While the Augusta Commission already approved the sales tax package and bond issue going on the May 20 ballot and 937 voters already have cast advance votes on the measure, commissioners spent much of a Tuesday meeting seeking answers about the hastily assembled package.
Al Dallas, the executive assistant to Mayor Deke Copenhaver, revealed details about the purpose of about $5.25 million in sales tax dollars going to the mills campus proposal, to be funded up-front using the bond issue.
Dallas said the intent of Copenhaver’s Augusta Regional Collaborative was to use the funds to acquire land in Harrisburg and surrounding Sibley and King mills to create a campus contiguous with Georgia Regents University property just across Butt Bridge.
Dallas said the collaborative plans to respond to a request for proposals from the University System Board of Regents to construct 600 dormitory rooms for GRU by July 2016, and referred to a Regents request for public-private partnerships to create the housing.
“The mayor interjected himself into GRU’s dormitory plans,” Dallas said.
The planning document specifies GRU likely will demolish approximately 220 units of medical student housing and no longer support University Village apartments off Damascus Road and hopes to complete 1,200 beds of new housing by 2018.
Commissioner Alvin Mason, who is running for mayor and opposes passage of the tax package with the hope it can be redone and presented to voters at a later date, questioned why the collaborative’s funds were bonded up-front, while public safety, infrastructure and other projects won’t have funds available until mid-2016, when a new package would go into effect.
“I think the public would want to know, more than Alvin Mason would want to know,” he said.
While the commission approved including the funds and a handful of other projects on the bond issue in an earlier vote, Dallas said he didn’t think the project was “more important. I think it’s (a) matter of timing.”
Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson asked what would happen if GRU opted against having dorms on the mills campus.
“That would be a decision for this body,” Dallas said.
The meeting started with a critical tax package presentation by Lincolnton. Ga., resident Al Gray, who advertises a construction cost recovery business. His primary example was Augusta Convention Center, which he said was urged along by campaign contributions from hotel officials to builder Rick Allen, a Republican candidate for U.S. Congress. Gray also cited a “biased” news media that supported the project. Convention Center operator Augusta Riverfront shares management with Morris Communications Co., owner of The Augusta Chronicle.
Gray cited “untold millions” of city dollars flowing to the center, but when he stated another sales tax project, renovations at Augusta Municipal Building, would cost taxpayers $65 million, he was cut short by Commissioner Donnie Smith.
Smith asked whether the $65 million was “a figure you just made up” and Gray said it was, based on projected costs and “past experience” he’d had.
“I’m offended by that $65 million remark,” Smith said, while Commissioner Bill Lockett said he was offended by Smith’s comments to Gray.
On the advice of general counsel Andrew MacKenzie, commissioners did not discuss issues of the legality of the sales tax package because of pending lawsuits from south Richmond County businessman Les Morton, whose requests to stop the referendum have been denied so far by the courts.
MacKenzie insisted, however, that inclusion of funding for nongovernment entities such as Paine College and Symphony Orchestra Augusta was a legal use of the funds.
Lockett cited the Association County Commissioners of Georgia’s assertion that governments must own the improvements made using sales tax dollars.
“Those are services leasehold interests” the city has in projects completed using the tax package, such as Paine’s HEAL Complex and Augusta Mini Theater.
“It’s what they call a public-private partnership,” offered Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson. “We don’t have to run it or operate it, but the citizens still have use of it.”
Commissioners declined to approve a list of $50 million in sales tax projects for Engineering, leaving it as “to be determined” on the referendum.
Mason said if the commission reworks the package, it could benefit Engineering with a greater share of sales tax dollars.
“We just can’t rely on just SPLOST,” Engineering Director Abie Ladson said. “We’ve got to rely on the stormwater (fee). The (transportation sales tax) also. The SPLOST alone wouldn’t actually do everything, infrastructure-wise.”
In another item, commissioners tabled a decision to loan the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem redevelopment projects $2.5 million sought by Housing and Community Development Director Chester Wheeler.
The project is allotted $750,000 annually in hotel and motel room charges for 50 years, but consultants have already spent several million the city borrowed against the collections in its first four years, with only “20-plus” houses built and a Housing Authority senior apartment complex in the works, according to Wheeler.
Wheeler said he’d reduce the consultants’ budgets and would seek alternative funding after the commission approved the loan, without which the project, which has acquired 275 lots, will stop until the next bond issue.