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Commissioners hand out grades

Chris Thelen/Staff
The Augusta Commission includes Jerry Brigham (from left), Joe Bowles, Joe Jackson, Corey Johnson, Matt Aitken, Mayor Deke Copenhaver, J.R. Hatney, Grady Smith, Alvin Mason, Wayne Guilfoyle and Bill Lockett. Many of the commissioners say they see some things being done right in Augusta but also see areas for improvement.
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The Augusta Chronicle asked Augusta commissioners to grade their performance for 2011 in five critical areas, using an A through F scale. Below are the responses from Commissioners Joe Bowles, Matt Aitken, Wayne Guilfoyle, Jerry Brigham, Joe Jackson and Grady Smith.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver and Commis­sioner Corey Johnson did not respond to an e-mail or multiple phone calls requesting comment for this story, while Commissioner J.R. Hatney said he “didn’t want to be involved in that.” Commissioner Alvin Mason went into detail about his refusal to participate, stating in an e-mail that he saw no reason to do so.

“I see no value in assigning grades to this commission,” he said.

Commissioner Bill Lockett said he thought answering the questions would further divide the commission.

“There isn’t anything I could say that would possibly help the commission get back on the same sheet of music,” he said.

IMAGE

Aitken C

Bowles B

Brigham D+

Jackson A-

Guilfoyle B

Smith B

Augusta’s image as a racially grid-locked city resurfaced during 2011, with the Augusta Commission divided 6-4 along color lines most of the year.

Whether it was adoption of a new personnel manual, giving the city administrator greater authority, outsourcing the transit department and golf course or merely changing an ordinance requiring the commission meet “at the courthouse,” the city’s four black commissioners couldn’t see eye-to-eye with the six white members.

Attempting to keep Augusta in a positive light was Copenhaver’s executive assistant, Karyn Nixon, who e-mailed or forwarded more than 230 news releases. Topics ranged from Augusta’s No. 6 ranking among cities “having an awesome recovery” by the business and entertainment Web site Business Insider, to Augusta’s honorable mention for a “Sea of Goodwill” award for its treatment of returning veterans.

“The perception is just like when I ran for office, with the gridlock that we’ve had,” Aitken said. “I don’t think we’ve come out of that to really get us up to a B or an A yet. When I meet people downtown, they just say how charming Augusta is.”

TAXES

Aitken B+

Bowles C+

Brigham B+

Guilfoyle B-

Jackson A

Smith C+

The 8.075 mill countywide property tax rate approved by commissioners this year remains lower than the rate in most large Georgia counties other than Columbia, although the addition of the 19.157-mill levy for Richmond County schools puts Augusta higher in the rankings.

The rate is slightly lower for property owners within the old city limits, and there’s an additional .784-mill levy for city capital outlay, a 1.6-mill tax for fire protection outside the old city limits and a 6-mill to 7-mill tax on downtown property owners within the city’s business improvement district. The BID tax funds the Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative.

City Administrator Fred Russell presented data on the city’s low rate and its distance from a locally imposed tax cap during fall budget discussions. Raising city property taxes to the maximum would increase a homeowner’s tax bill on a $100,000 house by about $150 a year and add some $15 million to the city treasury.

The commission, while divided on so many other issues, for a third year in a row rejected the prospect of raising taxes and left the millage rate as is.

We are a bargain in taxes,” Brigham said. “While saying that, I believe that we need to keep control of our budget. Otherwise, we will end up with a low reserve fund and at the tax cap with no options for meeting our basic needs for public safety.”

REVITALIZATION

Aitken B-

Bowles B

Brigham C-

Guilfoyle C+

Jackson B-

Smith B-

Thanks to the 2009 deal struck between commissioners to fund construction of the TEE Center, millions in sales taxes and hotel-motel taxes will flow into redevelopment of the blighted Laney-Walker and Bethlehem historic districts. The Housing and Community Development department, whose offices are in Laney-Walker, is at the center of the initiative, working with various entities to redevelop the area. It’s a point of pride for Copenhaver, who spoke more than once this year about the effort at city design conferences.

