Supporters of Pendleton King Park who packed an Augusta Commission meeting Tuesday had a mixed reaction to the city’s position on saving the park.
The meeting also saw the commission hesitantly approve a 2018 budget that includes a small increase in the city’s fire tax and raises for some employees.
On the park, news last week that one of three trustees, Clarence Barinowski, is trying to sell the 64-acre park to a housing developer alarmed many, and Mayor Hardie Davis emphasized Tuesday it was not Augusta’s fault.
“I submit to you that this body shares your concern,” Davis said. “The city did not start this discussion. We want this to remain a park in our portfolio.”
Davis went on to cite the park’s presence in a recent park master planning document and said city officials are “in discussions” with park trustees.
The park isn’t publicly owned. Landowner Henry B. King left it in his will to trustees with the requirement it be a public park for the city of Augusta. The son of the attorney who drafted that will, retired Georgia Tech football coach Bill Fulcher, turned out with many in support of saving the park.
“My father wrote a will that was good,” Fulcher said. Learning a trustee was attempting to sell the property, “he would roll over in his grave.”
Davis encouraged those present to “engage with the trustees” and let them know the city wants to make a deal.
The mayor spoke in response to Pendleton King Park Foundation President Jim Blount, who appealed on behalf of the roomful of supporters of the park’s assets, its place in Augusta history, and for Pendleton “to remain a park in perpetuity” before Davis cut him off at six minutes.
The foundation was created in 1966 to facilitate the land’s development into a city park. The foundation announced Monday that proceeds from an ongoing fundraiser will go toward an effort to buy the park.
Blount and others said they had mixed emotions after the Tuesday meeting. “The mayor can only do so much,” he said. “We are hoping that all the trustees understand what the public is demanding.”
Supporter Ellen McGahee said the mayor may have tried to “shove it under a little bit” and said the public needed more trust in its elected officials.
Foundation member Billy Franke said he got emotional during the meeting. He’d recently sparred with Davis over the Regency Mall arena project and feared it would impact the park.
Member Derek Vanover said he had many concerns – including that the trustee may sell it in sections, leaving behind a small park.
Davis said he expects the commission to take up the matter Nov. 28. City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson said both leasing and purchasing remain options for the city to maintain use of the park.
After two meeting recesses and a failed vote, eight commissioners voted in favor, with Commissioner Sean Frantom voting no and Commissioner Marion Williams abstaining, to approve a 2018 budget that includes an increase in the county fire tax of a quarter-mill, rather than a proposed half mill, or approximately $8.75 per year on a home valued at $100,000. It calls for no other millage rate increases, something the commission doesn’t do until the fall.
The approved budget changed the proposed word “eliminate” to “defund” in reference to 30 positions at the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office expected to free funds for the sheriff to give pay increases, with a total addition to the sheriff’s budget of $1.8 million for raises.
Most city department budgets remain flat while all workers will receive a 1.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment. Other discussed increases include adjusting more than 900 salaries currently below market minimum levels to the minimum levels. The increases will be staggered over the first few months of 2018.
Frantom said he opposed the plan because it needed more work. “I just don’t think we did enough work to get the budget in a better place,” he said. “I’m happy we lowered the fire tax for the people.”