The business of selling a skeptical Augusta on the city’s new special purpose local option sales tax got underway Monday.
Augusta Commission members finalized approval of a $194 million tax package at a morning meeting. The package will be described in a referendum and bond issue going before voters May 20.
On Monday evening, Commissioner Donnie Smith had the floor at a meeting of the West Augusta Alliance, a conservative crowd vocal about the inclusion of money for private entities such as the Imperial Theatre.
“Has any SPLOST ever come out perfect? No,” Smith said, claiming that while special projects were included, $173 million from the package was intended for infrastructure.
In the cases of outside agencies, Smith said contributions for Georgia Regents University’s new cancer center, for instance, were used to leverage greater returns. The $8 million reserved for GRU, he said, would result in $300 million in non-city investment, he said.
In Smith’s District 7, the tax package will pay for sidewalks, lighting and other improvements to increase safety; and badly-needed drainage improvements in National Hills. The package will also fund a new fire station west of Jimmie Dyess Parkway, where Smith said fire insurance is $2,800 annually for homeowners.
Those in attendance had challenging questions.
“Why is the city supporting a private religious institution?” one man asked, referring to Paine’s $6 million allocation in the tax package.
“The political environment,” Smith said, had mandated inclusion of the funds.
Richmond County school board member Helen Minchew asked about Augusta Regional Collaborative’s Mills Campus proposal, which Smith hadn’t mentioned in his discussion of the tax projects.
While the mayor’s project, aimed at converting two historic textile mills to educational space for GRU, was cut to $5 million in sales-tax dollars, “Georgia Regents has not showed their hand” about whether it is interested in occupying the mills, Smith said.
Attendee Sameera Thurmond said she had “learned a lot” from the session but needed more information.
Opposition to the sales tax package is building, said activist Al Gray. He carried a bucket with holes in it to the meeting, to pour water through to show his opinion of how the sales tax is managed, he said. “I think it’s in trouble.”