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What does future look like for 'Pennies' program?

If the York County Council gives its approval tonight, voters will be asked in June 2011 to approve funding $161 million in road improvement projects by extending the Pennies for Progress 1-cent sales tax for seven more years.

With approval, the county will embark on 26 major highway projects covering 53 miles and will pave 39 gravel roads as part of the third Pennies for Progress program, following programs in 1997 and 2003.

Pennies project manager Phil Leazer answered some questions about the program. Answers have been condensed for length.

Who decided which projects to include?

York County Council appointed a volunteer commission representing the county's regions to select "a financially-feasible list of projects to present to the York County Council" and voters for approval, Leazer said. The group was charged with selecting projects to relieve congestion, improve safety and improve the overall quality of life for York County citizens, he said.

The commission received input "from the SCDOT (South Carolina Department of Transportation), York County transportation staff, municipalities, school districts, Winthrop University and, most importantly, the citizens themselves," he said.

What type of projects can and cannot be included?

S.C. law allows counties to apply the Capital Projects Sales and Use Tax to various projects designed to "meet a public need," Leazer said. Examples include constructing roadways and buildings, and laying water and sewer lines. But the Pennies program always has focused on highway widening and safety improvement projects along highly trafficked roadways "to help relieve traffic congestion" while "reducing the number of motor vehicle accidents," Leazer said.

"The law does not state the funding can be used for road maintenance," Leazer said. The state has other ways of funding road maintenance, such as the state gas tax or the transportation tax, which local governments can enact, he said.

Can the county council add or remove projects from the list?

No. Only the commission can create or change the projects list, Leazer said. "The York County Council must either approve the list as submitted or reject the list as a whole," Leazer said.

How does the Pennies sales tax work?

A penny for every dollar spent in York County goes to Pennies for Progress. Up until now, that tax included grocery items. If approved, grocery items will not be taxed for the next Pennies program, Leazer said.

"A really cool thing" about Pennies is "as much as 40 percent of the sales tax revenue for this program is generated by people who do not live in York County. People who are visiting or just passing through (using our roads) also pay for these improvements," he said.

Pennies funding also allows the county to find additional funding for the roads through grants. For example, the 1997 program generated $100 million in tax revenue, which the county used to secure another $96 million in federal and state funds, Leazer said.

Some 1997 Pennies projects are still under construction. 2003 projects, too. Why do some projects take so much longer than others?

"Permitting, roadway and drainage design, right-of-way acquisition, all things that happen behind the scenes before the public sees any construction, take a long time to complete," he said. For example, if a project stretches for miles and crosses several creeks, it may take up to two years to get environmental permits. Then depending on how many properties are impacted by the project, purchasing right-of-way can take an addition year or more, he said. "It can be as much as four years after a project is approved before the public would see construction on a project like this."

What happens if projects go over budget or the tax doesn't generate enough revenue?

"If projects go over budget, we are required to complete those at the top of the list (of highest priority) and the lower projects would not be completed. York County has been successful in reducing costs where possible and finding additional funding to help make up for any shortfalls. In the 2003 program we realized the shortfall early and made sure (those projects) would be covered in the third program," he said. If less revenue is generated, the approach is the same, he said.

Does the county provide any oversight of construction?

"We monitor the progress of construction and the workmanship in partnership with the SCDOT, who are considered the experts when it comes to roadway projects. We try our best to meet with property owners who are directly affected by construction and the travelling public to answer their questions and provide solutions to the problems that always seem to come with growth and roadway construction."

What common concerns do residents bring to Pennies staff?

"Potholes in the roadways, cracks in the pavement, poor drainage conditions, and limited shoulders are all things the citizens of York County are beginning to get fed up with."

How can we address them?

"We must find a way to increase funding to the SCDOT so they can fix our roads, either by a statewide funding increase (such as the gas tax), or some new local initiative like the Pennies for Progress Program that allows individual counties to help maintain their roads."