Augusta continues to receive national attention for the government’s efforts to bolster the local economy, most recently from the National Association of Counties, although the attention doesn’t come for free.
Despite otherwise lean budget times, the Augusta Commission has spent more than $11,000 on NACO conference fees, travel and airfare this year, according to documents obtained by The Augusta Chronicle.
The amount excludes annual NACO dues, paid by the county or consolidated government since Richmond County joined the association in 1985. The dues amount to about 2 cents per resident, and with 200,000 residents, Richmond County’s are about $4,000.
The November NACO recognition, in a publication called Strategies to Bolster Economic Resilience, touts local leadership’s ability to help reverse a suburban exodus and withstand the recession through long-term planning.
Part of that long-term planning included identifying the need to diversify the local economy and expand wastewater treatment infrastructure, Development Authority of Richmond County Executive Director Walter Sprouse is quoted as saying.
“When the recession hit, Augusta was not affected the way some communities were,” he said.
The development authority, too, was able to leverage Augusta’s proximity to Interstate 20, Savannah and Augusta Regional Airport, ensure a suitable industrial site and issue a $200 million industrial bond to last year secure the arrival of Starbucks’ latest soluble products plant, expected to create 140 jobs.
Other details included in the report, which calls the consolidated city-county government “efficiency in action,” tout the city’s ongoing execution of a “thorough downtown development and rejuvenation program.”
Quoting Mayor Deke Copenhaver, the NACO report says private investment in redeveloping Augusta’s Laney-Walker and Bethlehem communities “now matches public investment seven times over” and the city “basically can’t build houses fast enough in the neighborhood.”
In reality, the project was out of money in September, when director Chester Wheeler sought a $2.5 million loan for it to continue until its next bond payment in 2014. At the time, Wheeler acknowledged the oft-cited ratio of private and public dollars was merely an “aspirational goal” that hadn’t been met.
With 41 houses built in three years, the project must find more interest homeowners before it’s able to accommodate what NACO says will be 10,000 new residents in a 1,100-acre area that is near, but not within, downtown Augusta.
While consolidation limited Augusta government to a single commission, it left the city-county eligible for both city and county organizations.
Besides NACO, Augusta pays for membership in the National League of Cities and two state organizations, Georgia Municipal Association for cities and Association County Commissioners of Georgia, for counties. Members of the commission have attended conventions of all four this year.
Augusta is one of 41 consolidated governments in the United States, according to NACO data. Seven are in Georgia. NACO spokesman Jim Philipps said 27 of the 41 consolidated governments are NACO members.