The effort is constrained to the area, however, and similar initiatives such as one to redevelop the Dover-Lyman district in south Augusta are moving much slower. Regency Mall remains vacant, although a summer tour by inspectors found the structure insufficiently dilapidated to take action against its owners.

A point somewhat contentious among commissioners and residents alike was the commission’s fall decision to fund the relocation of residents of Hyde Park, a south Augusta neighborhood where home conditions vary. According to the city engineering department, despite the history of allegations that Hyde Park was contaminated by a nearby former junkyard, the land is needed for construction of a detention pond to alleviate flooding.

And while progress is rapid on the riverfront TEE Center and its parking deck already completed, downtown remains slow to redevelop.

A Chronicle analysis revealed in October that the number of downtown businesses dropped 27 percent over the decade, with more than one-third of them leaving before the recession hit.

The taxpayer-funded Downtown Devel­op­ment Authority, expected to promote downtown development, questioned the data, but the DDA’s data confirmed that 22 percent of downtown buildings are vacant.

“As in anything, I think we can do better,” Smith said. “We’re on the right track, there are some areas that are blighted that are being cleaned up, such as the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem houses being built … also the cleanup along Milledgeville Road and the Hyde Park area. I think we’re kind of on track, but not exactly where I’d want to be.”

MANAGEMENT

Aitken C

Bowles B

Brigham C+

Guilfoyle C+

Jackson C+

Smith B

Growing discontent among commissioners over Russell’s implementation of a reorganization of government hit crisis level over the summer, when news broke that he had awarded some 44 raises to employees that he said had been assigned additional duties.

However, when a vote to fire Russell came before the commission, it failed twice, with opposed commissioners saying they couldn’t fire him because they had no backup plan, even though the city has two deputy administrators.

The reorganization plan unveiled at the start of 2011 hit many snags, although Russell succeeded in eliminating a department called public services and its director, Mike Greene. Public services’ building and grounds maintenance functions were transferred to other departments, and planning and zoning were merged with licensing and inspections late in the year. But total savings from the plan were nowhere near the $2.3 million Russell originally projected, and few filled positions have actually been eliminated.

The commission succeeded in adopting a new personnel manual, a book that former Human Resources Director Rod Powell said brings the city out of a bygone era. But some commissioners maintain the manual was too full of flaws and inconsistencies to be implemented, and that it was illegally approved with only six votes.

The city procurement office was sued again in 2011, and a contractor’s allegation that his firm was unfairly bypassed during a bid award prompted an injunction against the city awarding large construction contracts.

The city adopted a new set of procurement policies, however, and once it demonstrated compliance with them in court, the judge lifted the order.

Management of the Augusta Fire Department came into question when a Chronicle investigation revealed that Fire Chief Howard Willis' brother, Battalion Chief Tommy Willis, was using city resources to steer business to his board-up company. A city probe of that and other issues prompted the October retirements of the Willises and two deputy fire chiefs.

“When I look at the administrator as well as the department heads and the money they get paid to do their jobs, I expect them to carry out their functions with accuracy and keep their budgets in line,” Guilfoyle said. “There was a big issue with the personnel manual and it caused a division within our commission, but without structure you cannot have success and you’ve got to be able to hold people accountable.”

EFFICIENCY

Aitken D

Bowles D

Brigham D+

Guilfoyle C

Jackson C

Smith C+

Despite commission consensus during a 2010 retreat of the need to streamline and restructure city government, the effort went over very poorly with some commissioners once its details were revealed.

Backed by a lawsuit filed by The Baptist Ministers Conference of Augusta, several commissioners alleged Russell could not reorganize departments without a supermajority of eight approving commission votes.

A superior court judge later ruled in the city’s favor, though not commenting specifically about the voting issue. Plaintiffs said they’d wait for a written order before deciding whether to appeal.

Ultimately, the size of Augusta government was reduced by only a handful of workers in 2011, with many eliminated positions already vacant.

