John A. Carlos II

New concrete is laid down by construction workers on North Main Street on a stretch of road being developed through the Richland County Transportation Penny. John A. Carlos II / Special to The Post and Courier

Get ready for a little light reading.

Richland County announced it recently received, and plans to release, more than 1.5 million documents related to its billion-dollar, at-times controversial transportation penny tax program. The documents in question were obtained from the Program Development Team, the trio of private companies that the county has paid to run the penny program for the last five years.

A release from the county indicates the penny documents will be released in waves, beginning in coming weeks. The county is releasing the information in chunks so that it can have time to redact any information that is legally protected. When released, citizens will be able to view the information online.

In its release, the county said “the sheer volume of records presents a reviewing, redaction and release challenge that, like the transportation program itself, is unprecedented.”

A county source tells Free Times it could cost more than $250,000 in man-hours, over the course of many months, to get all of the documents appropriately organized and redacted.

The transportation penny program, which was approved by voters in a contentious 2012 referendum, is a 1 percent sales tax that is set to raise $1 billion over a two-decade period for road and other transportation projects in the Midlands. It is a critical source of revenue for the COMET bus system, to which it is set to provide $300 million. The county’s relationship with the PDT is coming to a close. Its agreement with the private companies ends on Nov. 3, and the county plans to bring administration of the program in-house.

It remains to be seen what is in the reams of to-be-released documents, particularly as it relates to information Richland County Council has recently said it wanted to see.

In August, County Council voted to ask the PDT to turn over documents related to the penny program. Some Council members were particularly keen on documents related to certain change orders for penny projects, as well as expenditures related to those changes.

That vote came just days after District 6 Councilman Joe Walker III sent a letter to accounting firm Cherry Bekaert demanding a full release of its 2017 audit of the PDT. Walker had questioned why Council members had been required by county attorney Larry Smith to sign a non-disclosure agreement before viewing portions of the audit.

As reported by The State, the audit in question identified deficiencies connected to the management of the program.

Free Times asked Walker whether the to-be-released 1.5 million penny program documents contain the information he wants to see released in connection with the 2017 audit. He says that, presumably, the information he wants released is contained within the million-plus documents.

Walker says he would like for the Cherry Bekaert firm to help the county by pointing out information within the documents that it used to come to its conclusions in the 2017 audit.

County Council Chairman Paul Livingston tells Free Times he plans to send a letter to the accounting firm asking for help identifying certain documents.

“The [documents used for the basis of the audit] will be there, but being able to find them and identify them is a different story,” Livingston says. “So, we’re asking Cherry Bekaert to at least tell us what documents, in the documents that we have now, that they used to come to their conclusions.”

In August, the PDT — which is comprised of three companies, Brownstone, M.B. Kahn and the former ICA Engineering (now named HDR) — issued a statement in regard to the audit in question, which noted, in part, that the PDT is a “private business entity” and that it has “gone above and beyond the contract requirements [with the county] and provided full access to all of the PDT’s records.”

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