EDITOR’S NOTE: This year saw its share of historic and controversial moments, sometimes all in one occasion. The Chronicle will recap the top stories of 2014 through Dec. 31 as selected by the newspaper’s editors and reporters.
Augusta special projects and infrastructure work took a $194.3 million delayed hit May 20 when voters rejected the city’s seventh special purpose local option sales tax by 668 votes.
Widely criticized for its rushed packaging and inclusion on the May ballot, SPLOST 7’s failure brought conversations about how to spend Augusta’s next 1 percent sales tax to a grinding halt.
“Lesson learned,” said Augusta Commission member Wayne Guilfoyle, who now advocates the city wait until May 2016 to present another sales tax package to voters.
“You would have a reason to go to the polls because commission, (and other) elected officials would be on the ballot, and give time for public meetings,” he said.
State laws now prohibit calling a special election just for a SPLOST, and require governments to wait a year after a SPLOST fails to present a new one, making the next opportunities in November 2015 or March 2016, according to Travis Doss, assistant director for Richmond County Board of Elections.
A lapse in sales tax collections wouldn’t occur until SPLOST 6 expires, likely at the end of the first or second quarter of 2016, according to Deputy City Finance Director Tim Schroer. That date, set by the state, is based on an estimate of when collections near the $184.7 million
approved by voters.
In the meantime, commissioners and Mayor-elect Hardie Davis have an opportunity to further learn from the mistakes that led to SPLOST 7’s failure.
On the heels of the commission’s December 2013 termination of city administrator Fred Russell, Mayor Deke Copenhaver took an active hand in cutting a $721 million wish list of projects from the $194.3 million package.
As the city reeled from a winter ice storm, Copenhaver sought commission support for the package, which included $30 million for ongoing renovations at Augusta Municipal Building and $50 million for road and drainage projects.
Copenhaver told commissioners at a Feb. 28 meeting that the package had to be agreed upon that day to meet state and local deadlines for banking the city’s $8 million in sales taxes toward fundraising for Georgia Regents University’s new cancer center. Without the local match, the center’s funding was in jeopardy, he said.
Commissioner Bill Fennoy became the sixth and final supporting vote when commissioners agreed to boost funding for construction at his alma mater, Paine College, from $1 million to $6 million.
Voters were urged to approve SPLOST 7 to fight cancer and warned that its failure left the next opportunity by law to pass a SPLOST in November 2015, when a new mayor and several new commissioners would likely select different projects for funding.
Besides the Paine College funds, the package included $5.25 million for Copenhaver’s proposal to redevelop Sibley and King mills into a campus for the expanding Georgia Regents University. GRU has yet to publicly endorse the plan.
It also included $2.75 million for Greater Augusta Arts Council, $2.5 million for the Imperial Theatre and $4.25 million for Symphony Orchestra Augusta to continue renovations of the Miller Theater.
Several commissioners, mayoral candidates and neighborhood groups questioned the package for its lack of public input, shortage of infrastructure funding and hasty timeline.
The failed referendum marked the second time Augusta voters said no to a sales tax package – the first was in 2004. Some residents cheered the outcome, while nongovernment agencies bemoaned their loss of guaranteed funding.
“It needs to be looked at closer as to where the funding is going now and where it needs to be going,” Octavia Boyd-Wise said.
“It’s tough for us in the arts community not to be assured of funding. Plans can’t go forward,” said Arts Council Executive Director Brenda Durant.
On May 22, GRU announced the cancer center project would continue without the city’s contribution of sales tax funds.