The commission relinquished Augusta Public Transit to private management, a move projected to save $400,000 annually and improve existing service levels. It also voted to lease Augusta Municipal Golf Course, where annual operating losses were in the hundreds of thousands.

Although they lost their city jobs, most of the transit and golf course employees were hired by the new managers.

Another move intended to save resources went over very poorly in July, when Augusta Fire Department quit sending an aerial truck to house fires south of Tobacco Road. After a fearful public and employee outcry, the truck was returned to southside service.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING ABOUT THEIR IMAGE

MATT AITKEN: “The perception is just like when I ran for office, with the gridlock that we’ve had. I don’t think we’ve come out of that to really get us up to a B or an A yet. When I meet people downtown they just say how charming Augusta is.”

JOE BOWLES: “It’s got a lot of potential that hasn’t been fully met yet. There’s the perception of a beautiful city, but it seems somewhere in the past 15 years, somebody dropped the ball.”

JERRY BRIGHAM: “I believe that our bad image is due as much to the media’s lack of reporting of the good things that happen with Augusta government, and that they do not cover the other local governments in the area on a regular basis, as they do Augusta.”

JOE JACKSON: “With industry coming to town, we’ve got good people that show Augusta. In my opinion, you’ve got just as many people pulling for Augusta as you have pulling against Augusta.”

WAYNE GUILFOYLE: “The image of Augusta is good. The majority of people think Augusta is moving forward. We have some people in the media that actually could make Augusta turn around and get better, rather than focusing on the negative.”

GRADY SMITH: “I’m pro-Augusta, but if people have the image that we’re constantly bickering, that it’s a definitely a racial issue, that we haven’t moved on with the times as other areas have around us, boy that hurts, because it’s not true. Some that like it say hey, I came to Augusta for the Masters.”

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING ABOUT TAXES

MATT AITKEN: “We’re in pretty good shape compared to some of the other cities in the state, and it makes Augusta appealing.”

JOE BOWLES: “We’re obviously not the highest taxed city, but we’re obviously not the lowest. For the services we provide, we’re probably a B, with twice-a-week garbage (pickup) and all the benefits you get.”

JERRY BRIGHAM: “Augusta has one of the lowest millage rates in Georgia for an urban county. We are a bargain in taxes. While saying that, I believe that we need to keep control of our budget. Otherwise, we will end up with a low reserve fund and at the tax cap with no options for meeting our basic needs for public safety.”

WAYNE GUILFOYLE: “We haven’t raised taxes and that’s a good thing, and we’re still running this operation somewhat in budget. If we continue, where it falls is one of the lowest (millage rates) in the state of Georgia and that says a lot.”

JOE JACKSON: “We haven’t raised the millage rate and we’re trying to live within our budget.”

GRADY SMITH: “I would like to see us do better. Looking at our sheriff, public safety and infrastructure, I think we could do better with a revenue tax of 2 cents on the dollar. I don’t want to do anything with property taxes anymore.”

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING ABOUT REVITALIZATION

MATT AITKEN: “We’re making strides on it because of what’s going on with the TEE Center coming on, and a lot of the activities going on at the riverfront and Laney-Walker; that’s going to spur on other activities.”

JOE BOWLES: “We’re doing great things in certain areas, but we’ve completely neglected other areas.”

JERRY BRIGHAM: “Augusta has spent and is spending millions of dollars on revitalization and has little to show for it. The developers of this community know how to turn farmland into houses, but that’s about all they know how to do. Augusta’s commissioners are not as good as the developers at rebuilding neighborhoods.”

WAYNE GUILFOYLE: “They are definitely putting money into revitalization. The (Laney-Walker) overlay is a good thing as long as it’s done right. I’ve got to give kudos to Chester Wheeler. In the Gordon Highway area, we need to focus on that and get rid of these dilapidated houses in our district and the rest of Augusta, but there’s only so much you can do with the money you have.”

