The Augusta Commission on Thursday directed city staff to begin narrowing a $700 million wish list down to about $200 million of realistic projects that could be funded by the next phase of the special purpose local option sales tax.
Commissioners must approve the SPLOST VII project list by March 10 so it can be included on the May 20 ballot, when voters will also elect a new mayor and five commissioners. If the list is not ready in time, it can be added to the November ballot or one of two election dates in 2015 since SPLOST VII will not take effect until 2016 when the previous phase is completed, said Deputy Augusta Finance Director Tim Schroer.
But before asking taxpayers to foot a multimillion-dollar bill, some commissioners want assurance the funds will be spread evenly among the districts so all residents will reap the benefits. Throughout a one-cent sales tax initiative that began in 1988 and was intended to fund capital projects, some commissioners believe certain areas have been left behind.
Commissioner Bill Lockett said his District 5 still suffers from blight, overgrown lots and dilapidated streets despite hundreds of millions of dollars allocated over six phases of SPLOST.
“It appears that in my district and some other districts, we are being treated like step kids,” Lockett said. “We are constantly being approached to make a donation. ... ‘SPLOST VII it’s only a penny,’ but we’re not getting anything in return for our penny.”
Lockett said he cannot envision voting for another SPLOST unless the funds are distributed equally among the districts. He also wants more work sessions to analyze how departments want to spend the money.
Commissioner William Fennoy said Marion Homes and Eastview in District 1 has had flooding issues since he moved to the city in 1966, and after 25 years of SPLOST, still does.
“When those water lines break the residents there cannot take a shower, cannot cook, cannot use the toilet, and this has been going on since I have been here,” Fennoy said. “We have gone through six SPLOSTs, and we still have the same issues. It’s going to be very difficult for me to go to the various neighborhood meetings in Marion Homes, Eastview, Old Towne, and say we need to support this and they say ‘Well, when are we going to be taken care of? When are we going to be looked at?’ ”
District 7 Commissioner Donnie Smith said it would be difficult to divide the SPLOST money evenly because there are projects that benefit the county as a whole – such as the recently completed judicial building, convention center, library and law enforcement center.
There are also some countywide initiatives the commission is already obligated to include: about $40 million to pay back a debt service that funded the renovation of the Municipal Building; and $8 million toward a cancer research center for Georgia Regents University.
State officials have said the cancer center project needs at least two-thirds of matching funds besides the bond money already available in order for the project to proceed.
However District 4 Commissioner Alvin Mason said he would not support allocating the money to GRU if it doesn’t keep its promise to add the word ‘Augusta’ left out of signage installed late last year. After public backlash, GRU officials have said they will add the city’s name to campus entrance signs.
“I’m finding it a little disheartening that, although GRU and its cancer center is extremely important, that the name Augusta does not seem to be as important to GRU,” Mason said. “I would hope that GRU, Dr. (Ricardo) Azziz, the Board of Regents, or whomever, will hear us very clearly that if you want the taxpayer dollar then keep your word and do what you said you were going to do.”
Over the next month the commission will hold meetings with city departments to get information on their various priorities and needs.
Before voting on the final list, Lockett added he wants Schroer to break down how much money is left over from the previous six SPLOST phases, why it wasn’t spent and how it can be used in the future.
Since 2011, SPLOST VI has collected $110.8 million of the total $184 million allocated to projects and has until 2016 to make up the difference.
Mayor Deke Copenhaver reminded the commission that SPLOST has traditionally passed with overwhelming support by voters and that the initiative has a lot to show already.
With the Army Cyber Command and outlet mall coming to the city over the next few years, he said he doubts there will be trouble raising the sales tax to complete the proposed projects.
“As we get out to sell it, we’ve shown that we’re spending taxpayer dollars wisely,” Copenhaver said.