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City, state officials debate property tax relief

Faced with Gov. Sonny Perdue 's withholding of the city's $3.1 million share of tax-relief grants last year, Augusta managed to spare its homeowners a tax hike or second bills.


The Association County Commissioners of Georgia says that was illegal.

ACCG released an opinion Monday by its attorney, James Grubiak , saying local governments can't absorb the lost money into their budgets, that they have to send out new bills or they're violating the state constitution's gratuities clause, which forbids giving away assets without compensation.

City Administrator Fred Russell 's reaction is, well ... it's an opinion, and you know what they say opinions are like. He said he's not changing course until the Attorney General's Office or a high court says to.

"Give me something with a stamp on it someplace," he said.

The ACCG statement was an early turn in the week's drama over the grants in Atlanta, which ended Friday with the House of Representatives voting to release the money and Senate leaders saying they'll probably do the same thing, easily.

But this doesn't totally solve the problem. The governor could still put up a fight, though he'd likely face a veto override if he doesn't put the $428 million program back in the budget. While most of the state's taxpayers won't get the second bills they feared, they're looking at a tax hike next year.

For Augusta, the situation is stickier because our city government is on a January to December fiscal year rather than July to June. The budget year the state is squabbling over already ended for us, and this year's budget was set assuming the grants would continue. So we have two holes to plug.

Mr. Russell said he still wants to spare Augustans a second bill for last year -- which would be $293 for urban taxpayers and $241 for suburban -- and tighten spending so there's no increase this year. But that's easier said than done. Look what happened when the city tried to cut Saturday bus service.

LOOK WHO'S SIDING WITH SUPER C'S: It was no surprise to see Sammie Sias at the Augusta Commission's Public Services committee hearing Wednesday over Super C Restaurant's request for a beer and wine license. What was surprising was his stance.

"Persons deserve a second chance, businesses deserve a second chance, after they've done the right thing," he said.

Mr. Sias, president of the Richmond County Neighborhood Alliance, led the charge to shut down the Tobacco Road establishment in 2007, when it was a nightclub and 18-year-old Stedmund Fryer was shot to death on the dance floor. Sheriff Ronnie Strength said Super C's was a hangout for gang members and drug dealers, and commissioners yanked Charles "Super C" Cummings ' business and alcohol licenses.

It's since reopened as a restaurant. Mr. Cummings has to wait 10 years before applying for another alcohol license, but his wife, Teresa , says the business is in her name now.

Based on the tone of the hearing, the issue is bound to be contentious when it comes up at Tuesday's meeting. Commissioners Betty Beard and Calvin Holland favor granting the license, but Jerry Brigham questions how there can be no collusion between a husband and wife. Among those in opposition were Mr. Fryer's aunt and first cousin.

Mr. Sias, a man known to spend mornings picking up trash at his subdivision's Tobacco Road entrance and who fought the plan to put public housing in south Augusta, said he's been inside the made-over Super C's and it's nothing like it was. There's different decor, more tables and no dance floor.

"I didn't change my mind," he said. "The opposition to what it was before is still there and will always be there. My support is for what it's become now."

HARRISBURG HEAT: Iain Crawford wants more police presence in Harrisburg, and Sheriff Strength says he'll oblige him.

Mr. Crawford, the president of the Harrisburg-West End Neighborhood Association, sent the sheriff a letter last week asking for help.

The former mill village has had its share of violence in recent years, and there have been signs of escalation. In December 22-year-old Daniel McGee was fatally shot in the head while bicycling to Kroger to pick up sodas for his handicapped uncle. Early Jan. 18, after a candlelight vigil for Mr. McGee, neighborhood activist James "Butch" Palmer reported that two teens opened fire on his Tuttle Street home.

Sheriff Strength said crime suppression will intensify in the coming weeks, meaning residents will see more patrol cars in early morning hours. At times, he said, all crime suppression units on duty in the city will be concentrating on Harrisburg.

The sheriff said he'll also put a substation -- or "mini-sub" -- there as soon as the neighborhood association provides a building.

"We've been talking to owners of vacant commercial property," Mr. Crawford said. "We have one, but we're not ready to disclose it yet."

CA MEMBERS ANONYMOUS: Among the puzzling sentiments expressed at Tuesday's meeting by Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority members -- i.e., we should be in charge of the TEE center and the proposed downtown baseball stadium -- was Jack Usry 's desire to get his picture taken down in the James Brown Arena.

Mr. Usry made a motion to remove the row of authority members' portrait photos, which are affixed to a wall in the lower-level corridor leading to the conference rooms.

"They see us enough on the TV and in the newspaper as it is," Mr. Usry said.

The vote was 4-4. Stepping in to break the tie, Chairman Richard Isdell said he'd vote to keep the pictures since he's the one responsible for putting them up.

"Self promoting," Mr. Usry sniped.

Mr. Isdell said he pushed for the display when he was chairman of the building and grounds committee, the cost of the photos, plaques and lettering totaling around $450. The Augusta Commission has its members' portraits up, as does the Augusta Aviation Commission. Mr. Isdell said he thinks the pictures show the public who's accountable.

THEIR DAYS ARE NUMBERED: Some of those portraits will be coming down soon, anyway.

With several coliseum authority members' terms expiring March 31, Augusta's elected officials have an opportunity to seriously reshape the composition of this often-dysfunctional governing body.

Augusta Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason says he'll replace coliseum authority member Willie Law , who was appointed by Bernard Harper , the District 4 commissioner Mr. Mason unseated.

The mayor pro tem, to put it mildly, says he's no fan of Mr. Law.

"He's history," Mr. Mason said.

Keith Brown 's term also expires that day. He was appointed by former Commissioner Marion Williams , whose successor, Corey Johnson , said he won't keep Mr. Brown on the board either. He said he'll replace him with someone more experienced in entertainment and venue management.

Two legislative delegation appointees also have expiring terms -- Booker T. Roberson and Mr. Usry.

So Mr. Usry could wind up getting his way about his picture after all.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or