JOE JACKSON: “With the money that’s been earmarked for Laney-Walker and Bethlehem, it ought to be a showpiece. It seems like everything’s concentrated downtown, when we ought to look at the needs of the people across the area, the revitalization of everywhere.”

GRADY SMITH: “As in anything, I think we can do better. We’re on the right track, there are some areas that are blighted that are being cleaned up, such as the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem houses being built … also the cleanup along Milledgeville Road and the Hyde Park area. I think we’re kind of on track, but not exactly where I’d want to be.”

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING ABOUT MANAGEMENT

MATT AITKEN: “I think there’s room for improvement in management. Anytime you have people in positions for a lot of years, sometimes change doesn’t come well. When we look at our gateway structure, we haven’t sorted that out as far as management. There’s a sign plan in place, the CVB just hasn’t been funded yet.”

JOE BOWLES: “We’ve definitely got some departments and areas that do a great job, and others that could use some improvement. Overall, the citizens that I represent feel that it’s decent, feel that people put forth an effort, but also realize some people don’t understand what their roles are.”

JERRY BRIGHAM: “The senior staff of Augusta government does a great job of running the day-to-day of Augusta. The commission is a policy-setting group and should not be into the day-to-day management of Augusta.”

WAYNE GUILFOYLE: “When I look at the administrator as well as the department heads and the money they get paid to do their jobs, I expect them to carry out their functions with accuracy and keep their budgets in line. There was a big issue with the personnel manual and it caused a division within our commission, but without structure you cannot have success and you’ve got to be able to hold people accountable.”

JOE JACKSON: “Due to the fact that we’ve reorganized and the areas that people got reassigned and department heads that took on new duties turned into not really knowing what your next goal is. Management overall is an A, but when you get down to some of the department areas, we can do a lot better.

GRADY SMITH: “I like Fred … When everyone’s working together it’ll work a lot smoother. We’ve got to quit nitpicking everything that’s done, and do what’s best for the majority all around, not just a few districts here and there. A lot of times it takes more effort to keep a ship on course when you’re dealing with short money.”

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING ABOUT EFFICIENCY

MATT AITKEN: “People in positions get comfortable in jobs. We’re creatures of habit; we get comfortable with the status quo.”

JOE BOWLES: “Privatization of the transit department is going to save us $400,000 a year and that’s just getting rid of personnel that sit around and don’t do much. That’s the difference between government and private entities. Private entities don’t pay people to do nothing, but the government seems to.”

JERRY BRIGHAM: “I believe as a whole the commission would like to see Augusta be more efficient, but we seem to want to do things the way we always have without looking for ways to improve the efficiency.”

WAYNE GUILFOYLE: “The government is so top-heavy. Departments like engineering and IT are being efficient. The animal control director proved her weight in gold on the budget. She saved the county money by cutting overtime and this is what I would expect from other directors.”

JOE JACKSON: “Everybody needs to get on the good foot; do the right thing. Be accountable for your position and your job. Be honest and fair. Give the many eight hours’ work for eight hours’ pay. You look at people who know how to bypass the GPS system; they’re spending more time for evil than good. Instead of taking 15 smoke breaks in an hour, take one smoke break an hour. The old adage is just ‘look busy;’ those days have come and gone.”

GRADY SMITH: “I do see that we could streamline a little more; we could look at some areas and equipment and personnel and run a lot of these areas more like private enterprise. You don’t have all the people standing around; you can work and get the job done. Once you get everybody moving in the right direction, you don’t need a lot of them.”

Comments (13) Add comment
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Asitisinaug
3
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Asitisinaug 01/01/12 - 05:08 am
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Really? Not even worth a

Really? Not even worth a comment...

omnomnom
3964
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omnomnom 01/01/12 - 06:53 am
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please amend the title to say

please amend the title to say "white commissioners hand out grades"

seenitB4
85748
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seenitB4 01/01/12 - 10:11 am
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It sez.... Regency Mall

It sez....
Regency Mall remains vacant, although a summer tour by inspectors found the structure insufficiently dilapidated to take action against its owners.

