Augusta Commissioner Grady Smith called Saturday to say he was having second thoughts about his earlier statement in favor of exempting manufacturers from paying a 2 percent tax on energy used in manufacturing. Last year, the state gave the manufacturers a 6 percent exemption – 4 percent from the state and 2 percent from local governments. The legislation authorizes local officials to reinstate their 2 percent if they so choose.
Smith said he’d since received information about “kickbacks” and refunds manufacturers already receive.
“We don’t want to look business-unfriendly, but this shouldn’t be put on property owners either,” he said.
Smith had this great revelation after meeting with City Administrator Fred Russell and finance director Donna Williams on Friday to work on trying to balance the 2014 general-fund budget
The issue of the 2 percent tax dominated the first part of last week’s public meeting on the budget that had an $8.5 million deficit when they started and rose to $9.4 million at one point which was comical because they were trying to narrow the gap, not widen it.
Anyway, Russell wanted to get the matter of the excise tax settled early on because the city will lose $2 million if they don’t impose it, a loss that would likely be made up by increasing the tax rate by a half-mill. And that would increase taxes on a $100,000 house by $17.50 a year. In 2015, if continued, the exemption would cost the city $3 million and in 2016, the loss would grow to $4 million which could mean a 1-mill increase that would raise taxes on a $100,000 house by $52.50 a year.
Russell asked commissioners in favor of imposing the tax to raise their hands, and of the six present only Commissioner Donnie Smith did.
“If you’re not going to do the excise tax, the only other option you have to talk about raising the millage rate,” Russell said.
He then called for a show of hands from those willing to consider a property tax increase, and Commissioners Corey Johnson, Bill Fennoy and Marion Williams raised their hands.
“I don’t see any way to cut any more,” Johnson said. “We’re adopting the mindset we’re still that small town before consolidation. … So let’s just go ahead on, make this happen and be done with it. Let’s not increase it by 0.1. Just go ahead on and look at a 1 mill increase and generate $4 million…”
When Johnson finished, Donnie Smith leaned forward and asked, “How many property owners do we have? Ninety thousand that own property in Richmond County. So we’re willing to tax 90,000 to the tune of $4 million, but we’re not willing to collect money to run the city from the 11 (manufacturers)? I’m confused by that.”
“I guess there’s some really good lobbyists for the 11, and not such good lobbyists on behalf of the 90,000 although I consider myself a lobbyist for the 25,000 in District 7.”
Russell said the excise tax is a “wonderful example of a small group benefitting greatly to the detriment of lots of other people. … And if you look at some of these companies, no matter how tight they are their employees and their stockholders are making money the past couple of years. Your citizens of Richmond County have had to put up with holes in the road, holes in the street and grass six feet tall.”
THE GRUCIFICATION OF AUGUSTA CONTINUES: GRU President Dr. Ricardo Azziz managed to get everybody in town all riled up again when he told the Georgia Board of Regents last week that Augusta’s population has declined 10 percent. What he should have said, and would have said, had it not been for a lapsed synapse or a bad briefing by some poor sap, is that the still-fertile folks in Augusta haven’t been making babies like they used to. Either that, or they’re all moving to Columbia County, and as a consequence the under-17-year-old population has declined 10 percent.
All of this – well, not all of it – was explained by one of his spin doctors who said Azziz speaks with so few notes he left that part out.
“He gets a lot of information and he pores over it,” David Brond, GRU’s senior vice president of communications and marketing, told a Chronicle reporter. “He has a lot of this data in his head and he knew about the population trends. So he knew about that.”
The number of young folks is important because they’re “the future lifeline for a university,” Brond said.
But I still wonder why Azziz mentioned Augusta’s population decrease without mentioning the population growth in surrounding counties.
A GRUESOME PRESENTATION: Another not-completely-unrelated PR nightmare occurred last week when a TV station aired a story on the document Augusta Collaboration Project consultant Matt Kwatinetz used in his presentation to GRU officials in April about renovating the historic Sibley and King mills – now referred to as simply The Mills – and making them part of GRU’s campus.
Unfortunately for Kwatinetz, who was not immersed in the local scene because he commutes from California, “The Augusta Regional Collaboration Projects GRU presentation” refers to the “Save the A” campaign that citizens and Augusta State University alumni waged in an effort to keep Augusta in the name of the new university as an “embarrassment.” It also refers to Augusta commissioners holding closed-door meetings in which they renewed their commitment to support GRU.
Not unexpectedly, folks were outraged over the reference to the campaign being an embarrassment, especially chairman Nick Evans who in a TV interview said it was an insult to 90 percent of the people in Augusta.
What was most interesting to me was the reference to commissioners holding closed-door meetings. They have a way of doing it that skirts the law without breaking it, which was the case here.
Several commissioners said they didn’t meet as a group. What happened is that Mayor Deke and Kwatinetz had been working on the proposed project but had not informed them. The media had the story and was going to go with it the next day. Not wanting commissioners to be blindsided with questions, they called them to the Marble Palace in twos or threes for briefings.
When asked about the “embarrassment” reference, Mayor Deke Copenhaver said via e-mail he believed the Save the A campaign showed the “pride and passion” the community has for its university and the city’s name.
“And there’s nothing embarrassing about that. I have seen that same passion with the overwhelming support to see our university focus on master planning for expansion in our urban core. In my opinion, our focus should be on continuing to galvanize support around the future growth and expansion of Georgia Regents University Augusta, and as a proud alumnus I am fully engaged with helping to make this happen.”
Kwatinetz e-mailed to say the document referred to in the news story was a “very early draft” that he’d been passing around for input.
“Once we were able to sit down with Commissioners and others in the community we revised it to reflect their input and then presented it broadly to the public.”