It was a foregone conclusion that the Augusta Commission would vote to spend $484,452.54 for consultants to help set up a rain tax so they can drain even more money from your pocket to fix and maintain the stormwater system.
“For the record” – as commissioners say before launching into some windy speech – I’m not against the rain tax. I’d just like for you to know there’s one blowing your way. Not that you can take cover or anything. But you can avoid being swept off your feet by a deluge of PR designed to make you happy that you’re going to be giving the government more money and forget you’re paying them $157,022.10 to give you the good news.
THEATER IN THE SEMI- CIRCLE: Before last week’s 8-1 vote to approve the consultant’s fee, Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle questioned Engineering Department Director Abie Ladson about the service folks in his south Augusta district would receive given that there are only three or four neighborhoods with storm-drain pipes. The rest have open ditches and “dirt in front of their houses,” he said.
Ladson said there were stormwater needs all over the county, and that the first thing to do was get the consultants on board.
Commissioner Marion Williams said he’d signed on to the plan last year and knew it was time to move on it, and he continued rambling until he asked the $7-million-a-year question.
“If we find out we can make a wider ditch or a concrete ditch, are we still going to still continue to get that fee – to charge residents for stormwater?”
“Yes, we’re going to continue to collect the fee,” Ladson replied.
Did anybody in their wildest imagination think the answer would be no?
“One reason is you’re going to have to maintain them,” Ladson said. “And there’s going to be growth.”
Commissioner Corey Johnson gave a little speech about how it’s a “shared tax” and how “we all have to do our part” because “it’s going to benefit us all.”
“You have people who do not have kids, and they pay school taxes,” he said.
“That’s right,” said Commissioner Donnie Smith, who asked Ladson how close he was to finishing the drainage inventory. On cue, Ladson put a map on screen showing what the staff has inventoried so far. Then he gave us some more news.
THERE GOES ANOTHER $500,000 IF YOU’RE LUCKY: “We will be coming back before the commission with some more consultants for the inventory,” Ladson said. “It will be for the actual inventory and modeling for the existing infrastructure.”
“Is that going to be in this $400,000, or is that going to be another time?” Smith asked – a question that bordered on being rhetorical.
“That’s separate,” Ladson said.
Next came a little oration by Smith about the city’s 100-year-old drainage system and National Hills’ 50-year-old overburdened system.
“We’ve not spent any money in the last 100 years on fixing them, and now, all of the sudden, we’ve got a huge bill piled up on us at one time,” he said.
I’m thinking he needs to do a little more research because the city’s been doing drainage projects with special purpose local option sales tax money for 20 years.
Finally, Mayor Deke Copenhaver brought up the growth at Fort Gordon and said it affected the city, too.
”We have to look at managing our stormwater,” he said.
“That’s the law,” Ladson said. “You’re mandated to manage your stormwater.”
And everybody knows a mandate is the mother’s milk of tax increases.
A CAUTIONARY TALE: All the talk about a rain tax put me in mind of the person known around here as Storm Water Frank Spears, the former Columbia County commissioner who spearheaded the tax in Martinez and Evans and got booted out of office for his efforts.
“I got my butt kicked. I was the fall guy,” he said, recalling the public meeting where they had to call in armed guards.
Some Columbia County residents sued the commission, and the case went to the Georgia Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Columbia County. “As soon as the Supreme Court ruled, a number of counties in Georgia started implementing the tax,” he said.
That’s a new tax for you. Everybody has to get in on the act.
ANOTHER CAUTIONARY TALE: Frank said he’d just returned from two weeks in Fiji where he had a harrowing experience. He was feeding sharks with silver tuna when a shark came for him. He was so caught off guard, he didn’t know what to think. Then a second shark came at him even closer.
“Then the dive master came over pointing to his head. He was saying the sharks were after my silver hair. They thought it was a silver tuna. I wet my wet suit.”
BALANCING ACT: I can’t imagine how commissioners and City Administrator Fred Russell are going to bridge the $8.5 million gap in next year’s general fund budget.
Oh, yes I can. Commissioners will meet, and Russell will repeat what he told them when he handed out his budget proposal.
A supposedly fiscally conservative commissioner will say, “We’ve got to cut somewhere, but I don’t want to cut the sheriff’s or fire chief’s budget. And I don’t think we should cut anything from public works or engineering. Those are essential services. And I definitely don’t want to raise property taxes.”
“I think we should think about cutting in recreation,” another supposedly fiscally conservative commissioner will say. “That’s not an essential government service. And we should hurry up and lease the Patch. It loses money every year. It’s going to cost us $300,000 to run it ourselves next year. And it’s not the government’s job to provide golf for a few people and make everybody pay for it.”
“Wait,” a fiscally liberal commissioner will object. “The golf course isn’t the only department losing money. What about the aquatics center or the tennis center? It’s not the government’s job to provide swimming and tennis for a few and make everybody pay for it either. Besides, if we cut recreation, the kids will be roaming the streets. It’s cheaper to keep them on the ball field than in a detention center.”
“If we could just do something about transit,” another supposed fiscal conservative will say with a sigh. “It’s cost us millions.”
“Transit’s not supposed to make money,” a fiscally liberal commissioner will object.
Then they’ll get down to line-item entries that don’t amount to a hill of beans and suggest cuts, to which the other side will object.
At some point, a fiscally liberal commissioner will sigh and say – not in these exact words – “Lordy, I wish we could get our hands on the money in that water department.”
This will go on right up to the Nov. 19 deadline for balancing the budget. At that eleventh-hour meeting, Russell will say he’s found a couple of million in something like lapsed salaries and propose a teensy-weensy property-tax increase.
“Less than the cost of a loaf of bread,” he’ll say, and the budget will pass with only commissioners running for re-election voting no.