Credible cost estimates, better accountability and other changes are needed to ensure continued voter support for York County’s “Pennies for Progress” road program, a citizens’ committee reported Monday.
The four-member, ad hoc citizens’ committee that has been reviewing the management of the county’s roads program since earlier this year identified a host of problems in its report.
“This is horrible performance,” ad-hoc committee member David Duncan told the Pennies committee, chaired by County Council member Christi Cox. Duncan said the committee identified cost overruns, uncompleted projects and other problems.
For example, the first round of Pennies included 15 projects estimated to cost $99 million, the committee said. All 15 projects were completed, but at a cost of $189.8 million, according to the report.
The second round of Pennies included 25 projects estimated at $173 million, but only 12 of those projects were completed, the committee said.
Other ad-hoc committee members are chairman Paul Anderko, Billy Hagner and Alex Haefle.
Duncan said cost estimates presented to voters in Pennies referendums “are terrible. We’ve got to have better numbers to start with.”
“All four of us would have been fired in our previous jobs if we came up with this,” Duncan said, referring to the handling of the roads program.
The committee, appointed by the County Council ahead of next year’s planned referendum on a fourth round of roads projects funded by York County’s penny sales tax, had previously estimated the three previous rounds of Pennies projects have a total of more than $100 million in cost overruns.
Duncan said needed changes include credible cost estimates that identify the scope of the project and include project specifications. He said cost estimates should be changed to “not to exceed” estimated costs.
Duncan said voters don’t realize how badly the program has been managed.
“The only reason (Pennies) three got passed is because they didn’t know about one and two,” Duncan said, referring to the first two rounds of Pennies projects.
He warned: “It’s going to fail if you don’t change it.”
Other recommendations include accountability for all partners, including rewards and punishments; continual improvement, with both internal and external reviews aimed at improving efficiency; policy changes that state how cost overruns and other situations should be handled; and administrative changes.
Duncan also said politics needs to stay out of the program.
Cox asked if the current county staff is doing a good job of managing the program, and Duncan agreed that is is.
“It was a great move, bringing it in house,” Duncan said, referring to the county staff taking over the program management from an outside consultant.
“You’ve got a good staff, but you can’t expect them to wave a wand and make magic when they’ve got garbage to begin with,” he said, referring to inaccurate cost estimates and other problems.
Council members appointed the committee to provide an outside review of past performance of the programs initiated by the voters in 1997, 2003 and 2011.
Duncan said the committee interviewed numerous people, read material about the program, studied numbers and conducted other research in the process of creating its report.
The first Pennies program ran $70 million over the amount approved in the 1997 referendum while under the direction of outside engineering consultants CME, and the budget for Pennies 2 was revised down after county engineers took over management of the program in 2009, from $173 million to $165.4 million.
But since 31 of 69 projects from Pennies 2 had to be carried over to Pennies 3 due to a lack of funding, and two others were dropped altogether, the citizens’ committee estimates that the revised budget is still inflated by $44 million above the remaining projects’ budget approved by voters in 2003.
Duncan said council members need to carefully screen the list of approved Pennies projects presented to voters. He said the 2017 Pennies referendum needs to gain credibility from voters.
“Voters are getting wise to Pennies,” Duncan said. “We’ve got a lot of people that were promised roads in their neighborhoods that never happened.”
He said the fourth Pennies referendum needs to include a list of projects that are all completed on time.
Cox said she believes voters understand the importance of Pennies. “We want our roads paved, we’ve got to pay for it,” she said.
An audit by the firm Greene, Finney and Horton looked into a selected group of past projects that went over budget and concluded the initial estimates on the projects were too low, often using generic “shot in the dark” figures. Auditors even faulted county administration for failing to “provide complete and accurate information” on some projects.
Jennifer Becknell: 803-329-4077