Sylvia CooperCity Ink columnist and correspondent for The Augusta Chronicle.

City Ink: It's a fight to the finish for municipal building space

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Augusta Commission members raked Marble Pa­lace renovation architects Virgo Gambill and Heery International project manager Forrest White over the coals when the issue of the clerk of commission’s office space came up on Tuesday’s agenda.

Commissioners were so outraged by what Commis­sioner Corey Johnson said is poor design and wasted space on the renovated second floor that they suspended construction on the eighth and ninth floors until flaws are remedied and the clerk’s space problem is resolved – at no expense to taxpayers.

That’s what they said, but we’ll see.

ROOM FOR COMPLAINT, BUT NOT STORAGE: The main commission meeting area, which is supposed to double as a secondary Superior Court courtroom, seats 255 people. The adjacent clerk of court’s office is cramped with no security for valuable records and can be entered through a side door by someone unnoticed.

The vault is on another floor and a storage room on another, so the clerk would be running from floor to floor. It’s also at the opposite end of the hall from the mayor’s office – 300-plus steps – although the clerk usually interacts with the mayor several times a day about scheduling meetings, agendas, document signing, public meeting notices and other matters.

Behind commission chambers, there’s one unisex bathroom for 10 commissioners.

Commission Clerk Lena Bonner advised Heery, the architects and then-City Administrator Fred Russell as early as 2008 about her space needs – and has the records to prove it – but they were discounted and ignored, she said.

As for the architects’timeline of events, Bonner said they were “somewhat disingenuous.”

The attorney’s spacious reception area, suite of offices and conference room are across the hall from the mayor’s oversized reception area and office. The mayor’s administrative assistant also has a spacious office.

“Why is it that my storage space, my access to my records has to be at four and five different places?” Bonner asked.

“I agree, Ms. Bonner,” Commissioner Donnie Smith said. “And there’s a certain group of people that are responsible, Virgo Gambill. I remember they came and asked us for money. I was unhappy with their performance then. They’re the only ones in this room responsible. And I’m as disappointed today as I was the first time I met y’all.”

Commissioners directed White, Virgo Gambill and Bonner to meet, along with Johnson, and find a solution to the clerk’s space.

Since Bonner has said she wants to move into the law department’s space, I do believe Attorney Andrew MacKenzie and his staff won’t be across from the mayor’s office after all.

HERE COME DUH JUDGE: Commissioners aren’t the only ones with complaints about the commission/courtroom area.

In a Monday letter to interim Administrator Tame­ka Allen, J. Carlisle Over­street, the chief judge of the Augusta Judicial Circuit, thanked her for efforts to ensure office space for senior judges in the renovated building.

“While temporary relocation satisfies our short-term needs, it should be understood the senior judge office is a small part of the court having a presence in the building,” he wrote. “Any building designated as a courthouse has certain components that must be present; a courtroom, a jury room, holding facilities and judge’s chambers. While the senior judge’s suite can double as the judges’ chambers, the location should be near the courtroom.

“The current design of the holding facilities needs to be addressed,” Overstreet continued. “In the planning stages of the renovations, the court was adamant about maintaining a holding facility. The current design does not meet any correctional facility standard.

“In the plans submitted to us, the jury room (i.e. conference room) was located to the rear of the courtroom with secure access by jurors. The current location of the jury room requires jurors to traverse through an office or through the public areas.”

Overstreet stated that he’d asked Superior Court Judge Carl Brown and Court Administrator Tom Gunnels to revisit the building last week and arrange a time to meet with Allen.

So when the chief judge says “Frog,” what does everybody do?

HOLD ON TO YOUR WALLETS! Commissioners will discuss whether they can balance next year’s budget without a tax increase Monday while 13 city employees recover from a $40,417 weeklong computer software conference at Disneyland.

Kinda’ goofy, huh?

Commissioner Bill Lock­ett’s Finance Commit­tee agenda item calls for discussing “long-range budget projections to ascertain whether a 2015 balanced budget is possible without an increase in taxes.”

In addition to the state eliminating a sales tax on energy purchased by manufacturers, which will mean $4 million in lost revenue to Richmond County in 2016, this year’s General Assembly changed tax laws estimated to cost Georgia local governments $153 million over five years.

“These revenue losses must be recouped and will not properly be addressed by department cuts and continued employee wage freezes. … We must be able to replace lost revenue,” Lockett states.

WHERE’D YOU GET THAT MICKEY MOUSE HAT? Com­mis­sion­er Marion Williams, a frequent flyer himself, has an agenda item about “employees attending the June 2-7 SUNGARD software conference held in Anaheim, Calif.”

