When the race resumes: Will we have the infrastructure to accommodate growth?

January 30, 2010 

nwsECONOMY-Infrastructure0201sw01

Sumter Utilities Inc. workers transfer power lines Wednesday afternoon along Bluffton Road as part of the county's plan to widen the road.

SARAH WELLIVER

To Jim Hicks, asking what Beaufort County needs to do to handle the growth expected once the economy recovers is almost foolish.

"It's like, 'What do we need to do after a hurricane?,'" said Hicks, a Lady's Island resident and chairman of both the county Planning Commission and the Northern Regional Plan Implementation Committee.

"There are no magic solutions," he said. "It has taken years to get to the point where we are."

Instead, Hicks said, the question should be: Is the county heading in the right direction today -- during the recession -- to support development that might come later?

It's a query often heard around the county during the sour economy, particularly in discussions about infrastructure needs.

Planning officials say thousands of homes in and around the county will be built when the economy bounces back -- and new residents will need enough roads, community facilities, parks, and water and sewer lines to accommodate them.

WORKING ON THE ROADS

Chief on the list of infrastructure needs are roads, according to Hicks and other county officials.

"Do we think about roads? Yes we do, big time," he said, referring to the discussions he and other Planning Commission members have when deciding which new developments to approve for construction. "We have learned the hard way that if you build it, you also need to be prepared to pay for the roads."

The Beaufort Transportation Advisory Group, comprised of County Council members and municipal mayors, has grappled since October with how to use limited funds to complete 10 road projects approved by voters in 2006.

Voters passed a temporary, penny sales tax referendum to help pay for the projects, whose pricetag was estimated at $316 million. The sales tax was expected to generate about $152 million, while impact fees -- charged to builders of new homes -- were expected to generate about $54 million, according to county chief financial officer David Starkey.

Sales tax collections likely will generate the millions expected before expiring in 2012, Starkey said, but the recession significantly slowed the construction of new homes and the collection of impact fees.

Additionally, costs for some road projects -- such as the Bluffton Parkway expansion, expected to exceed its budget by $36 million -- jumped along with the costs of materials.

Those factors may leave the county about $85.4 million short of what it needs to complete all phases of the 10 projects. Deciding how to proceed is a complicated calculation because some progress has been made on each road project -- construction phases of some are complete or nearly complete, design of others has been finished, rights-of-way have been acquired for others.

Rob McFee, director of the county Engineering and Infrastructure Division, presented to the advisory group Jan. 20 county staff recommendations on how to use the limited money and which projects to postpone.

"This is just a starting point," McFee told the group. "It's a picture of the challenges we've got."

The group ultimately voted to defer construction of a fly-over bridge off the Bluffton Parkway and widening S.C. 170 from May River Road to Sun City's Tidewatch Circle.

The Public Facilities Committee approved the recommendations Tuesday and final approval now falls to the County Council, which is expected to take up the proposal Feb. 8.

Despite the setbacks, McFee is confident all 10 of the projects eventually will be completed.

"When the economy does turn around and we see a steady increase in impact fees, we are at a place where they can begin construction fairly quickly," McFee said. "It's extraordinary what Beaufort County is doing for itself. We are catching up and correcting a lot of the growth that took place for many, many years where the (S.C. Department of Transportation) was unable to keep up."

Some advisory group members questioned the decision to rely on impact fees to fund major road projects. Others wondered if less expensive but equally effective designs not conceived in 2006 could be developed now, when the economy has forced governments to find different solutions.

"Since the facts on the ground have changed, I'm just very uncomfortable that we proceed with engineering determinations that were made five years ago in re-allocating this money," said County Councilman Paul Sommerville.

Hilton Head Island Mayor Tom Peeples said it would be counterproductive to second-guess decisions already made.

"We can't sit here now and determine what these projects should have been," Peeples said. "We have to deal with what they are. We have to play with the cards we're dealt."

County Council also is keeping its eye on the potential development of Okatie Crossings, a 280-acre, 1.5-million-square-foot shopping center proposed for the intersection of U.S. 278 and S.C. 170.

Jasper County and the city of Hardeeville believe the center, which would straddle the Beaufort-Jasper county line, would bring about 2,000 jobs.

New jobs bring new customers and more traffic, Beaufort County Council members argue -- so they want to know who will foot the bill to widen S.C. 170 to accommodate them. The highway lays mostly on the Beaufort side of the county line.

Council Chairman Weston Newton said he sent a letter to the developer, the Sembler Co. of Atlanta, offering an opportunity to appear before council in coming weeks to discuss its plan for the eventual widening, among other concerns.

BUILDING AND MANAGING COMMUNITY FACILITIES

Beaufort County administration had to get creative -- and get smart, according to deputy county administrator Bryan Hill -- to keep as many of its capital-improvement projects and new construction going during the recession without raising taxes or laying off employees.

"We've basically been trying to stay ahead of the curve," Hill said.

That's meant changing the delivery of services and searching for new funding sources, he said. A few examples:

• Closing the Lady's Island Convenience Center will save the county $50,000 to $70,000 in annual operations costs -- and the need for renovations and upgrades that could top $457,000 -- said county solid waste manager Jim Minor.

Many residents criticized the closure, fearing increased illegal dumping and longer lines elsewhere, but the center closed for good earlier this month.

Its customers will have to travel to one of 12 other county recycling and trash drop-off sites. The closest is the larger St. Helena Convenience Center three miles away. That facility already accepts the scrap metal that Lady's Island did not and has more recycling containers.

Meanwhile, the county is planning to buy 10 acres on Lady's Island where a new center could be built once the economy regains its strength.

• The construction of a new Disabilities and Special Needs building is dependent on state and federal grants, in addition to the $5.2 million already granted the project by County Council.

The project could cost as much as $8.6 million; scaled down versions would cost between $5.83 million and $6.4 million.

The new building will replace space in Port Royal, which is rapidly becoming too small for a growing number of clients. Nearly half of the department's 104 day-program participants are now bused to Beaufort and Hilton Head Island for services.

"We want to help the families as much as we possibly can, and when it's all said and done, the community will feel very good about what we're building for this group," said county administrator Gary Kubic. "We could pick and choose what we would pay for, but we didn't want to stop the process based on lack of funds."

• County staff are compiling a list of all county buildings, their age and conditions to help council members decide how best to move forward with renovations and new construction, Kubic said.

Due in March is a report on capital-improvement projects already completed and details on the construction and funding status of others still on the list.

"Our main focus is making sure that (we do) rebound appropriately," Hill said.

TREATING OUR WATER, HANDLING OUR SEWER

The Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority felt the recession, slashing its budget by 15 percent and scaling back its future capital improvement projects -- such as the construction of new wastewater treatment plants -- according to deputy general manager Ed Saxon.

But the authority is ready to rebound when the economy does, he said.

"We always have to be in a position that when development starts, we have the resources in place to handle that -- and we do," Saxon said. "We feel like we can quickly respond to any up-tick in development."

While the county was booming, the authority collected more than $2 million per year in capacity fees, Saxon said. The fees -- generally $39.60 per home for both water and sewer -- are routinely charged to developers of new communities and cover the costs of lengthening pipe lines and bringing service to new areas.

Since the recession, fee collection has generated less than $1 million annually, Saxon said. But the boom years allowed the authority to install "major infrastructure in nearly every area of the county."

Money for capital improvement projects comes from a different pot that was also depleted by the recession, he said.

Economic recovery will enable the authority to put more money toward the repair and replacement of parts in its more than 50-year-old system, he said.

"We're poised and ready for the up-tick," Saxon said.

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