Sales tax project list is approved

The tinkering, negotiating and second-guessing are over.

Augusta commissioners approved a final special-purpose sales tax project list totaling $184,724,000 Thursday. It passed 9-0, with Commissioner Joe Bowles absent.

The package goes before voters in a special election June 16. If approved, the amount will take an estimated five years to collect. Based on the projected end date of the ongoing sales tax and the current collection rate of $3.1 million per month, the next sales tax would end September 2015.

Last week commissioners asked City Administrator Fred Russell to come up with an alternative list totaling $181 million, which he did by eliminating a $1.5 million cost escalation reserve fund and slashing allocations for Hephzibah, Blythe, Municipal Building improvements and a storm water utility program.

Commissioners didn't go for it, opting for an alternative they'd worked out behind the scenes. Mayor Pro Tem Alvin Mason made the motion to accept the $184.7 million amount Mr. Russell recommended earlier this month, with a few changes. The $1.5 million reserve was cut, and in its place an extra $1 million was added to the Regency Mall lake plan -- bringing that project total to $3.5 million -- and $500,000 was added for a Garden City Beautification Initiative.

Mr. Mason said the initiative will spruce up city gateways such as Deans Bridge Road, Peach Orchard Road, Mike Padgett Highway, Gordon Highway and Washington Road.

The extra $1 million for the lake plan involves forcing the hand of Regency Mall's owner, New York-based Cardinal Entities, which killed a previous plan to buy and raze the vacant mall by claiming its worth as $50 million, even though the company protested last year when the tax assessor's office tried to raise the value to $5.7 million. South Augusta commissioners were adamant that the next SPLOST address the mall, which they blame for stymieing redevelopment in the Gordon Highway corridor and all of the city south of it.

Mr. Mason said along with building a 13-acre lake around what's now Regency Boulevard, the city can also undertake "significant beautification" designed to boost property values and hopefully prompt Cardinal to get on board with the city's mixed-use plan for the site, which includes apartments, town homes, commercial space, open space, jogging tracks, tennis courts and an indoor pool.

If nothing else, boosting the property value will boost the owner's taxes, Mr. Mason said.

"Let's beautify it, and hope that will motivate him," the mayor pro tem said. "Even if that means to sell it to us at a reasonable cost."

Sixty-seven percent of the sales tax package is for infrastructure. The list also includes:

- $18 million for Municipal Building renovations

- $17 million to replace police vehicles and fire trucks

- $10.9 million for parks and recreation

- $10 million to pay off debt from money fronted to Medical College of Georgia to buy Gilbert Manor public housing project

- $5.7 million for Hephzibah and Blythe

- $5.1 million toward restoration of the Miller Theatre

- $4 million to dredge Lake Olmstead

- $2.5 million for Paine College's Health Education Activities Learning Complex

Before voting for it, some commissioners expressed dissatisfaction with the list and wondered aloud if the city might have trouble collecting that amount within a reasonable time if the economy doesn't recover.

Jerry Brigham said he wished the list could have been cut to about $160 million, but he knew the board wasn't going to do that.

"I can't oppose it," Don Grantham said, "but I can still have my disagreements."

To stay on schedule, the Augusta Commission must approve the wording of the referendum going before voters on March 3. Voters have the final say on the $184.7 million package in a special election scheduled June 16.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

Project list

View an outline of the projects approved Thursday by commissioners. [PDF]