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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.