Sheriff Richard Roundtree’s recommendation for improving downtown safety includes closing a section of Riverwalk Augusta overnight, installing 32 security cameras and implementing new taxes to fund a “Continually Patrolled District.”
Roundtree, who presented the plan to Augusta Commission members Monday, recommended that the riverwalk close from 11 p.m. to sunrise between Fifth and Ninth streets.
At the riverwalk, where a couple were brutally beaten late at night earlier this year, sheriff’s office statistics show most crime happens “after midnight,” Roundtree said.
Closure would give deputies probable cause to ask why people are there while it’s closed – to ask, “Why are you here at 2 o’clock in the morning?” the sheriff said.
Commissioner Alvin Mason said he had “concern” about closing an important landmark. “Having it shut down to me is a problem,” he said.
“I’m in support,” Commissioner Marion Williams said. “I’d like to see that hour maybe moved back. Not so early.”
That part of the plan is negotiable, Roundtree said, and the riverwalk would remain open during special events.
The sheriff also called for installing 32 security cameras along Broad Street and the riverwalk using an existing fiber-optic network that would allow downtown business owners to buy their own cameras, allowing a “32-camera solution” to become a “100-camera solution” to monitor activities downtown.
Roundtree said 32 cameras would cost about $342,000.
The final component of the safety proposal, which Roundtree said he developed with help from City Administrator Fred Russell, involves establishing a special tax district called a Continuously Patrolled District.
The CPD “is a proactive and innovative way to use the Business Improvement District mechanism to provide actual police officers solely dedicated to the downtown area, in addition to the officers who already patrol the area,” according to the presentation.
A BID administered by the Downtown Development Authority expired last year after many property owners complained. The DDA is “absolutely not” involved in the new district, Roundtree said.
The sheriff’s office would administer the program, which would use an extra tax against property owners inside the district to pay for six additional public safety personnel to supplement the three deputies currently assigned to downtown.
Roundtree used estimated collections from the expired BID, which ran from Greene Street to the river between 13th and Seventh streets. With that $353,834, he said, he could pay three certified officers’ salaries and benefits for $142,170, buy three vehicles for $90,000, buy three bicycles for $3,000 and outfit the deputies for $19,500.
With a remaining $78,321, Roundtree said he could pay salaries and benefits of three “community safety officers,” bringing total safety personnel downtown to nine.
The sheriff’s office would collaborate with the new district’s board of directors to ensure funds were spent correctly, Roundtree said.
The existing BID board, still in place and led by Morris Communications Vice President Robert Kuhar, had planned a final meeting Friday to terminate the program. Kuhar said Monday that he was uncertain whether the company, a large downtown property owner, supported the new plan.
Russell said the old BID’s supporters were “going to help support this,” but none reached Monday had knowledge of it.
“My feeling is that the people, if they were approached right now, are going to be very skeptical about paying extra taxes,” said Julian Osbon, a supporter of the original BID and a large downtown property owner. “There are a lot of empty businesses down there that ought to be where those taxes come from.”
Commissioner Bill Fennoy, whose District 1 includes downtown, said he didn’t yet have a feel for whether property owners were willing to pay extra taxes for officers.
A final aspect of the downtown plan replaces the former BID’s efforts to keep downtown clean. Presented by Russell, the cleanliness plan would allow business owners to donate money to a fund used by the Convention and Visitors Bureau to hire private staff to clean up, as the bureau has done at several city gateways, he said.
City General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie said the new CPD would likely require majority approval by property owners in its boundaries.
Commissioners were generally receptive to Roundtree’s proposal, and the public safety committee voted 4-0 to approve it.
Roundtree said his office is ready to move right away if the commission approves.