Charter review is advised

A grand jury subcommittee has recommended that Augusta take a close look at its consolidation charter and, if warranted, let voters decide if the city government needs an overhaul.

Members of the Richmond County Grand Jury's September term, which ran from Sept. 22 to Nov. 10, filed their presentments in Richmond County Superior Court on Friday. Included was a subcommittee report stemming from a Nov. 3 meeting with Mayor Deke Copenhaver, City Administrator Fred Russell and commissioners Jerry Brigham, Don Grantham, J.R. Hatney, Calvin Holland, Joe Jackson and Corey Johnson.

According to the report, commissioners and the mayor agreed that the charter needs to be re-examined. Grand jurors recommended that the document be "thoroughly reviewed by an independent third party."

"The charter, in its current form, inhibits the Commissioners' ability to govern effectively," the report said. "While Commissioners agree that every citizen of Richmond County is entitled to the same level of service regardless of their address, the consolidated government has not yet been completely unified and many problems exist.

"For example, there remains a separate tax base for both the urban and suburban districts and some departments within the County continue on pre-consolidation work schedules almost 13 years after consolidation."

Consolidation became effective Jan. 1, 1996, almost 14 years ago.

If the independent third party determines that the charter should be amended in some way, grand jurors said, city commissioners should work with the Augusta legislative delegation to put a referendum before voters.

Mr. Russell said Monday that "third party" could mean a specially formed commission, or perhaps the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.

The subcommittee report also noted the city's budget challenges. Among other things, it recommended that commissioners consider adding another penny to the city's sales tax to fund operations -- an eight-penny Municipal Option Sales Tax, or MOST, which could increase annual revenue by an estimated $35 million to $36 million.

"The consensus is that this special municipal operating sales tax must be preceded by a compelling strategic plan put forth to the community," the report said. "The plan must provide confidence that these funds will be used strictly for improvement and funding of services such as transportation, the sheriff's department and the fire department; and possibly reduce rates on water service and garbage pickup while lessening the need to raise property taxes."

A MOST, such as the one Atlanta collects, has been one of several fixes Mr. Russell has proposed for next year's looming $8.6 million shortfall in the city budget. If voters could approve it in July and collections could begin in October, MOST could add about $9 million to the city's coffers next year.

Mr. Russell's other suggestions include a 1.317 millage increase -- adding $46.10 to the bill on a $100,000 house -- raising bus fares and cutting transit services, cutting outside agency appropriations by 15 percent and closing the Augusta Municipal Golf Course.

An alternative plan he laid out earlier this month involved routing $600,000 a year in beer taxes away from the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority, generating $200,000 a year through stepped up efforts to collect delinquent taxes, and saving $650,000 a year through a new employee retirement incentive program. That plan would require only a 0.1 mill increase for street lights, but would still mean cuts to transit, fare increases and closing the golf course.

Passage of a 2010 budget is on today's commission meeting agenda, and Mr. Russell said he will offer still more alternatives. He said he doesn't expect a budget to pass today.

The grand jury had other recommendations for the city government beyond the charter and the budget. They included:

- Collecting and administering special-purpose sales tax, or SPLOST, funds at the local level, rather than having them filtered through state government.

- Developing a better system for keeping the community informed about city operations. Commissioners' district meetings are being poorly attended, grand jurors noted.

- "Establish and enforce guidelines for civility and decorum while meetings are in session." This would improve public perception of the commission, the report said.

- More authority for the city administrator.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.

SEE IT ONLINE

TO VIEW A PDF COPY of the September term Richmond County Grand Jury presentments, including a subcommittee's recommendations regarding the consolidated government and another subcommittee's account of a visit to the Webster Detention Center on Phinizy Road, click here.

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