Augusta commissioners agreed to dip deeper into the city’s savings to cover a 2012 budget shortfall and to hire an efficiency expert during the first day of a commission retreat Thursday.
Broken into groups of five and six, each one with a facilitator, Mayor Deke Copenhaver and the 10 commissioners decided against implementing larger departmental budget cuts they previously approved that threatened to end some youth recreation programs, eliminate several city jobs and cripple the city’s engineering department.
Instead, after much discussion, both groups appeared to reach consensus on City Administrator Fred Russell’s new proposal to fill the shortfall with smaller, across-the-board departmental percentage reductions, excluding the engineering department, and with $3.6 million from the city’s reserve fund, currently at $29 million.
One of the groups, a quorum of commissioners Grady Smith, Bill Lockett, Joe Jackson, Corey Johnson and Matt Aitken, and Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles also agreed to hire facilitator Malik R. Watkins as an “efficiency professional.”
Bowles was ready to vote on the changes Thursday, but General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie said the body probably hadn’t given sufficient public notice about the retreat agenda to take an official commission action on them, so an official vote might have to wait until the Tuesday commission meeting.
Commissioners sometimes prone to disagree and exchange insults during regular commission and committee meetings spent hours conversing intimately around two tables at the retreat, with facilitators Watkins and Gordon Maner encouraging them to focus on solutions, not problems.
Most everyone who attended the first day of the retreat, held at the downtown Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center, praised the group’s progress.
“It’s really fun to sit down with your colleagues and discuss things and work toward the better good of your city,” Lockett said, adding that it was time to “bury the hatchet” and resume communications with Augusta-area legislators.
Russell said the day had made him “excited again about coming to work” and added afterward that breaking the body into two smaller groups was a good way “to tackle some of the bigger issues.”
The group raised numerous other concerns during the day, which Maner and Watkins took down and will compile into a report to be prioritized at the retreat’s second day today. They included the commission’s image, drafting a mission statement, revising the charter, improving relations, civility, and the importance of sharing information between themselves and consistently with the public.