Downtown, crime and the May 20 sales tax referendum took center stage at a spirited debate between candidates for Augusta mayor that saw Sen. Hardie Davis and Commissioner Alvin Mason trade repeated jabs over each one’s record.
Candidate Lori Myles, a high school language teacher, took aim at both for not doing enough during their years in elected office, while candidate Helen Blocker-Adams missed most of the debate due to jury duty. Candidate Charles Cummings did not attend.
The debate, held at the St. John Towers senior citizen complex, included several questions posed by residents about downtown crime and safety. Resident Connie Shiver, who asked the questions, said she has been “very impressed” by Myles’ responses, but she already voted in the election.
Davis’ response to the crime question was the city’s seventh special purpose local option sales tax package, on the ballot with the mayor election.
“I support the SPLOST,” he said, as “extremely important” to provide Sheriff Richard Roundtree with $31 million for vehicles and equipment. Davis also took credit for the transformation of a state-owned youth detention facility in south Augusta into the new sheriff’s south precinct.
Mason, a critic of the sales tax package, informed the senior group that “the money for public safety in the SPLOST will not be seen until 2020 or 2021,” while other items, including funding the mills campus proposal for Georgia Regents University dormitories, would be funded immediately through a bond issue.
“I don’t want you to get the wrong idea, that there will be funds available immediately for public safety,” he said. “Not a single dime for public safety, roads, bridge or infrastructure” will be seen until collections of the penny tax reach sufficient amounts to fund them.
Davis responded that had a couple not been seriously injured a year ago by attackers at Riverwalk Augusta, the commission wouldn’t have done anything at all there.
“We have not been working on those things for the last seven years,” Davis said.
Mason said Augusta crime rates are lower than most cities its size because the city has kept law enforcement adequately funded.
“The city of Augusta has always been reactive, not proactive,” said Myles, despite issues “looking us in the face.”
To a question from attorney Ben Allen about the candidates’ vision for downtown Augusta, Mason repeated a plan to “enforce the codes and ordinances,” including against derelict buildings and homes, and a plan to tear down a portion of the levee, where “there’s 23 feet there that’s not even necessary” to protect downtown from flooding.
“The riverwalk, as far as the levee, is a hindrance to us,” impeding the type of growth that has taken place in North Augusta, Mason said.
Davis responded that Augusta ought to “own” a master plan for the city that already exists. He wants to turn the university system-owned former golf and gardens property into “a technology space” and convert the ground floor mall of Port Royal into an arts, culture and entertainment zone.
“I look at Augusta as one of the antebellum cities” already world-renowned, but not well-maintained, Myles said, suggesting deputies on horseback and luring popular retailers to either end of Broad Street, between which visitors will travel.
Only Myles committed to eliminate smoking in public bars and restaurants sought by public health groups. “I choose the side of public health,” she said. While Mason and Davis said they wouldn’t do so without support from business owners.
Shiver asked what the mayor would do to end the city government’s reputation as the “laughingstock of the state” and whether the mayor needed more power under the city charter to accomplish this.
Davis said he’d come in with “a very strong agenda” but didn’t need a charter change to accomplish it.
“The charter gives me the authority; it just has not been utilized correctly,” he said.
Moderator Brad Means asked Mason if that was a criticism of Mayor Deke Copenhaver.
“It’s a knock against our government from the top,” Mason said, “decades upon decades.”
Myles said she’d definitely increase the mayor’s authority, to include hiring and firing.
“Dr. Lori Myles says no more lame-duck mayors,” she said.
Davis responded that he had “been recognized as one of the most respected members of the Georgia legislature,” with a reputation for working with all parties, while Mason had “been part of the problem for the last seven years.”
Davis “hasn’t sat where I’ve sat,” on the commission, Mason said, and speaks “from a position of lack of knowledge.”
Means continued to probe, asking if the inevitability that the mayor will be black – all five candidates are – will create a mindset of “now, let’s change the charter.”
Myles said while the authors of the charter expected the mayor to remain white always, it should be examined for “fairness.”
Davis said he’ll be the mayor “you can trust” while the question “brings us to that very divisive place. There are people ready to move beyond that place,” he said.
Mason again commented on his 27 years with the federal government, including 20 in the military and seven as a civilian at Fort Gordon.
“We didn’t care whether you were black, white, straight or gay,” he said. “It’s in not repeating history ... I’m not the one being chosen by the deep pockets.”
Asked about the city’s typical, annual budget shortfall and revenue lost to a new sales tax exemption for energy used in manufacturing that Davis helped pass, Myles said she agreed with former City Administrator Fred Russell, who wanted to replace the lost sales tax revenue with an excise tax “and charge big business these taxes.”
Davis’ solution to Augusta’s annual budget woes did not include an excise tax but instead making mid-year adjustments to the budget, as the legislature does. If collections are short, “cut spending,” he said.