'Pennies' projects in peril?

York County is determined to finish road improvements voted on a decade ago, even if that puts other road projects at risk.

The county could take $10 million in interest from the 2003 "Pennies for Progress" revenue to make up for a newly discovered $22.8 million shortfall for 1997 projects. The move would leave county council members hoping that voters approve a third round of the Pennies program so they can finish what was promised in 2003.

"The key to the next Pennies for Progress is getting the first one finished," Councilman Paul Lindemann said during a special council meeting Monday. "If we get one finished, maybe we can go back to the voters and show them we accomplished something."

On Monday, council members will hear County Manager Jim Baker's plan to make up the $22.8 million shortfall caused by increased costs and poor accounting. So far, Baker has recommended phasing out use of the program manager and his firm, Capital Management and Engineering, which has overseen projects for 10 years.

Baker is in the process of beefing up the county's engineering department to take on Pennies work. Four new positions were approved Dec. 3 and more likely will be requested.

1997 projects should be OK

Councilmen don't expect work on the remaining six 1997 Pennies for Progress projects to be delayed by the funding deficit or the shift in project management from CME to county staff.

"I don't foresee any delays in 1997 work. It's still ongoing, and I don't think it will impact that," Council Chairman Buddy Motz told The Herald. "The only surprise was the amount we needed. I don't think the transition will delay anything at all."

Completing a section of the S.C. 5 bypass in York in time to serve a new high school expected to open in August 2010 is a priority for the county, Baker said. The length of the section has yet to be determined.

The recent shortfall has York city and school officials worried about the future of the bypass, which was put on hold once already when another shortfall was discovered three years ago. CME previously had said work on the 5.3-mile bypass, which was expected to cost $12.9 million, could be started in 2008.

"The high school is going to be out there and then that's where a lot of our economic development in the future is going to take place," York Mayor Eddie Lee said. "We've had a lot of people interested in real estate on that bypass, but they want that bypass to be widened first."

Finishing the S.C. bypass and other 1997 projects, including widening of Albright and Cherry roads, could cost anywhere from $16 million to $22.8 million more than the county has.

Finding that money will be "painful" for the county, Baker said.

Originally, completing the 14 road projects was projected to cost $99.3 million. By 2006, costs to complete construction almost doubled to $195.9 million. Now, construction costs are expected to reach $211.9 million.

Interest from the 2003 program won't cover all the needs. An option for the rest is using reserve funds that haven't already been earmarked for other work, such as renovations at Hightower Hall and the Moss Justice Center.

Council chairman Motz said money for those two projects won't be disturbed.

"Taking money from 2003 is both a concern and a necessity; that was going to be a cushion for 2003 projects," Motz said. "Shifting it will leave a void, but gives us more time to find additional funds for that project."

The next time "Pennies for Progress hits the voting booths -- probably around 2010 -- the county could provide better estimates on what it will take to finish the 2003 projects, Baker said.

To date, only part of one 2003 project -- the $1.1 million expansion and re-alignment of Shiloh Road at S.C. 5 -- has been completed. Baker has suggested having the remaining 24 projects re-evaluated to determine the cost now and how much money the county will need to finish them.

Baker will present a detailed transition plan when the council meets Monday at 6 p.m.