“We need something in place,” said Natalie McLeod, a member of the Clean Augusta board pushing to renew the special tax district downtown. “If we do away with this totally and want to come up with something better, it will be two to three years before something else is in place.”
For five years, the yellow-shirted Clean Augusta workers swept, cleaned, gave directions and otherwise made their presence known within the boundaries of the Business Improvement District, where property owners paid an extra tax for the services.
In December, however, Augusta became one of only a handful of cities to terminate such a district a BID, McLeod said.
“When you go downtown now that CADI is absent, you can tell in the dirtiness,” said the retired physician, who has bought and restored downtown properties. “The city doesn’t have the money or manpower to do it.”
Established under Georgia law, such a business district requires the consent of more than 50 percent of property owners to be implemented, but all owners within the district’s boundaries must pay the extra tax if the commission approves it.
In January, the Downtown Development Authority showed 116 petitions signed by 78 people as evidence of more than 50 percent support, but the Augusta Commission, citing complaints, declined to renew the district for a second five-year term.
“A lot of the opposition that I hear is from people that don’t pay the tax,” said Dee Bruker, another Clean Augusta board member who is pushing to revive the district. “If Harrisburg wanted to have a BID, I wouldn’t oppose it. Fifty-two percent of the property owners voted for it. To me, I just think it should be a rubber stamp.”
McLeod and Bruker say the refurbished BID they are presenting addresses commissioners’ and property owners’ concerns. The Clean Augusta Downtown Initiative has detached itself from the development authority, opened its board up to include small-property owners and will use uniform millage, instead of the two rates applied in the old BID, either 6 mills or 6.9 mills.
Commissioners contacted Friday and Monday questioned renewing the BID, however.
“They’re repacking and rehashing the same stuff,” Commissioner Donnie Smith said. “It’s still the same old small group trying to control the thing.”
Commissioner Bill Lockett asked why the other 48 percent of property owners hadn’t been brought on board already, asking, “Why didn’t y’all go out and try to recruit additional people?”
Commissioners Grady Smith and Joe Jackson remained opposed, as was Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, who pointed at the growing support behind AVID, a new volunteer group seeking to address issues facing downtown businesses, as a nonprofit alternative.
Even Commissioner Bill Fennoy, who placed the BID on today’s commission meeting agenda, after a 5 p.m. public hearing on the business district in commission chambers, wasn’t sure he supports the district, which is in his commission district.
Fennoy said the city ought to strive to give downtown the level of cleanliness seen at Augusta Regional Airport, which uses a private service, but that people’s trust in Clean Augusta was eroded during its first five years.
“When we open that up for discussion, then we will find out whether all the needs have been met,” Fennoy said.
Clean Augusta lost support of several of its larger property owners last year, including Morris Communications Co., which paid nearly a third of the BID’s total annual assessment on the several downtown properties on which it is taxed, despite getting the lower 6-mill rate. The company owns The Augusta Chronicle.
Dana Atkins, the president of The Chronicle and a member of the Clean Augusta board, said that the board had become “very polarized” but that he could understand why much smaller property owners still support renewing a service for which they might pay only a few hundred dollars annually.
“The benefits are so great to them,” he said.
Clean Augusta also lost the support of businessman Donnie Thompson, who questioned in an e-mail why property owners paying 30 percent of downtown taxes were allowed to overrule those paying 70 percent.
The city has enough tax-funded, volunteer, inmate and other resources, including business owners themselves, to clean downtown sidewalks without having to levy an extra tax, he said.