County eyes changes for troubled 'Pennies'

York County leaders took the latest steps toward an overhaul of the "Pennies for Progress" road program on Monday night, ordering new cost estimates for unfinished projects and monthly updates on how the work is going.

After the recent discovery of a $22.8 million shortfall on the 1997 road-improvement projects, council members want to cut costs as they search for more efficient ways to complete six projects.

On Monday, the council didn't talk about how money should be moved around to compensate for the shortfall. Instead, members focused on how the county will take responsibility for oversight -- a task brought on after poor communication and accounting problems with the current manager, Capital Management and Engineering.

Councilmen gave an OK on Monday to re-estimate costs for all the remaining Pennies plans. But they also raised questions about whether the proposed new approach would lead to multiple groups being paid to do the same work.

Transitioning from an outside firm to internal management could take more than eight months, but County Engineer Mark Kettlewell said some tasks will be shifted much earlier.

Among the points to emerge from the plan so far:

• Job descriptions for newly approved positions -- including program managers and an accounting clerk -- will soon be advertised.

• The county has talked to South Carolina Department of Transportation about helping to make sure construction is done properly and that properties are bought efficiently.

• The county does have office space to for new employees, but is still in search of a place to house records.

• It's not known how many more employees or outside services could be needed. At different times, CME has had as many as 40 people working on projects. Some positions are highly specialized and more firms may be used for these tasks.

• Project updates will be presented to the council on a monthly basis as the transition continues.

Councilman Curwood Chappell asked if the county would be overlapping by spending on both CME's work and that of county staff -- including paying for the newly created positions to assume oversight.

"We keep beating around the bush; we know we have a problem," Chappell said. "We're not doing well with road projects; not as good as we should have done."

County Manager Jim Baker again assured the council that CME's contract calls for itemized work.

"We're only paying for services we ask them to continue in the future," Baker said. "If we make new estimates, it will probably add new costs. CME won't be paid for estimates and analysis of estimates while we pay a new a firm to do the same. There shouldn't be any double-billing situations. We're paying other parties, CME and staff, but not paying anyone to do the same thing."

As the county searchers for millions to finish projects voted on a decade ago, Baker suggested another change: Hiring an outside firm to evaluate estimates for all the remaining projects and make suggestions on how to update estimates accurately over time.

"It's admirable of us taking this over. It's a big undertaking," Councilman Paul Lindemann said. "It may cost more money up front. ... Long-term, I think the county will benefit and may get things done a lot more effectively."