An ordinance calling for a 1.75-mill property tax increase was shot down by the Augusta Commission on Tuesday, pleasing dozens of jubilant taxpayers who attended the meeting to voice their discontent with the city for its inability to balance its budget through other means.
After nearly two hours of debate, preceded by a public hearing in which residents voiced their opposition, the motion to pass the ordinance on third reading failed. Commissioners Bill Fennoy, Corey Johnson, Bill Lockett and Marion Williams voted in favor of the ordinance.
The commission still will hold a called meeting at 11:30 a.m. Monday to adopt and approve a mill rate that will need to be submitted to the Georgia Department of Revenue. Its only other option was to restart the process and revisit the proposal in two weeks.
Lockett said that he supported the increase because of a lack of other solutions.
“I do believe on the next budget that we’re working on that things are going to be done different,” Lockett said. “But, at this juncture, we have got to the pay the bills. We’ve got to do it because the state says you will have a balanced budget.”
Residents from all corners of the county began to fill the commission chambers as early as an hour before the third public hearing for the ordinance. An overwhelming majority of speakers voiced dissatisfaction in the commission for proposing the increase, which would have cost residents $96.25 more in taxes on a $150,000 home. The increase was anticipated to generate $7.9 million.
Carol Pender, a retired probation officer, urged the commission to look within departments to trim the “fat.”
“You wonder why people move to Aiken and Columbia counties, and it’s cause they’re tired of this commission squandering our money,” she said.
Augusta resident Franklin Sanders told commissioners that while on his way to the Municipal Building he saw five houses for sale in the 900 block of Heard Avenue.
“Why are those people moving?” he asked. “I think it’s because of the tax business in Richmond County.”
Though he didn’t originally plan to speak, attorney James Trotter approached the microphone to defend the commission for making a tough decision with their backs against the wall. He said he was upset to see the city dragged through the mud.
“We all condemn our politicians in Washington for kicking the can down the road and borrowing money from our children’s future, and they do it every day,” he said. “This commission is trying to stop that. They’re trying to stop borrowing from the general fund to fund what we’re doing now.”
Commissioners took a 10-minute recess before voting in hopes of reaching an agreement. However, some refused to budge.
“At some point, plans and actions have to be brought forward to address not what do we do to get out of this debt, but how do we stop getting into debt in the first place so that we don’t have this issue,” Commissioner Alvin Mason said. “That has yet to be addressed appropriately. You can’t tax and spend your way out of a deficit.”
Also on the agenda Monday was a presentation by Richmond County sheriff’s Lt. Lewis Blanchard, who spoke on behalf of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association to urge commissioners to consider adjusting the salaries of deputies.
Deputies in Richmond County start out with a salary of $29,148.86, compared to the state average of $34,726.36. Sheriff Richard Roundtree is asking that deputies making less than $35,000 receive a pay increase of $3,000.
“We need to do whatever it takes to recruit, retain and retire the absolute best people,” he said. “We’ve got the best deputies out there, and they need to be taken care of.”
He also asked for the commission to consider purchasing its own public safety radio system rather than leasing a system for $600,000 per year.