Richmond County officials, candidates oppose special purpose local option sales tax package

Opposition to the next special purpose local option sales tax package is building, starting at the top.

Augusta Commission members and candidates and mayoral hopefuls are speaking out against the $194 million sales tax package that will appear on the May 20 ballot.

Three commission members voted Monday against approving the package: Bill Lockett; Marion Williams; and Alvin Mason, who is running for mayor.

Compared with the months or years spent developing prior sales tax packages, Lockett said, the few weeks’ turnaround for this one was too fast and lacked public input.

“During this extremely short deliberative process, millions of dollars of the public’s money was being allocated at mach speed,” he said Monday, calling for commissioners to “just say no” and hold the referendum in November instead.

Mason said what was missing from the package Monday were funds for infrastructure and “accountability” to ensure funds are expended properly and as planned.

In all, $50 million from the package is designated for public works projects such as roads, sidewalks and drainage. Another $19 million is reserved for recreation and parks improvements, and $7.5 million goes to the fire department.

Also included are $21.8 million for outside agencies, including $6 million for Paine College to help build an $18 million cultural center. The funding secured the support of commission member Bill Fennoy, a Paine alumnus.

Mason said better planning might have helped the city avoid implementing a stormwater fee now under development by the city Engineering Department, while east Augusta residents have suffered with insufficient drainage for decades.

“I don’t see the monies going to the areas that need it the most,” Mason said. “For those reasons and many more, I couldn’t support this package.”

Other candidates on the May 20 ballot say they oppose the sales tax package.

It “should be pushed back until the new mayor is in place,” said former nightclub owner and mayoral candidate Charles Cummings.

“The lack of infrastructure is a problem for me,” said mayoral candidate Helen Blocker-Adams.

Sen. Hardie Davis, who is running for mayor, said he had been in Atlanta serving in the General Assembly and needed to review the package more before voicing an opinion, but emphasized the process needed to be transparent.

“When we talk about taxpayer dollars, people need to know what we are using those dollars for,” Davis said.

Supporters say the funds can be used to leverage millions more for the community.

The $8 million for Georgia Regents University, for instance, will facilitate some $300 million in outside investment, while $4.5 million for Symphony Orchestra Augusta will help the organization obtain an $8 million grant, said Commissioner Donnie Smith, who supports the package.

“Once it is explained to the public and they understand how much money is actually dedicated to infrastructure and how much money is leveraged in those other projects, the arts and Paine, they’ll understand how much we need this,” Smith said.

Commissioners Grady Smith and Wayne Guilfoyle said the package’s extra funds for Hephzibah and Blythe in south Richmond County will help the county prepare for the arrival of the U.S. Army Cyber Command, which is expected to bring thousands of military and civilian jobs to Fort Gordon over the next few years.

“We’ve got an influx of 15,000 people coming in this area,” Smith said. “We better get ourselves prepared and not get caught with our pants down.”

Guilfoyle’s district includes Hephzibah and Blythe.

“District 8 is the only place that people can move to,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to get ready for this influx of people.”

Non-residents pay the sales tax, just as residents do. Augusta libertarian activist Taylor Bryant said the tax is “very regressive” and hurts the poor more than the middle class. He said oversight of the funds is limited and not everyone benefits.

“There are people that live here 365 days a year that could use another 1 percent of their income,” Bryant said.

The local party likely will help organize an anti-sales tax package campaign, as it did in 2009, but Bryant said he expects opposition to be much greater this time, in part because of social media.

“People are more politically connected now than they were four years ago,” Bryant said.

Joining the resistance Tuesday was Brandon Dial, an attorney and candidate for commission Super District 10.

Dial posted an 11-paragraph statement of his opposition to the tax package on Facebook, but invited voters to review the package and make up their own minds. He said he would support the package if it included funds reserved for infrastructure and not outside agencies.

“The quick cobbling together of the package followed Commission work sessions that were sparsely attended not only by the public, but also by members of the Commission. As a result, the voters are left with a $194,314,000.00 package in which they had minimal direct and indirect input. Unfortunately, voters were not given an adequate opportunity to attend meetings, discuss potential allocations, and lobby their Commissioners on the size and scope of the package,” he wrote.

Dial said the process and its resulting package are “part of the greater problem with the commission and how they do things.”

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