While we were sleeping, tides and costs kept rising

By Steve Bailey

At the current rate of spending, the city is on pace to complete its plans to control flooding in 240 years, give or take a generation.

This according to the city’s own numbers. In the 30 years from 1990 to 2020, about $251 million in city, state and federal funds have been allocated for drainage projects big and small. That works out to $8.3 million a year over three decades.

In September, the city estimated that the cost of protecting Charleston from the rising seas would require more than $2 billion, divided roughly between city and state projects. Do the math: $2 billion at $8.3 million a year comes out to 240 years — or the year 2260. Assuming, of course, that the tides don’t keep rising even more.

Can we agree we have a problem?

Three storms in two years have shaken us from our false sense of complacency. Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was the storm against which all South Carolina storms will forever be measured. But the truth is Charleston was built, or rebuilt, on Hugo money, a long-ago time when insurance companies wrote big checks, no questions asked. Those were the days.

Over the next quarter century, we griped about ‘’nuisance flooding,’’ but life was good and mostly dry. Joe Riley presided over a grand Charleston Renaissance, building the future on the past. He understood well that public spending would encourage private spending. He primed the pump with Charleston Place, and followed that with the aquarium, Waterfront Park, a baseball park, the Gaillard Center and more. The city boomed.

And he isn’t done yet: In retirement, Riley is continuing to build monuments (and his legacy) with a $75 million International African American Museum on Gadsden Wharf.

We built them, and they came. No one, though, came to see the stormwater drains or the pump stations, and we built far too few of them. Thirty-three years after drawing up a drainage plan, only 37 percent of the improvements have been done or are underway — and the needs just keep growing. There is no Joseph P. Riley Jr. Seawall.

The Thousand Year Flood, Matthew and Irma have made the high cost of our long slumber all too obvious. Of the $251 million allocated for capital improvements for drainage projects, only half of that was city funds. The city has invested $126 million in drainage projects in 30 years; it spent $75 million in city funds to build the $145 million Gaillard Center in three years.

That $126 million works out to $4 million a year over 30 years. By way of comparison, the city invested $4.6 million in parking garages this year. Riley signed the city up for $12.5 million for the African American museum and wrung another $12.5 million from the county.

In an interview, Mayor Riley expressed satisfaction with how far the city has come in dealing with flooding. He remembers his aunt’s car floating in the flood waters at East Bay and Calhoun 60 years ago.

‘’Great progress has been made and is continuing to be made,’’ Riley said. He said he created a stormwater tax and raised property taxes in his last budget to fund flood relief. ‘’The city’s investment has not been insubstantial.’’

This is the kind of complacency that has put us on a pace to complete the work in the year 2260. Not acceptable.

So far, the city’s drainage money has come from bonds ($59 million), stormwater taxes ($50 million), tax-increment financing ($14.5 million) and $2.5 million from the general fund.

Don’t count on the federal government coming to the rescue: Washington has kicked in only 10 percent, or $25 million, over 30 years. The state has contributed $91 million.

Not a single dollar of tourism taxes has gone toward flood mitigation. Over the last 10 years, the various tourism taxes have raised about $195 million for the city, but the uses are restricted by state law to tourism-related activities. The money went to the visitors bureau, parks, City Hall art restoration.

Meanwhile, city taxpayers borrowed $27 million to pay for the Market Street drainage project. We don’t want our visitors to get their feet wet shopping at the City Market.

This can’t continue; the numbers don’t work. We simply aren’t going to be able to raise property taxes and stormwater fees high enough to save the city from the rising water. There aren’t enough of us. Our six million visitors are going to have to help out. We can afford no freeriders.

The hotels raise rates and still they come. Why can we not raise taxes on tourism to save the city? The answer is we can and we must.

Saving our city is about money, not engineering. We know how to do it, we just don’t have the money. While the city is showing commendable new urgency — how could it not after three floods in two years? — it is going to need new sources of money. It’s unacceptable to take 20 years to rebuild Low Battery as the city budget projects.

The city can’t do it alone. We are going to need all the help we can get, the county legislative delegation very much included.

The price of fixing the problem is going to be high. The price of not fixing it even higher.

Steve Bailey writes regularly for the Commentary page. He can be reached at sjbailey1060@yahoo.com.