“Logistically, if everything works out like we’re planning it to right now, I will become a citizen of Augusta and will actively pursue becoming a viable candidate for mayor,” he said.
Cheek, who was elected to the commission in 1999 and served until 2008, said he wants to shine the light on city government.
“Too many things come to the table that there have not been public meetings about,” he said. “And the commissioners are as surprised as the public when the details of some of these arrangements become known.”
A good example of that, he said, is the move to designate the city a slum in order to create a 595-acre Urban Redevelopment Area and be eligible for tax-free bonds to help pay for Municipal Building renovations.
“And suddenly we’ve come to realize we need two more buildings as part of the renovation,” he said, referring to new Information Technology and Board of Elections buildings to be built on the Marble Palace parking lot.
The public has been isolated from the process, and you have to pull teeth to get any information about what’s going on.
“It goes back to the fundamental concept the government works for the people, and any information, any meeting and any document should be easily accessible to the public,” Cheek said. “There should be nothing hidden or concealed.”
During his last term on the commission, Cheek promoted a plan to turn Ellis Street into a canal to increase tourism. He held several public meetings to promote the idea, but it was deemed too impractical and costly to be pursued.
Former mayoral candidate Helen Blocker Adams, state Sen. Hardie Davis and Augusta Commissioner Al Mason have announced their candidacies for mayor. Reportedly, Charles Cummings of Super C’s fame has also said he’ll run.
BAN THE WORD ‘SLUM’: Cost recovery analyst Al Gray - and thorn in the side of government officials - took the microphone at last week’s commission meeting to speak against the plan to designate downtown Augusta a slum and create an Urban Redevelopment Area.
“When words no longer are required to carry their true meaning and devolve into meaning the opposite, all men and women should shudder, for in that immoral state, what is the meaning of right and wrong?” Gray said.
He contends that the redevelopment zone supersedes zoning and makes a property owner hostage to whatever rules the city puts on his property.
He said the city had violated Department of Community Affairs guidelines that recommend public and private input. He also said questions about the city’s plan are legion.
“Is it responsible to fund unlimited debt service with SPLOST funds that have not been approved?” he asked.
While much had been said about saving $2 million using the special financing, “one property owner could lose that being singled out for punitive treatment,” he said.
Commissioner Bill Fennoy said although the city might save $2 million, downtown businesses could lose more than that because of people not wanting to come into a slum.
“We were told we had such a good bond rating, and it made sense to finance the whole project,” Commissioner Marion Williams said. “But now I’m hearing we need to do this. It’s got me a little jittery.”
Other folks got a little jittery too when Gray said he’d started looking into the government to find examples of fraud, corruption and mismanagement.
“And I sure found a treasure trove in Augusta,” he said.
WHO ARE YOU, ANYWAY? By this time, you could tell Mayor Deke Copenhaver was getting fed up and told Gray to tone it down.
“Look, we’ve got a lot of other business to do,” he said. “Are you a Richmond County taxpayer? Where’s your place of residence?”
“My final resting place is Westover Cemetery if that matters to you, sir,” replied the Lincolnton resident.
“You’re not dead yet,” said the mayor, who then questioned Gray’s qualifications as an expert witness.
“I would love a list of references,” Copenhaver said. “That would be great. And some background information on how you’ve got this professional designation.”
Gray tried to respond but got cut off. City Administrator Fred Russell who’d been doing a slow burn said Gray had “shared a lot that was not accurate, a lot that was personal opinion” and didn’t match the credentials and expertise of the experts who’d been doing the city’s bond work for 15 years.
“You’ve heard one side of the story from Mr. Gray,” he said.
Commissioner Bill Lockett asked the mayor to advise Russell not to talk so loud because he’d gotten onto a recent speaker for doing that.
Russell apologized and asked financial adviser Dianne McNabb to give them the “facts.”
McNabb assured commissioners that the Community Affairs guidelines allowed for officials to develop an urban redevelopment plan privately or publicly and that URAs facilitated private sector projects. She also said the city would save millions on interest with tax-free bonds.
As for the word “slum,” she said she wasn’t sure how anybody coming into Augusta could ever know it was designated as a slum, which some in the audience found humorous.
WELL, THAT’S SOMETHING POSITIVE: Afterward, I asked Gray what he thought about his reception. Among other things, he said ”the Augusta Commission are paragons of good government compared to the idiot Gold Domers who concocted the URA, URD and URP deception.”
I CAN’T SEE A SINGLE STORM CLOUD IN THE SKY, BUT I SURE CAN SMELL THE RAIN TAX: The city’s chief engineer, Abie Ladson, says he needs $4.15 million more next year to maintain the city’s roads, streets, ditches, drains, trees, weeds, buy equipment and manage projects funded by the transportation sales tax.
Commissioners authorized Ladson to plan for a “rain tax” last year, which he said will wash away all of his problems. Too bad it will also give property owners a good soaking.
Landfill Director Mark Johnson proposes raising garbage fees $1.13 a month next year. He also proposes adding a $3 monthly street sweeping fee. The chart he presented at last week’s budget meeting didn’t say exactly who’d pay the street sweeping fee. Neither did he, unless that’s when I dozed off the first time.
Week before last, Sheriff Richard Roundtree and Fire Chief Chris James asked for 5 percent pay raises for their employees, $1.8 million and $800,000 respectively.
And there’s more to come.
EXPLODING THE MYTH: Russell almost always prefaces his budget remarks by saying Augusta has one of the lowest tax rates in the state. Last week’s budget hearing was no exception.
“And this is what totally amazes me that I talk about over and over and over,” he said. “On a $100,000 house, you pay the government about $986.31. Less than a thousand dollars. You’ve got cable TV, you’re paying more than that.”
A few minutes later, Commissioner Donnie Smith asked Russell to go back to the chart showing the $986.31 tax bill. Smith said someone who owned a $100,000 house had told him his tax bill was $1,400.
Looking at the chart, Smith said, “I see what’s missing: $310 dollars for the landfill. Street lights are about $95 and something like $225 for fire protection. So that would be the figure to get that up to $1,400.”
And you can change the channel on cable TV.