which obviously was not true."

He agrees Florence County leaders could have done a better job explaining the reasons for the delay, and all the red tape and paperwork. If you have questions, he keeps a binder with him where you'll find the answers.

But he said the reasons would have been just as hard to hear seven years ago.

Michael Maely: Would you be surprised?

Chairman Schofield: Yes I would be surprised, that only one would be complete in that length of time.

Though Schofield said the wait will eventually be worth the economic impact. "The people from Florence County will benefit for ages to come, and when these roads are finished, everybody will wonder how we did without them for so long."

Schofield said since voters kept the penny tax for another seven years last fall, he's confident taxpayers still support that first tax. But to start the next projects sooner, this time the county will borrow money, then pay it back with the penny tax, instead of having to wait to collect.

For a detailed list of all the capital sales tax projects, and to hear what the Army Corps of Engineers said about this project, check out the following links

Florence County Capital Sales Tax projects: http://bit.ly/1jxAUB3

Statement on Florence Penny Road Projects from Army Corps of Engineers: http://bit.ly/1dEtZ8O

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