Sylvia Cooper: Augusta Commission can't find enough four leaf clovers to balance the budget

Monday was St. Patrick’s Day, and on Tuesday the Au­gusta Com­mission found no pot of gold or enough four-leaf clovers to balance the budget or keep the city from going broke in a few years.

And there were no lucky charms to be found when the subject of exempting the sheriff’s office from the 2.4 percent across-the-board budget cuts came up.

At the previous meeting, commissioners had directed interim Administrator Tameka Allen and Finance Di­rec­tor Donna Williams to find money to keep the budget balanced as required by law and exempt the sheriff’s office from the 2.4 percent cut, which would be about $900,000 in real money.

All departments had been asked to identify how they’d make the cuts. Most had responded. Tax Com­mis­sion­er Steven Ken­drick plans to furlough employees and close tax offices for six days. The Richmond County Correctional Institution agreed to eliminate two full-time positions. Recreation would eliminate eight full-time employees, two part-time employees and count on the Patch golf course being privatized by mid-year.

Sheriff Richard Round­tree sent a letter stating Georgia courts have ruled that commissions can’t cut a sheriff’s budget to the point where he can’t do his job, an opinion the sheriff delivered in person Tuesday.

 

OPTION 1: The first option Allen and Williams presented was to implement the 1 percent excise tax on energy that industries use in manufacturing beginning Oct. 1, which was projected to bring in $625,000 by year’s end. That money would have been dedicated to the sheriff, leaving him with $265,000 to cut.

Had commissioners implemented the tax earlier in the year, when then-Administrator Fred Russell advised them to and Commissioner Donnie Smith begged them to, it would have raised as much as $2.5 million this year.

 

OPTION 2: The second option was also to implement the excise tax, with proceeds to go the sheriff’s office, and furlough other city employees for five days to save $1.1 million. If the sheriff’s office was exempted from the furlough days, the rest of the employees would be furloughed 10 to 11 days.

Smith pleaded with his colleagues to pass the excise tax, which would raise $4 million, equivalent to 1 tax mill, when fully implemented next year. He reminded them that the state has already given the industries a 4 percent tax break, along with the city’s 1 percent that municipalities have to vote to re-impose as though it were a new tax, which it isn’t. He asked them to look long-term, an impossible task for those who can’t see beyond the end of their noses.

Smith painted a dire picture showing commissioners using $4.5 million of the fund to balance this year’s budget and $4 million more to make up for the lost excise tax revenue.

“We’re going to work on next year’s budget in July with a $7 million deficit,” he said. “We’re in the position we have to do something with this budget. … This government is looking at being totally broke in three years. Those aren’t made-up numbers.”

 

DAMN THE TORPEDOS! FULL SPEED AHEAD! At that, Com­mis­sioner Marion Williams said they should raise property taxes and made a motion to exempt the sheriff from the cut.

Smith recommended they start the procedure to implement the excise tax.

“Sheriff, would you be willing to work with us (on cutting $265,000)?” he asked.

“Absolutely I would if in fact we are going to try to solve this issue and not just postpone it,” Roundtree replied, adding that he’d be willing to “discuss” the $265,000 throughout the summer.

Roundtree then informed them that he was not a department head but an elected official.

“I’m more than willing, but not at a risk of jeopardizing public safety,” he said.

Commissioners Bill Fen­noy and Bill Lockett argued for raising property taxes.

“What we need to do is what Commissioner Wil­liams is talking about,” Lock­ett said. “Get some revenue.”

But they can’t get enough, even with a 2 mill property tax increase, to plug all the holes in Augusta’s leaky ship of state.

Commissioner Alvin Ma­son said the sheriff should be exempt from budget cuts permanently.

But wouldn’t that be like writing him a blank check? And with all the drastic decrease in crime he’s been bragging about this year, shouldn’t he be able to accommodate the less than 1 percent cut to his total budget?

Commissioners eventually voted against the excise tax, with only Lockett, Donnie Smith and Joe Jack­son voting for it. Then they were back to the motion to exempt the sheriff’s office.

 

BUT WAIT! NOT SO FAST! Allen insisted they say where the money was coming from because by law they must have a balanced budget.

“Does it come from other departments?” she asked. “The other option is to go into the general fund – which we do not recommend – cuts to other departments or potential layoffs.”

Mayor Deke Copenhaver proposed a special called meeting to discuss the matter, at which point he got into the first of three verbal duels with Marion Williams over Wil­liams’ attempt to dominate the conversation.

 

LAYING DOWN THE LAW: Before leaving, Roundtree told commissioners that by law they can reduce his budget if it doesn’t interfere with public safety, but case law in Georgia says they can’t arbitrarily cut his budget.

“There have been two case laws on that,” he said. “That is not the direction we want to go, but it is something that is going to have to be addressed.”

 

THE BOY KING GETS TOUGH: Still angry because he couldn’t get what he wanted from Russell’s hard drive and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation saying it found no crime had been committed, Marion Williams put the subject back on the agenda with an item to discuss city records security.

After Williams had badgered Allen, who’s also the IT director, Copenhaver said, “I think she’s answered your question.”

He then said his executive assistant, Al Dallas, had spent three hours last week with the garrison commander at Fort Gordon, who specifically said the Pentagon has expressed concerns with the city, one being the commission, particularly the hard drive issue and the school system.

“They’re looking at us every day,” Copenhaver said. “That comes directly from the Pentagon.”

“I understand that, but I’m not going to sit here and allow somebody to break the law because somebody is looking at us,” Williams said. “They ought to be looking at us.”

The final confrontation between the two came while the regional vice president of First Vehicle Services, which maintains the city’s vehicles, was speaking. Williams started to interrupt, and the mayor said, “I have not recognized you. I have not recognized you, Com­mis­sion­er Wil­liams!”

“He was addressing my question about the motorcycle mechanic,” Williams said.

“He was not finished. Back off!” Copenhaver shouted.

“You back off!” said Williams, determined to have the last word.

I couldn’t help thinking that some of the city employees Williams regularly berates would love to see him back off, especially if he was standing on the edge of a cliff.

 

HOW IS THIS FOR SELF PROMOTION? Last week, Geor­gia Regents University Pres­i­dent Ricardo Azziz was reported to be a candidate for the president’s job at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. A news release from his office stated, “As a national thought leader, Georgia Regents University President Ricardo Azziz blah, blah, blah.”

I’d never heard of a thought leader, so I looked it up. The most succinct definition I could find was, “Thought leaders are people who have an influence over how people think about an issue or situation.”

He’s one all right.

Two days later, he announced he was no longer pursuing the Texas job, which can mean only one thing: The eyes of Texas were upon him.

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