The rush to get the Augusta Commission to approve a list of special-purpose, local option sales tax projects to submit to voters May 20 just got a little more hectic.
While commissioner attendance at a series of recent work sessions on SPLOST 7 has been in the single digits, Mayor Deke Copenhaver on Thursday circulated a new package of $187.4 million in projects, asking commissioners to approve it today.
“As we need to provide Hephzibah and (Blythe) ample time to approve their allotments, I will be calling a special called meeting to discuss/approve the draft package tomorrow,” Copenhaver said in a Thursday e-mail provided to The Chronicle.
SPLOST 7 doesn’t go into effect until 2016, but the deadline for getting it passed by the commission has crept steadily back – from March 20 to March 13 to Feb. 28, for a variety of reasons – all for the stated purpose of including it and an accompanying bond issue on the May 20 ballot.
“We are rushing this thing way too fast and it’s picking up speed as it goes along,” said Commissioner Bill Lockett, who said he won’t attend the Friday session because it’s his wedding anniversary.
Blythe Mayor Brent Weir said the soonest he expects the town council to approve the municipality’s $1.9 million allocation would be Thursday and it might need to have some discussion about why its request for police vehicles and equipment was cut from $300,000 to $50,000.
The new draft package, culled by Copenhaver and a “city team” from some $741 million in project requests, includes $8 million in matching funds for Georgia Regents University’s new cancer center, and $30 million for renovations at Augusta Municipal Building, two projects already approved by the commission.
Beyond that, the package includes $11 million for new buildings for the Augusta Public Defender and Juvenile Court, $4.45 million for a Hephzibah recreation building, $7.5 million for three fire stations and $1 million for a James Brown Community and Fine Arts Cultural Center for Paine College.
Paine, which sought $8 million in SPLOST 7 dollars for the center, expects its actual cost to be $17.9 million, Paine Assistant Vice President Helene Carter told four commissioners who attended a Thursday SPLOST work session.
The facility will be accessible to all ages and groups, just as Brown was a “champion of the common man,” Carter said, adding that “an aggressive team” of fundraisers will help raise the rest of the funds.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, who also attended the session, said afterward he “had some concerns” about what remained in the SPLOST package. “We’ve got to focus on infrastructure.”
Copenhaver, who blamed state politicians for the expedited timeline, left in the package $5.25 million for the Mills District, a project to convert two vacant textile mills into usable space. The project was developed by the Augusta Regional Collaboration Center, which Copenhaver founded.
The revised package also included $750,000 for the ART Space program, $2 million for public art implementation, $4 million for Imperial Theatre renovations and $9 million for Symphony Orchestra Augusta to continue its effort to renovate the Miller Theatre downtown. The package cut proposals for extending Augusta Common and building a downtown business incubator sought by the Downtown Development Authority.
Copenhaver said the new SPLOST must provide “a growing population with arts and entertainment venues” to increase the quality of life for existing residents and newcomers with the new Army Cyber Command at Fort Gordon.
The revised package left out Augusta 911, the Richmond County Marshal and Mosquito Control and Augusta Regional Airport, all of which had project requests, and cut $15 million for a new public safety radio system.
The city recreation department, which sought some $106 million in projects, was allocated $1 million for River Walk Augusta, $2 million for Augusta Aquatic Center, $1.5 million for Newman Tennis Center and $500,000 toward a $12.5 million requested water park.
Recreation Director Bob Levine said he hadn’t seen the revised package when he presented the department’s prioritized request Thursday, including a series of photographs of aging, eroded and damaged community centers, courts, fields and playgrounds.
“It’s really not so much neglect; it’s deferred maintenance,” Levine said.
The department wants $2 million to refurbish playgrounds and $2 million for a splash pad initiative of 10 pads over five years; Copenhaver’s draft included $1.5 million for each.
Also seeking funds but not included on any prior SPLOST 7 drafts was MACH Academy, which runs a tennis and afterschool program at Fleming Tennis Center.
Director Betty Jones said the program, in existence since 1992, sought $1.5 million for new classrooms, a kitchen, a conference room and three covered tennis courts, a first for Augusta.