Sumthins up here...hope it is for the best for South Augusta.

eb97
835
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eb97 01/01/12 - 11:06 am
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I agree with omnomnom and

I agree with omnomnom and asitisinaug. They can get rid of Fred and replace him with Locket who is way more qualified for the administrator job and or he could run for Mayor because he(Locket) would be great in that capacity. He does not see things in black and white, he sees things in right and wrong.

Riverman1
82436
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Riverman1 01/01/12 - 11:06 am
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Regency Mall? I'm still

Regency Mall? I'm still waiting for the sale of Fort Discovery, where the reason given for not being able to use it for a TEE Center was its "imminent sale." That was reported by a commissioner over two years ago.

Riverman1
82436
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Riverman1 01/01/12 - 11:07 am
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By the way, have workers at

By the way, have workers at the TEE been told to slow down? If so that would cost the county lots more in construction costs.

Dipshot
-5
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Dipshot 01/01/12 - 11:41 am
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eb97 makes some great points.

eb97 makes some great points. Lockett is indeed far more qualified to be city administrator than "what, me worry?"Fred. I'm thinking that with all the drama surrounding Mason now, you have to start looking at Lockett as a leading contender for mayor in 2014. Lockett is extremely detail oriented. If he was mayor, we probably wouldn't even need to hire an administrator.. he could be the mayor and administrator. I think he would do a better job of looking out for the tax payer. Unlike Mason, Lockett is more even tempered. Amnd he won a major victory on getting that audit on the parking deck. I think he will be proven right when all comes out and you will see audits of other questionable city dealings.

eb97
835
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eb97 01/01/12 - 11:44 am
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Yea Dipshot, you get it too.

Yea Dipshot, you get it too.

Little Lamb
45360
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Little Lamb 01/01/12 - 03:09 pm
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Thank you for your comments

Thank you for your comments today, eb97. I'm getting a lot of good out of them. However, I think you are mistaken when you say, “They can get rid of Fred and replace him with Lockett, who is way more qualified for the administrator job.”

Didn't you read Lockett's quote over on Sylvia's thread when Commissioner Bill Lockett is quoted as saying, “We’re gonna have to come up with a new mechanism to raise additional revenue.” ? ? ?

That's what Russell has been saying since he first hit town. We need an administrator who cuts expenditures and hands surpluses back to the commission every year. We need someone like me!

eb97
835
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eb97 01/01/12 - 05:11 pm
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LL, if you have ever met Mr.

LL, if you have ever met Mr. Lockett, you would know that he has read everything that has transpired in our local government including the statement that Russell made and Lockett made the statement to see if Russell remembered how long ago he made that same statement and that nothing has changed for the better under his rule.

Little Lamb
45360
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Little Lamb 01/01/12 - 11:12 pm
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I will agree with you, eb97,

I will agree with you, eb97, that nothing has changed for the better under Fred (What, me worry?) Russell's rule.

Riverman1
82436
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Riverman1 01/02/12 - 08:34 pm
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The powers that be want money

The powers that be want money to be spent for things they want. Russell's job is to find the money for them. Services the people want such as law enforcement are the last things that are funded. If THEY wanted a snow skiing course here, Russell would find a way to pay for it and forget how he did it later.

Little Lamb
45360
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Little Lamb 01/02/12 - 09:36 pm
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Good point, RM: The powers

Good point, RM:

The powers that be want money to be spent for things they want. Russell's job is to find the money for them.

Don't forget that four or five months ago Joe Jackson and five or six other commissioners approved a motion directing Fred (What, me worry?) Russell to examine creative financing methods for the downtown baseball stadium on Reynolds Street and report back to the commission. He hasn't reported back, yet, but you can bet he will sneak something in there in the upcoming months.

madgerman
236
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madgerman 01/05/12 - 04:36 pm
0
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Funny that when they
Unpublished

Funny that when they discussed efficiency and management they didn't say anything about SPLOST 1, 2 3 4 5 etc. Now that was real efficiency and management.

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