Augusta could soon embark on a $1 million study on government efficiency, but if history is a guide, it will wind up being another costly example of bureaucratic waste.
Spurred by consolidation, the urge to study how to “rightsize” and repair city government has always been strong, from a 1998 space utilization study to a 2009 plan for Augusta Public Transit.
However, the documents often end up on a shelf, gathering dust.
The space utilization study was a $90,000 examination by Duckett & Associates of where Augusta’s scattered former city and county government offices should go, and how best to accommodate a growing judiciary.
Duckett detailed and priced five options – two involved purchasing and remodeling Regency Mall, one involved moving into the former Davidson’s on Broad Street, and another was a $50 million expansion of the Municipal Building.
After reviewing the study, a grand jury labeled existing efforts to retrofit old buildings “a total fiasco” and recommended instead what the judiciary wanted all along: a new building.
As Duckett was looking at buildings, a $90,000 study by Buck Consultants was reviewing salaries and job classifications,
then as now mostly a mishmash of former county and city personnel.
Buck has updated those 1997 findings a few times since, according to City Administrator Fred Russell, who conducted an in-house salary study himself after being hired in 2002.
The Augusta Commission did not approve Russell’s 40 recommendations until yet another study – by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia – said they were proper. The commission has never agreed – or agreed to find the funds – to implement Buck’s full set.
The Buck and Duckett studies were barely gathering dust when then-City Administrator Randy Oliver called for another study, a $150,000 efficiency review by DMG Maximus. The findings were vast, with the firm examining every aspect of city and former county departments.
The 1999 recommendations were immediately questioned by then-Emergency Management Agency Director Pam Tucker, who called the suggestion that her agency merge with the Augusta Fire Department “one of the most inefficient ways to operate the department.”
The study drove the consolidation of sheriff and fire 911 response into a single building, but most of its findings – merging licensing, planning and housing into one department; privatizing street sweeping and other functions; and cutting dozens of sheriff’s patrol deputies and marshal’s personnel – were ignored.
Russell says he’s avoided overuse of consultants during his tenure, but the studies have continued.
In 2006, urged by then-Commissioner Marion Williams, the commission authorized a $25,000 feasibility study on construction of a south Augusta drag strip. The commission vetoed the idea, and Williams’ son-in-law was caught buying a nearby lot for a “Drag Snacks” business before the strip’s proposed location was made public.
In 2007, former Commissioner Andy Cheek pushed for a $50,000 feasibility study into developing a whitewater course in the Augusta Canal’s third level. The money remains unspent in the hands of the Augusta Canal Authority, Cheek said.
Augusta’s Downtown Development Authority is fond of studies, conducting a 2005 parking study for $52,000 and a 2008 trolley study for $37,000. The commission panned DDA Director Margaret Woodard’s resulting parking meter proposal, and Woodard said the economy derailed the trolley idea.
A popular topic of study remains Regency Mall, first by Duckett for a potential government headquarters. A 1999 study, commissioned by Greater Augusta Progress Inc. using a $100,000 grant, developed a proposal for a mixed-use “town center” at the vacant mall.
A 2007 city study by F.A. Johnson, paid for with a $75,000 grant, arrived at a similar plan that included recreation areas. All remain stymied by the mall owner’s asking price of more than $50 million.
A $586,000 disparity study by NERA Economic Consulting was undertaken to document race and gender disparities in Augusta’s awarding of contracts after a federal court order barred the city’s use of affirmative action. Its 2009 findings have not undone the court’s injunction.
Also in 2009 came Wilbur Smith Associates’ $133,000 review of Augusta Public Transit. The commission ignored the findings and instead outsourced the bus service to a private firm, Mobility Transit, earlier this year.
It has only been a year since Shields Design released its $500,000 Sustainable Development Agenda, a plan for mixed-use redevelopment clusters around the city’s south side, but very few results are visible. The city recently put implementation of the massive plan out for bids.
On Monday, commissioners are set to discuss a study of efficiency, organization and staffing that was first suggested by Mayor Deke Copenhaver during a summer retreat.
Deputy Administrator Tameka Allen wrote the preliminary request for proposals from consultants broadly to ensure the commission gets exactly what it wants, Russell said. The complete study might cost as much as $1 million, he has said.
Russell defended the city’s use of big-budget studies even during tough economic conditions when employees are being furloughed, which he called a good time for being visionary and involving everyone.
Former Human Resources Director Rod Powell, who retired in August but remains on as a consultant for three months as his replacement is hired, expressed frustration at Augusta’s tendency to study and rarely implement.
“The study itself doesn’t fix anything,” he said. “If they do another one, management needs to commit up front to implementation.”