Four Augusta mayor candidates went several rounds at a Thursday forum over the city’s seventh special purpose local option sales tax referendum, set to go on the May 20 ballot with the mayor’s race. But only one –
Sen. Hardie Davis – said he’ll vote for it.
The candidates and some in the public have criticized the $194 million construction package, developed in a matter of weeks by Mayor Deke Copenhaver, as heavy on special interests and light on infrastructure. Mayoral candidate and Augusta Commission member Alvin Mason agreed.
Mason said the 1 percent sales tax levied on purchases at the cash register was good if “used for the appropriate purpose,” but not the package six commissioners approved at a meeting called by Copenhaver only “33 minutes” ahead of a public notice deadline “with no input” from the public.
“You’re going to have transparency in government with Alvin Mason,” he said.
Candidate Helen Blocker-Adams, an entrepreneur, said she, too, liked the “concept” of the sales tax plan, which allows any visitor to assist with its needs. “I just don’t like the package that was put together.”
Charles Cummings, a retired businessman, noted that the previous sales tax package included funds to renovate Augusta Municipal Building, but the commission later determined it wasn’t enough, and approved renovations requiring a dip into an unapproved package for more funds.
“Once we get the money allocated, we’ll do what we want with it,” Cummings said of the city’s attitude toward the sales tax.
Davis said the tax “allows us to enhance the quality of life without raising property taxes” and includes funds for surveillance cameras, for instance, to “save downtown.”
He said the rushed schedule, resulting in a May 20 referendum, was caused by a change in election dates.
Ultimately, voters don’t “ask who made the sausage,” but rather, “does it taste good,” Davis said. “I’m going to vote for it.”
Mason, rebutting Davis, said $50 million in the package designated for infrastructure “doesn’t even have a list of what it should be spent on … Those (included) projects are what (Copenhaver) wanted to have before he got out of here.”
Davis said Mason was chairman of the city’s engineering committee; Mason said no, he was not, but he pulled out a list compiled by the city Engineering Department of $50 million in infrastructure projects. “He probably has a copy of this list,” Davis said.
“Not being on the table, but at the table,” Davis said of Mason missing some of the hastily called sales tax package sessions, adding as mayor he’ll create a “community cabinet” of advisers from across the city and host mayors hours in each commission district to ensure transparency in government.
“Half-truths and whole lies,” Mason responded to a subsequent question about transparency.
The special purpose local option sales tax package approved by the commission shows the $50 million in projects as “to be determined,” he said. Any list, “came because Commissioner Mason requested that list.”
Davis responded, “The last thing this community needs is a bully. What this community needs is a statesman.”
Following up, Blocker-Adams said she too downloaded the Engineering list from the city Web site, while the commission-approved document shows infrastructure projects as “to be determined.”
The sales tax package specifies many projects, such as Copenhaver’s mills campus proposal, a new arts and cultural center at
Paine College, and recreation projects.
Funds that aren’t designated to a particular project, however, may be spent in any manner within the category they are allocated, if voters approve.
The forum, sponsored by the Augusta NAACP branch, drew several hundred people to the Poplar Street sanctuary of Beulah Grove Baptist Church. Candidate Lori Myles did not attend. Organizers said she had another commitment.
Afterward, attendee Joanne Wilder said the forum had helped her narrow her choices to two – Mason and Davis – but she hadn’t made up her mind on which she’s selecting May 20. “I’ll vote for one of them,” she said.
Dave Owens said “all of them were good,” but he had made up his mind. “I pick Hardie Davis. He’s a minister,” Owens said.