The subject this week is ham.
In an effort to get Augusta Commission members to agree on balancing next year’s general fund/law enforcement budget, City Administrator Fred Russell said, “The budget is like a sandwich. We might, at some point, take out the lettuce. We might take out the mayonnaise, and then you might be allergic to ham.”
It was a mighty big sandwich to start with, with $144 million worth of stuff in it. But with Russell telling them they could keep working on it throughout the year, they took out things to make the sandwich more palatable to some of the folks who have to eat it whether they like it or not, the main one being a proposed property-tax increase.
They also took out a 2 percent excise tax on energy industries use in manufacturing, and small raises for employees. But the sandwich was still missing a lot of bread - $4.5 million worth – which made them decide to raid the pantry, also known as rainy day funds, in hopes the rainy days don’t come before they run out of dough.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle didn’t want to vote until he’d had a chance to compare 2009 budget totals with the 2014 proposed budget.
Russell kept assuring him and Commissioner Donnie Smith that the budget wouldn’t be completely done until the tax rate is set next summer.
Guilfoyle wasn’t buying it.
“We’re so overwhelmed with so many agenda items we won’t look at the budget again next year,” he said.
A PIG IN A POKE: Smith wasn’t buying it either.
“You talk about adjusting the budget at the end of 2014, and we can come back and do something,” he said. “It’s a moving document. I’ve never seen a pig get away from the trough in all my years. When you start feeding a pig, it keeps on eating. And I don’t think you’re going to see this government come back in here and say, ‘Let’s cut the budget,’ in June or July. People will come back and say, ‘Let’s fund $200,000 for this program.’ You ain’t gonna back the pig away from the trough. So that is a fallacy.”
PIGS ARE PEOPLE, TOO: “I’m not sure I don’t take offense at being called a pig,” Russell said. “After many years of being called one, I’m not too sure that’s a bad thing. And if you look at actual animal science, husbandry, a pig will back away from the trough. They’re probably the only one of the animals that eat what they need, as opposed to a horse that will eat until he dies. Pigs are smarter than that, which goes to show something we learned a long time ago at the police academy.”
GUESS WHO’LL HAVE TO DUMP MORE MONEY INTO THE TROUGH TO KEEP EVERYONE ELSE FAT: Though six commissioners had indicated a week or so ago that they favored imposing the 2 percent excise tax, you just knew when you saw Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce President Sue Parr, lobbyist Scott McGregor and officials from local industry in commission chambers that the full court press was on. And sure enough, commissioners voted not to impose the tax.
Commissioner Grady Smith, whose vote can go any way depending on what day it is and whom he talked to last, had changed his mind, as had two others. They voted for the tax exemption that targets a small portion of the county’s tax base and gives the companies a reduction to their operating expense in addition to the 4 percent the state has given them. They will receive millions by taking it from the city that provides services to everyone. By the time the exemption is fully phased in, in 2016, Augusta will have lost $10 million in revenue and an additional $4 million each year after that.
So don’t come crying to Fred, who called it a “wonderful example of a small group benefiting greatly to the detriment of lots of other people,” because he won’t be there.
HAMMING IT UP: At one point during Tuesday’s meeting, Donnie Smith said he wanted to talk about something in the budget he thought was “blatantly unfair.”
“The public defender’s office gets an assistant public defender, and the district attorney’s office gets one … and then you’ve given $50,000 for a contract defense in juvenile court and also later on another page, you’re given them $100,000 for contract defenders,” he said.
The point, he said, is that the district attorney’s office is overwhelmed with about 3,500 felony cases a year, and the prosecutors average 70 to 80 cases a month while the public defender’s office handles as few as 17 cases per attorney a month.
“So if we’re going to fund the public defender’s office one dollar to one dollar every time for the prosecutors, that’s blatantly unfair because not everybody in the criminal justice system gets a public defender,” Smith said. “Some people actually pay for their own defense through private lawyers.”
“Somewhere, somebody is pushing for the public defender’s office to be funded one on one with the district attorney’s office, and the work is not one-on-one,” Smith said. “That, to me, is essentially that we’re not looking out for our primary responsibility of prosecuting criminals.”
Commissioner Bill Lockett asked for clarification from General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie.
“My colleague is talking about the district attorney’s office, and I do believe that that could conceivably be a conflict of interest there with his relationship with someone in that particular office,” Lockett said. “Could you advise us on that?”
Lockett was referring to the longtime personal relationship between Smith and Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Ashley Wright.
MacKenzie said he didn’t think Smith’s comments created a conflict of interest.
GOT AWAY FROM SMITH’S INITIAL POINT, DIDN’T WE. HMMM: Lockett wasn’t satisfied and said he thought if something like that comes up, the commissioner shouldn’t discuss it and could be asked to leave the room.
MacKenzie agreed that might be appropriate in some circumstances, but not in this one.
“I just wanted to make sure because my colleagues said he wanted to make it part of the record, and I didn’t want something to be on the record that will come back to haunt him,” Lockett said.
“Thank you for that,” Smith replied. “I will clarify that I am a member of the public safety committee which oversees public safety which includes the district attorney’s office. And then, I do think I have a little expertise after 30 years in law enforcement in this community, which involves making cases that go before the district attorney and court here. So that would be my interest in the criminal justice system.”
Afterward, Smith said he thought Lockett’s need for clarification was a personal attack because it had no bearing on the issue.
“What we were talking about had no bearing on me or her,” he said. “And I don’t appreciate him bringing it up. The issue was about funding.”
For the record, Smith and Wright maintain separate residences.
AS I WRITE THIS: A glance at the lower right corner of my computer reminds me to Remember Pearl Harbor!