Setbacks hurt city's restructuring proposal

Commissioners grapple with divisive issue in tough fiscal time

Augusta leaders who dreamed of a more streamlined government -- with an administrator who could take swift, decisive action to whip the city's bloated bureaucracy into shape and have final say over personnel decisions -- might be disappointed three months into the fiscal year, as returns from Administrator Fred Russell's proposed restructuring plan continue to dwindle.

Russell, presenting part of a cost-benefit analysis of the plan to commissioners last week, warned that total savings from reorganization and other efficiency measures, originally slated at $2 million, were already down to $1.2 million.

"As y'all know, that continues to go down as we do not implement the plan at this particular point in time," Russell said.

Now the only sure bets left to fill a $9 million budget deficit, plus up to $1 million in unforeseen fuel and commodities costs, are a freeze on capital outlay, with a resulting $2.3 million savings, and five approved furlough days, expected to save $1 million.

After that, the commission can dip into reserves, slash services or raise taxes, Russell said.

The sale of surplus property, such as the city's downtown depot, was expected to generate $2 million toward the deficit, but the six-acre Reynolds Street property is not yet on the market. Russell said he wanted a buyer interested in developing the site, not holding the land as an investment.

Proposal, delays

A means of filling the budget gap had appeared evident to the mayor and commission last summer, when they agreed at a retreat on the need to restructure government and give Russell more authority.

But when a budget resolution granting Russell authority to make $1.5 million in cuts appeared on the dais Nov. 16, only moments before the commission approved the 2011 budget, several commissioners were shocked.

Since then, passage of the pieces necessary to restructure -- a new personnel manual spelling out a chain of command and new policies and procedures for dealing with affected employees, and ordinances required to change certain components of government -- seems to encounter one roadblock after the next.

Some of the delays were probably unavoidable -- Russell was sick for nearly two weeks in January, delaying the rollout of the restructuring plan to commissioners until Jan. 21. Then, Commissioner Bill Lockett, who opposed adoption of the resolution and the manual, requested two additional work sessions to review the personnel manual section by section.

The most perplexing hurdle came Feb. 16, when attorneys for the Georgia Legislature released a legal opinion saying that the commission was illegally delegating powers to Russell that actually belonged to the mayor.

The opinion, produced at the request of Augusta legislators, stands in marked contrast to City Attorney Andrew MacKenzie's opinion, which called the commission's actions and votes by the book.

Outside opinions

Mayor Deke Copenhaver, after first suggesting the commission vote on whether he has wide-reaching powers as the city's chief executive, later said the legislative counsel decision proved the city's charter was weak and needed revising by a disinterested third party, the Carl Vinson Institute of Government.

Four questions then posed by MacKenzie -- on the mayor's power to hire and fire and the commission's authority to delegate such powers to the administrator without a majority of commission votes -- were mailed to Attorney General Sam Olens, whose office said it will provide a nonbinding courtesy opinion in a few weeks.

Before backing down from requesting the commission vote, Copenhaver said Augusta's need for centralized authority was so great, he was willing to take on the mantle, with Russell's guidance.

And while the opinion from Olens will not be binding, it will be a third opinion from the state's ranking lawyer on matters that have divided the commission. The six commissioners who have voted in favor of the resolution and handbook also have voiced approval for MacKenzie's opinion. The three who have maintained their opposition support the legislative counsels' finding that the 6-3 vote was insufficient to delegate authority to Russell.

Determining who is in charge -- and how -- likely will delay implementation of the reorganization plan, unless the commission votes otherwise, Russell said.

"I think we're going to have to wait," he said. "If we haven't heard anything by the 11th, we'll develop a path forward. That's a commission decision."

With savings still a shrinking, moving target, Russell will present more details of the plan to commissioners at a Friday work session.

Dwindling reserves

The city has dipped into its "rainy-day fund" more than once in recent years and already had planned to take $1.5 million to help cover the $9 million deficit, Russell said.

"That's what it's there for," he said.

But while the fund's balance is in the tens of millions, Russell said he worries more about 2012, should an unrestructured government be forced to again dip into the fund.

Augusta raised property taxes a scant amount three years ago and would gain about $11 million if it raised them to the cap, but it would not be a move popular with the commission.

"I would not hold that out as something that anybody would want to do," Russell said.

While the city might be slower to appreciate savings from the reorganization, it has gained other things during the debate in recent weeks over the personnel manual, Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles said.

Among them is the manual's realignment of the city personnel board under the administrator, Bowles said.

"I can't tell you the number of supervisors that have called and thanked me," Bowles said. "Employees will no longer have the protection of friends and those types of influences on the personnel board."

The weeks of debate "no doubt have hampered Fred's efforts, but he thought it was necessary to do those things first," Bowles said.

Should the reorganization's targeted savings grow increasingly elusive this year, the city will benefit in the future, he said.

"I would hope that we'd be able to get this right on through, and hopefully collections and revenues are up," Bowles said.

Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who offered the compromise limiting Russell's authority over department heads to making recommendations, emphasized the requirement that the city balance its budget and offered a sobering view of what was to come.

"We're going to do our best to try and get this thing done as fast as we can get it done," he said. "If all else fails, if we can't find the reductions that we need to find in reducing the size of government, I guess we'll be faced with whether or not we're going to vote for a tax increase."

Augusta's proposed reorganization, draft plan excerpt (issued March 1, 2011)

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