City debates how to spend federal COVID-aid funds
By Bobby Bryant, Editor
A public hearing last week on how Darlington should spend millions in federal COVID aid turned into a debate on whether the city could use some of the money to roll back water bills and whether some proposals would benefit white neighborhoods at the expense of black ones.
Looking over a list of water/sewer projects recommended by city staff, City Council member Sheila Baccus said, “On this list, there’s no projects in south Darlington. … Every project on the list – Country Club, wastewater treatment plant, Cashua Ferry Road, fire hydrants, renovation of pump stations … They’re all in the Country Club (area), or north Darlington.”
“How come we can’t get no projects on this list in our neighborhood?” she said. “ … You’re gonna tell me black council members can’t add nothing to this list, but the white council can add to this list?”
The city is expected to receive nearly $3 million in federal aid under the American Rescue Plan, a massive initiative intended to help cities and counties boost their infrastructure and bounce back from losses they have suffered during the pandemic. The city will have years to spend the funds. Darlington County government and all the county’s towns are expected to get money under this plan.
Only three people signed up to speak at the Jan. 19 hearing at City Hall. One of them, Darlington resident Greg Blair, gave council members a printed list of streets that he feels should be priorities for paving, water-line work and sewer-line work.
“Numerous streets on this list have been in very bad disrepair for a large number of years,” said Blair. The streets he identified are Main and Broad streets at Hardee’s, Edwards Avenue, Joe Louis Boulevard and Farm, Lee, Chestnut, Jessamine, Ross, Cross, Reid, Hunter, Abe Lincoln, Jordan, Hickory, Pine, Broad and Tallulah streets. (At least some, officials said, are not owned or maintained by the city.)
Another speaker, former mayor Gloria Hines, also focused on particular streets, including Jessamine. “Jessamine Street is in bad shape,” she said. “I know a lady – she’s dead and gone now – she got upset with me because I couldn’t do nothing about Jessamine Street … but I tried.”
“Water was settling up under her house,” Hines said. “ … They had to tear her house down.”
A third speaker, Jannie Lathan, a consultant who has done work for the city, urged the city to use some of the federal COVID aid to roll back a 2020 increase in water and sewer rates.
At the time, council members said the increase was crucial to keeping the city’s water system operating. And last week, City Manager John Payne – who was not working for the city when the water rates were raised – said that for the fiscal years ending in 2019 and 2020, “Your water, sewer and stormwater (operations) lost $1.1 million. That’s why we had to go up 40 percent … It had not been raised in decades.”
But Lathan said it has hit low-income residents very hard at a very bad time – in the middle of the pandemic. “This has imposed a serious hardship on the people you serve,” Lathan told council. And she said it has hit black residents and the elderly especially hard.
“It is very apparent that this pandemic has affected the city of Darlington disproportionately,” she said. Raising water rates “was not wise, was not prudent, was not fair, and we all know this.”
She said city residents have paid $168,000 in late fees and penalties since water rates were raised. “Why? Because they have not been able to afford to pay the substantial increase in their water bill each month.” Lathan said the city should tap the COVID-aid money to lower water rates back to “pre-pandemic levels.”
Payne told council that Lathan’s request does not fall into any of the areas where the federal government allows American Rescue Plan money to be spent. And he pointed out that $3 million won’t go as far as some people might think.
“Three million dollars sounds like a lot of money,” he said, but city staff are recommending infrastructure projects that would be expensive. It was these recommendations – a list of suggested priorities for water, sewer, stormwater and park projects – that council member Baccus criticized.
All of these recommended projects were described as necessary, and many were described as mandatory – required by state or federal agencies. These projects include:
— $207,000 for sewer work at the Country Club pump station. The state Department of Health and Environmental Control might fine the city up to $10,000 a day if officials don’t come up with a plan for bringing it to DHEC standards.
— $258,000 to replace filters at water quality treatment plants to maintain water-quality standards.
— $413,000 for work at the Cashua Ferry Road pump station. Again, DHEC could fine the city up to $10,000 a day if the issues here are not addressed.
— $660,000 to upgrade fire hydrants around the city. This plan would replace 30 of the city’s roughly 300 hydrants. Again, major DHEC fines are possible if this is not done at some point.
— $1.2 million to renovate various sewer-pumping stations. Once again, heavy DHEC fines are possible if this is not done.
— $1.5 million for sewer work at Nez Perce, Wyandot and Iroquois streets.
— $1.8 million for sewer-lining work at East Broad and South Main streets. This would prevent the lines from possibly collapsing.
— Paving the city-owned streets in south Darlington that Blair identified to City Council as problem areas. The city will ask the state to consider repairs on streets the city doesn’t own.
— Ditch maintenance citywide, especially Jordan, Sparks, Henry, Gandy and Milling streets.
Mayor Curtis Boyd said no final decisions are being made. The city doesn’t have to spend the COVID aid until 2026. And he noted that, as the city works on particular projects, officials may be able to boost the federal COVID money with grants.