Charleston County was told today it has 60 days to pay back the $11.6 million it accepted to build the Interstate 526 expansion or the State Infrastructure Bank will take legal action.
Council Chairman Teddie Pryor has said that up to 200 staff members could be laid off and services cut to make up for a $10 million shortfall in its new budget because it decided not to build the expansion.
Police, emergency medical and other vital services will not be axed, but libraries, drainage-ditch cleaning and mosquito control could suffer, Pryor said.
Pryor and six other council members traveled to Columbia today to meet with bank board members to try to reach a solution that will not require drastic budget cuts.
But bank board members said they want the county to pay the money bank or they will take whatever means necessary, including legal action.
The county received $11.6 million from the State Infrastructure Bank for the highway project, which it used for design, environmental studies and right-of-way acquisition.
But council rejected the I-526 project over Johns and James islands last month, and now the bank wants its money back. The county is considered in breach of contract, Pryor said.
The county stands to lose $10 million in the upcoming budget year in state aid and $1.6 million in the subsequent fiscal year, Pryor said.
"This is a big hit," Pryor said Wednesday.
State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, is a member of the bank board and wrote the legislation that established the bank as a creative way to finance transportation projects.
Limehouse said Wednesday he is empathetic to the situation that the county faces, but the bank contract language governing the situation is crystal clear.
"The county is definitely between a rock and a hard place," he said.
Short of amending the contract between the bank and the county, Limehouse said he doesn't see what could be done in the meeting to help the county.
"Business is business. If I could help them I would help them," he said.
The bank provides hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation projects around the state. If the county does not reimburse the money as required, it could jeopardize the bank's credit rating, he said.
Some members of council have suggested using the $420 million the bank pledged for I-526 to improve existing roads on the islands. Limehouse said that wasn't going to happen. He likened it to borrowing $300,000 for a house, then building a gas station instead, which a bank would not allow.
Limehouse said he is one of six bank board members, and other members from different parts of the state have said they want a slice of the $420 million that was going to I-526.
Pryor said the state could decide to complete the I-526 project on its own. Traffic on James and Johns islands is a public safety issue, particularly during a hurricane, he said.
More development is coming to the islands whether or not the road is built, he said, and zoning, not roads, is what controls growth, he said.
As envisioned for decades, the I-526 project would extend the road from its current ending point in West Ashley at Savannah Highway across Johns and James islands to the James Island connector.
On April 19, council decided to nix the controversial plan. At public hearings, those who spoke against the road far outnumbered its supporters, who in turn countered that there is a "silent majority" in favor of I-526.
Although the Infrastructure Bank pledged $420 million for I-526, the project has an estimated cost of $489 million. The lack of full funding is among the county's objections to the plan.
A county attorney had warned council members that the contract with the state does not allow the county to just quit the project.