Thursday, November 19, 2015

Dams, debris and collaboration hot topics at Ways and Means hearing

Dams, debris and collaboration were three hot topics at this week's House Ways and Means committee meeting where state and local officials discussed the aftermath of the recent flood.

DHEC Director Catherine Heigel was first up to testify with a discussion of the various types of dams in the state and her agency’s responsibility for regulating certain types. When asked whether DHEC is the best agency for dam regulation, she said it is. However, she noted the agency is in need of more staff to meet its responsibilities.

Heigel, along with the local officials who gave testimony, reiterated several times how collaboration among government agencies and jurisdictions at the state, local and federal levels was key to the rescue and recovery effort.

Deron McCormick, Sumter’s city manager, responded to Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter’s question asking if he thought collaboration and coordination among government entities in an emergency should be legislated. 
McCormick responded that on–the-ground coordination worked well during the flood emergency, and it would be important to maintain the flexibility currently in place for government entities to help each other. McCormick had high praise for the coordination among the city, county and DOT in the rescue and recovery efforts.

Arcadia Lakes Mayor Mark Huguley testified about how the flood damage has the potential to completely change the identity of his small town. He explained how his “Town of Seven Lakes” is now a town of four lakes, and these lakes were the reason many people brought homes there.

Huguley noted there are 16 lake front homeowners in the town who still don’t have direct access out of their neighborhood because of washed out roads. Then, he noted among other issues, there is the state road that runs over a private dam which DOT can’t repair until the dam is repaired.

Huguley closed his remarks by noting to committee members that the town doesn’t levy a millage and can’t, under current law, impose a permanent property tax to fund local service needs (state law allows for imposing a short-term emergency millage). This means the town could impose a temporary millage to mitigate the immediate problem but remains challenged in meeting long-term maintenance needs.

Sumter’s McCormick showed committee members photographs of the flooding at Sumter landmarks such as Swan Lake, the opera house and many city parks. He said there is substantial infrastructure damage in the parks with debris settling on park benches and dugouts. He noted that, unfortunately, FEMA doesn’t reimburse for what he called “quality of life” landscaping in parks.

McCormick described the major damage to the fire department training center and its equipment. Plus, he noted, seven police cars were inundated with water.

Columbia City Manager Teresa Wilson also testified about the collaborative efforts that took place in the Midlands area during and after the flood. She said city and county officials have remained in daily contact since the flood.

Wilson described Columbia’s destruction in terms of numbers. She noted two feet of rain fell in less than 48 hours, and that amounted to 11 trillion gallons. The annual rate is 45 inches a year. A 60-foot section of the Columbia Canal washed away. A 10-day boil water advisory affected 375,000 people. She said this was the first system-wide boil water advisory in anyone’s memory.

Wilson reported that 3800 tons of debris have been removed throughout the city, and this doesn’t include waterway debris. In terms of repairs, Wilson said the city has identified $1.5 million in road repairs, but she noted all the damage isn’t yet known. Plus there’s a $40 million price tag to repair the canal to its previous condition and another $50 million for future needs.

After hearing similar testimony from county officials, committee members heard from the state Revenue and Fiscal Affairs office with a report on revenue projections for the upcoming fiscal year.  Frank Rainwater, the state’s chief economist, reported an increase in recurring revenue for FY 16, $343 million, and FY 17, $380 million, plus a surplus of $131.4 million from FY 15.

What this means for flood recovery and the needs of other state agencies will certainly be a hot topic in the early days of the 2016 session.

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