The media were all excited last week because Woody Merry was trying to get the sheriff's department to arrest Commissioner Marion Williams because he hadn't paid his 2006 property taxes. There was talk of Mr. Williams going to jail for "from one to five years, blah, blah, blah."
It made me want to laugh out loud. If all of Augusta's elected officials who ever paid their taxes late had gone to jail, there wouldn't have been enough of them left to hold a meeting.
There is not room to detail all those I have run across since 1992, so we'll just touch on some.
Among the 1992 crew were Richmond County commissioners Willie Mays, the late Henry Brigham, Hobson Chavous; state representatives Robin Williams, now in prison; and Henry Howard, now deceased; City council members Hugh Cross and Carolyn Usry, both now deceased; and Johnny Hatney who is now an Augusta commissioner. Councilwoman Margaret Armstrong's city council pay was being garnished for a debt but not for late taxes. The list of delinquent taxpayers who turned up that year also included school board members Y.N. Myers and B.J. Annis, both of whom are now deceased.
NO SPECIAL FAVORS HERE. NO SIRREE. In 1994, another investigative piece began, "If paying taxes and bills on time were a requirement for public office, six of Richmond County's eight legislators would be out of a job. So would five of the eight county commissioners and six of 13 Augusta City Council members."
A sidebar to that story recounted that Tax Commissioner Jerry Saul had been cancelling penalties and interest on powerful elected officials' delinquent taxes for years, sometimes writing off the cost of filing liens on the property when the officials eventually paid the taxes. Among them were state Rep. Mike Padgett, now deceased; Sheriff Charlie Webster, now retired; Commissioner Henry Brigham, a perennial tardy taxpayer, now deceased; state Sen. Charles Walker, now imprisoned; and the late Rep. Henry Howard, another perennial slow pay.
Mr. Saul said he wasn't giving special favors. He said if a taxpayer had "a good excuse for being late" he'd excuse the penalty and interest. He wouldn't answer questions about specific bills. He said he probably wouldn't remember.
Some of the same names in the 1992 piece turned up in that 1994 story, but there were new ones, too, such as the late U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood who hadn't paid property taxes on his dental office equipment in the early 1980s. He said he was double billed. Others who'd had trouble paying taxes on time were state Reps. George Brown and Bettieanne Hart; Richmond County commissioners Moses Todd, who had his commission pay garnished to satisfy a $5,000 debt; Freddie Handy; City Council members Travers Paine III, Colis Ivey, Kathleen Beasley; and school board member Jeff Annis.
A NEW GOVERNMENT, BUT THE SAME OLD, SAME OLD: In 1995, the year three paupers ran for mayor of the new consolidated Augusta government, we introduced a whole new slate of candidates with records of paying taxes late, including Thomas Atkins, David L. Johnson, now deceased; Willie Law IV, Minnie P. Davis, Brian Wilson, Charles Evans, Kenneth Cone, Larry C. Stephens and Andrew Garnett, along with repeat offenders, such as Mr. Mays, and Henry Brigham. A.K. Hasan, who was also running for the commission that year, had gone bankrupt three years earlier owing almost $350,000. Andy Cheek had gone bankrupt five years before.
TAX RETURNS? WHAT TAX RETURNS? In 1996, then-Augusta Commissioner J.B. Powell had to cough up seven years' worth of personal property taxes for his electrical construction business - six years to Jefferson County and one year to Richmond County because he hadn't filed personal property tax returns for his business. Mr. Powell, now a state senator, said it was an oversight.
THEY MISSED THE TARDY BELL: In 1998, school board candidates Eloise Curtis and Venus Cain were on the list of candidates who had paid property taxes late.
MORE OF THE SAME: In the 1999 commission election, the only new face joining others previously mentioned was Brian S. Green with two outstanding judgments. Meanwhile, Mr. Chavous' judgments had grown to $45,818.
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ... ? Election 2002 brought Bobby Ross along with lots of financial baggage, including a bankruptcy, out of the garden biz and into the mayor's race. Mayoral candidate Ed McIntyre, now deceased, also had his problems with the tax man.
State Rep. Alberta Anderson went bankrupt in 2001 with debts totaling $98,225. And Charles "Champ" Walker Jr., the Democratic nominee in the 12th Congressional District race, made his debut. He was being touted as a business wizard, but it didn't take much digging to find a whole list of judgments for debts and state taxes that, except for one, had been paid shortly before he announced he was running.
SIX OUT OF 10 AIN'T BAD: In 2003, six of the 10 candidates for contested seats on the Augusta Commission had had liens placed on their property for delinquent taxes or bills - Mr. Handy, Marion Williams, Charlie Hannah, Jimmy Smith, Bobby D. Cheeks and Sonny Pittman.
JUST THINK WHAT THEY COULD DO WITH YOUR MONEY: In the 2005 commission election, records showed that four candidates had gone bankrupt - John Butler, Bernard Harper, Robert DeMello and Mr. Hasan. Public records showed that Bobby Hankerson had paid seven county tax liens since 1992. School board candidate Robert Howard had paid liens filed against him three years running.
THEY GET A LOT OF HELP FROM THEIR FRIENDS: Now the big whoop is that somebody paid Mr. Williams' overdue property taxes in cash and didn't want his name on city tax records, and Mr. Williams won't say who that person was. He said he couldn't get down to the tax office, so he had someone take the money down there.
Now Mr. Merry is all atwitter, saying it "reeks of corruption.".
Here again, that's the way it's done here in the Garden City.
For example, in 1994, after Pilgrim Life Insurance Co. had paid $7,001 to clear Commission Chairman Mays' delinquent taxes, he still owed $5,425 in county business taxes until they were paid from money his supporters raised.
WE DON'T NEED NO STINKIN LICENSE: And, oh yes, there's former City Commissioner Keith Brown, barred from running for the District 4 seat he was appointed to last year because he had not lived in the state or district long enough. He had been in business here for years but didn't have a business license for First Impressions, a screen printing and embroidery business near Paine College, until the day after we checked with the license and inspections department.
WHAT'S FAIR FOR THE GOOSE: So far, two city employees have been fired for doing business on their city computers. They call it theft of services. But what about an employee, actually an elected official, who seldom comes to work? Tax Commissioner Jerry Saul puts in about two hours a week in the office and has become the talk of the Marble Palace. He might be the highest-paid tax commissioner in the state with an annual salary of $117,449.94, which is $875.56 more than Sheriff Ronnie Strength makes. And the sheriff is at work every day by 7:30 a.m. and seldom leaves before 5 p.m. and is on-call 24/7.
When asked about his absence, Mr. Saul said he doesn't come in as much as he used to but he does come in.
Wouldn't you just love to have a job like that?
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.