In a Free Times story back in June, at-large Columbia City Councilman Howard Duvall suggested he’d be willing to entertain discussion about returning to the once controversial practice of transferring money out of the city’s water and sewer fund and placing it in the general fund, specifically for public safety.
“I’m willing to take the political heat,” Duvall said, at the time.
That heat is now coming from at least two of his opponents ahead of the Nov. 5 municipal election.
Duvall, who was first elected to Council in 2015, is facing a trio of challengers in the at-large race: Amadeo Geere, a freelance interpreter and former victim’s advocate; Dylan Gunnells, who has worked as a refugee services coordinator; and Sara Middleton, an attorney and businesswoman.
On the campaign trail, Duvall has touted his work over the last four years, including pushing for an ordinance that increased regulations on late-night bars — a move that drastically reduced the number of after-hours spots in Five Points — and a new law that banned vaping in bars and restaurants.
But he’s also taken some jabs from Middleton and Gunnels about his willingness to at least discuss rekindling the water-sewer transfer.
For almost 20 years, the city transferred millions of dollars per year out of its water and sewer fund into the general fund. It was a practice that proved controversial, as many took note that, at the same time the city was transferring those funds, its water and sewer infrastructure was aging and in need of repair. Eventually the city entered a consent decree with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and is in the midst of a $750 million upgrade to the wastewater system.
A group of citizens sued the city over the transfers. The case found its way to the state Supreme Court, which ultimately sent it back to the lower court, but not before offering a scathing statement that the city’s water and sewer fund should not be “treated as a slush fund.”
City Council voted in 2016 to end the transfers from the water and sewer fund. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed in 2018.
Duvall said in June he’d be willing to talk about returning to the transfers, noting that the 2015 Supreme Court opinion points toward a pathway for transfers out of the water and sewer fund, assuming they come from surplus revenues and certain other conditions are met. He suggested that the city could likely generate several million dollars per year from the fund that could be earmarked specifically for police and fire.
When asked again during an Oct. 22 interview whether he would support a transfer from the water-sewer fund, Duvall was quick to point out there doesn’t currently seem to be a temperature among Council members to do it. However, he still says he’d consider the idea.
“I would support us studying the possibility of setting up a fund within the general fund that would have specific items from the public safety area that could be funded by a transfer from water and sewer,” says Duvall, an Air Force veteran and former director of the state Municipal Association.
He stresses that, under that idea, the burden on city taxpayers to fund public safety initiatives would be lessened significantly, as entities that do not pay city taxes, but do pay a city water bill — nonprofits, the University of South Carolina, governments, water customers who live in unincorporated areas of the county — would help shoulder much of the load.
Some of Duvall’s opponents have been critical of even entertaining the idea.
Gunnels, who has highlighted public safety and addressing food deserts, among other initiatives, during his campaign, says the city needs to be more creative than simply transferring money from one fund to another to help fund public safety.
“The idea that we need to find more tax dollars or pull money from one fund into another fund just can’t be the answer anymore,” Gunnels says. “There are so many grants and nonprofit funding opportunities you can go after. … I don’t see anybody being a champion for pursuing some of these alternative funding resources, other than raising taxes or, if you are Howard Duvall, pulling from the water-sewer fund again.”
Middleton — whose family has been heavily involved in the revitalization of Main Street, particularly in the 1600 block, where they’ve developed a number of businesses, including The Grand boutique bowling alley/lounge, Michael’s Cafe and Catering, and the Venue on Main — has built her campaign around economic development and making it easier for business owners to operate in Columbia. She says she would not support a water-sewer transfer, noting she doesn’t want money diverted from water infrastructure. She cites past and recent problems as examples of why she’d not recommend it.
“I’d hate to see us return to what we were, where we had to pledge $700 million to fix our infrastructure,” she says. “Trenholm Road [where a city water main recently burst and caused a massive sinkhole] is a great example. And we still have a temporary dam [in the Columbia Canal]. I think that money should be in the water-sewer fund.”
Geere is a native of the small south Asian nation of Bhutan and currently is a resident of the Rosewood neighborhood. A key plank in his platform has been the idea of building a greater connection between City Hall and Columbia’s low-income communities. He thinks that bond currently is strained.
“In lower-income communities, they feel like it’s one after another that avenues that will help their well-being are being taken away, like grocery stores and other basics,” Geere says, referring to the dearth of grocery stores in many of the city’s low-income communities. “Of course, we need to strengthen public safety, so that the crime rates go down and property value will go up. We should encourage business-minded people to go into lower-income communities [and establish business].”
Geere says he’d also propose that City Council meetings be held in local neighborhoods on a rotating basis, rather than always being at City Hall, an effort he thinks would heighten Council’s awareness of what is going on in the community.
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