City Ink: One side wants to negotiate, one to condemn

While Mayor Hardie Davis and some Augusta Commission members are trying to negotiate a deal on Regency Mall with mall owner Alan Cardinale, commissioner Marion Williams wants to talk about taking the property through condemnation.

 

“It will solve two problems,” Williams said. “It will stop the blight out there. And then we can draw some positive attention to that side of town. It’s been a sore eye too long.”

Whether Williams has any commission support is unknown. The right and left hands in Augusta seldom work together. And, as everybody knows, it’s hard to get things done when one set of hands is holding the shovel and the other is in the hole.

Waldo Goes First Class: The mayor said we were playing “Where’s Waldo?” when we kept asking where he was the week Irma blew into town. Nobody seemed to know and we thought it was strange for him to disappear during such a great week for political photo ops.

So in hopes of finding out where Waldo had been, I sent him a freedom of information request for copies of his office and travel calendars from Jan. 2, 2017, through Sept. 15, 2017. Law Department staff attorney Kenneth S. Bray responded via e-mail sent by administrative assistant Rosita Thomas which said in part:

“After reviewing your request, it has been determined that Augusta, Georgia, may have documents in its possession that are responsive to your request. However, the estimated timeline for searching and compiling the information that you have requested is approximately five (5) additional business days.”

Upon receipt of Bray’s response, I replied:

“Dear Ms. Rosita and Augusta Law Department Staff,

I have no problem whatsoever with the five-day timeline. I just hope you’re not going to send me a bill for five days it took an employee to gather this information which should be readily available. So don’t tell me it’s going to cost $475 dollars for a copy of the mayor’s calendar. If you do, I will declare pauper status which should free me from paying an exorbitant fee or any fee at all.

Yours very truly,”

Why is it so hard for a citizen to find out where the mayor is spending his time? After all, he’s traveling on the taxpayers’ dime.

If not, we’d like to know whose dime he is traveling on.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to pull a calendar off a computer and e-mail it unless there’s something somebody wants to hide. I’m more than a little suspicious the law department hides anything that might be embarrassing under the all-encompassing umbrellas of “potential litigation, real estate or personnel.”

A Tale of Two Firefighters and a Widow: Speaking of personnel, is the city’s Human Resources Department supposed to help people or hurt them?

For two Augusta firefighters, the retirement process has been such a pain it would be comical if it didn’t involve their financial futures.

Bill White, a 35-year firefighter, was on family leave, which ran out the same day he retired, July 31. That same day, he got a letter from HR telling him he’d used up his family leave and if he didn’t come back to work, he’d be fired, which would have been a little tricky to say the least.

Anyway, he went to HR to try to get things straightened out. One employee there always tries to help him, but when she’s out, nobody knows anything, he said.

White had credit for working only 25 years because of his retirement plan, although he’d worked 35 years, so he bought $60,000 worth of time. They call it buying back time. Then HR called and said he’d have to buy back two more months to give him the 35 years. Later, they called back and said he didn’t have to buy back two more months.

White wanted to know where things really stood with his buyback, so he called the Georgia Municipal Employees Benefit System, (GMEBS), the city’s current retirement program. But nobody knew anything about his $60,000 check.

“I talked to four people at GMEBS and nobody knew anything about it.

“I said, ‘Oh my, I wonder where my money is.’”

White said he left the fire department because it’s so “dysfunctional.”

“There’s a mass exodus,” he said. “The new boys they hire don’t stay there. They get their firefighter certification and EMT certification, and they go find another job. As fast as we hire them, they leave.

That’s thousands and thousands of taxpayers’ money wasted.”

One of the reasons Battalion Chief Steve Bell retired Aug. 31st after 41 years is that there’s no respect in the department for his level of supervision, he said.

“Every third pay cycle, I work an extra day and don’t get paid for it,” he said.

Former City Administrator Fred Russell gave them three days off a year to compensate, but current Chief Chris James took them away, Bell said.

Bell, the department’s 1995 Firefighter of the Year, left with about 200 hours of accrued vacation time. Last Tuesday, he went to HR to check on it and was told there was a problem with his retirement.

“What happened next is I contacted Nationwide Retirement Solutions to cash in my little saving I have with them,” he said. “They gave the names of two people that are employed with Augusta that would need to sign my form. Only one of the two would need to sign it. Both of them have been gone from the city for more than a year.

“I went back Thursday and an employee attempted to complete the form for Nationwide, but my retirement information was not in the system, which means I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait to get my money.”

In summary, Bell said, “After putting in 41 years of faithful service, it’s just a big letdown to be treated this way.”

And who could forget Linda Goodman, who had to hire a lawyer to get the benefits her husband signed up for her to receive when he retired from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office in 1996? He agreed to receive only part of his retirement pay each month, so she’d receive a pension when he died. But when she tried to claim the benefits after his death in 2015, she was told she had nothing coming to her.

Fortunately, her husband had kept his pay stubs showing the deductions and with the help of Attorney Jack Long, she got the pension and insurance she deserved, although Senior Staff Attorney Jody Smitherman fought her all the way.

Augusta Human Resources Director Michael Loeser will retire Dec. 31 after less than two years on the job, fully vested in the city retirement program and eligible for severance pay. You don’t suppose there’ll be glitches in his retirement process, do you?

A Clerk’s Incompetence Could Ruin Your Golden Years: City employees should keep copies of all records concerning their employment, insurance and how their retirement benefits are to be calculated. And keep them updated. More than one employee didn’t change the beneficiary after a divorce and remarriage, and his first wife got everything, although he hated her.

One fellow left everything to his girlfriend and his wife hated him.

I’ll Say Inconsistent, Not Hypocritical, Just to be Nice: In preparation for the 2018 city budget process, commissioner Sammie Sias has been giving lectures about how non-profit groups should stand on their own two feet and not expect the government to support them forever. It’s a good idea, but it rings hollow because Sias was one of four commissioners who gave four non-profits $20,000 apiece last year.

And they didn’t even ask for it.

Question?: Did Commissioner Bill Fennoy not know that the city’s finance department director is the chief financial officer when he asked City Administrator Janice Jackson during last week’s budget workshop whether anybody had mentioned hiring a CFO?

 

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