When Georgetown County Council members implemented a long-range Capital Improvement Plan back in 2008, they promised to keep a close watch on the plan to ensure it would be flexible enough to meet changing needs of the community, as well as changes in revenue sources.
Council members performed their most recent review of the plan just a few short weeks ago, and reflected on it further during a day-long goal setting workshop, in which they discussed their hopes for the county. As the plan was revisited, the process gave rise to concerns that some residents may have forgotten the origins of the plan, or perhaps in the case of recent additions to the county’s population, were never made aware of those origins.
Though the plan itself is still fairly new, the idea stretches back more than a decade to Visions, a countywide, citizen-driven effort launched in 2001 to address problems created by rapid and uneven growth in the county. More than 350 county residents dedicated significant time and effort into crafting a vision for what the future of the county should look like. That vision included an improved road system, parks in all regions of the county where children could play and participate in sporting activities without an onerous commute, and projects that would generally improve the quality of life in all areas of the county.
In short, the county’s Capital Improvement Plan started with the public, and it’s to the public that the plan still belongs today.
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There’s no question there are those in the county who will argue that statement. County officials heard from individual residents who take issue with this project or that one. Libraries are relics to be consigned to antiquity, some have told us, while others claim parks will sit unused. Full parking lots during ball games and circulation numbers at our existing library branches prove otherwise.
There’s a significant component of our community that values these projects. Some of those folks are the same people who cried out for these improvements during the Visions process. Others were not part of the process, but have embraced the projects, and more to come will likely be brought to our area, at least in part, because of what has been accomplished under the plan.
County officials have also heard from residents who see the value in libraries and parks, along with community enhancements, but all the same would prefer to see funds directed elsewhere. Projects in the plan are “wants” rather than “needs,” they’ve said.
One thing many don’t understand is it’s often simply not possible for funds designated for one project to be transferred to a project in another category or department. Take for example a recent suggestion that funds spent on a segment of Bike the Neck, a bicycle trail on Waccamaw Neck, would be better spent on salaries for law enforcement. Repurposing those funds isn’t an option for several reasons. First and foremost, Bike the Neck money doesn’t really belong to the county. The Bike the Neck fund is maintained by the county on behalf of a nonprofit group that conducts fundraising activities specifically for the construction of bike paths on the Waccamaw Neck, along with grant funds obtained specifically for the project. The county can’t use dollars in the Bike the Neck fund for anything other than Bike the Neck, no matter how important that other project might be.
Similarly, a resident recently suggested using money designated for landscaping the median on U.S. 17 in Litchfield to provide pay raises for firefighters. Those funds, too, come from private donations and other money designated specifically for landscaping that section of roadway. The funds simply can’t be used for any other purpose.
Some restrictions are more stringent than others, but money in the county budget is often restricted, especially in the case of grant funds or other special funds. If funds aren’t tied to a particular project, they may be reserved for a certain category of use, such as public education or parks. If the county doesn’t use the funds in the specified manner, those funds are lost and/or there may be penalties.
County officials are very aware that continuing to move ahead with the Capital Improvement Plan after the start of the recession was a controversial decision. However, the county believes unequivocally that decision was the right one. Forging ahead allowed the county to complete projects with maximum efficiency and return on investment by taking advantage of low land purchase and building costs, as well as the lowest interest rates seen in recent memory. At the same time those projects allowed the county to provide work for local contractors, engineers, architects and more during a difficult time.
The end result was that communities got the facilities residents had cried out for, and it was done for the lowest possible cost.
Had the Capital Improvement Plan been put on hold, it’s likely it would still be in stasis, and there’s no telling when momentum might have been regained. After all the time and effort put into the plan by members of our community, seeing the plan’s promise fizzle and fade away would have been lamentable. The decision to instead alter the plan – scaling back on some projects and delaying others – was the more prudent option and best serves the county’s population.
Flexibility has always been key in the Capital Improvement Plan, and will remain so throughout the plan’s life. It’s for that reason that the plan will remain vital and bring to fruition the goals set out by so many members of this community.
The writer is Georgetown County administrator.