“I’m trying to find out who OK’d that,” Williams said. “I’m not saying people shouldn’t travel and go. But we’re using their software. We’ve got a training room. We’ve got an IT department that has won awards. Why can’t they send somebody here? It bothers me that they go to someone who we buy software from.”

Commissioner Mary Da­vis said that if there was no other option for employees to receive the training closer to home, she would “have to trust that department heads are spending taxpayer money responsibly.”

Commissioner Bill Fen­noy said the location of a conference is not determined by the participants but by the conference sponsor.

“Commissioners have attended conferences in Seattle, Texas, Savannah, and from what I’ve heard commissioners have gone to Hawaii, and the only reason they’re going is to get information that’s going to benefit the citizens and government of Richmond County,” Fennoy said.

Finance Department Director Donna Williams, who sent three employees to the conference, said they received valuable training that will facilitate moving to a major upgrade to the city’s IFAS software system in six to nine months.

“It’s huge for us, and it has been huge for other areas,” she said. “Nobody wants to go into it blind. And it is the only national training for the IFAS system.”

Employees from IT, procurement, human resources and disadvantaged business enterprise also attended the conference. They stayed in $240-a-night rooms at the Disneyland Hotel and Resort.

I’LL SWAP YOU MY LEI FOR THAT HAT: Everybody knows Augusta commissioners’ love of learning is exceeded only by their love of travel.

When Williams and then-Commissioners Betty Beard, Richard Colclough and Bobby Hankerson attended the annual conference of the Na­tional Association of Counties in 2005, Williams said he’d learned enough about the budgeting process at one workshop to pay for the trip.

Last year, local taxpayers paid for commissioners and other city officials to attend the Georgia Municipal As­so­ciation conference in Sa­vannah in June; the As­sociation County Com­mis­sioners of Georgia conference in Savannah in July, plus their legislative conferences in Atlanta. Five commissioners attended the National Association of Counties conference in Fort Worth, Texas, in July, then there was the NACO conference and the National League of Cities conference in Seattle in November.

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Gage Creed
Gage Creed 06/07/14 - 10:17 pm
Facts are pesky things....

Break out the checkbook Martha....

triscuit 06/07/14 - 10:19 pm
On what criteria was the

On what criteria was the architect selected? Based on fee schedule? Prior experience? Political buddy?

Riverman1 06/07/14 - 10:39 pm
Commissioners Tripping on Trips

Heck, Corey Johnson wouldn’t have had a honeymoon with his new bride if there hadn’t been a trip for Commissioners to Phoenix. But after the Commissioners last trip to Hawaii, they showed home movies of the trip while eating snacks for hours at more than one commission meeting. They hooted and hollered every time one of them mugged for the camera. It was so bad Andy Cheek walked out of a meeting saying he could only take so much of the Hawaii trip movies.

geecheeriverman 06/08/14 - 05:46 am
smoke and mirrors

Balancing the budget without a tax increase?. Look for more of their smoke and mirrors actions.

corgimom 06/08/14 - 06:24 am
I want to know how they

I want to know how they stayed at the Disneyland Hotel for $240 a night, they usually are $350 per night.

nocnoc 06/08/14 - 07:28 am
A small Issue

While I am sure it makes a good read to upset some people about government waste. My only concern would be that they attended the conference and came back with lots of Razor bleeding Edge Technology ideas that can SAVE ARC in its IT Overhead, improve Operations and public access.

Attending a conference that normally lasts 9am to 6pm for several days, what a person does off the clock is not my concern as long as the Expenses are NOT charged to the ARC Taxpayers. So attending an IT CONFERENCE being held in Mickey Land should not be the issue, as much as what they came back with for additional knowledge.

I was part of the Networld + Interop NOC Team in the 1990's for a number of years (hence my Noc-Noc handle). We held Conferences, shows, and classes in: Atlanta, Las Vegas, SF, Chicago, DC, Berlin, Paris and yes I have worked Conferences + shows in Mickeyland also. At its peak N+I attracted 60,000+ attendees over 5 days, and had 1100 IT Vendors in one location. Example in Atlanta, N+I completely filled the GWCC and still used parts of the Peachtree Center, CNN and the Informin Buildings.

That size Conference Center and level of GEEKY-VILLE is NOT found in Augusta. Hence the justifiable reason to hold these at large scale locations that can accommodate 30,000+ attendees.

So get the Mickeyland idea of ONLY Fun & Frolic out of your mind.
However, I'd like to see their IT Trip report on what they came back with.

Flights, Rooms, and Food into Popular destinations are generally cheaper.

I just checked for hotels outside the gate there are 9 under $125.

BTW: Usually Conf Attendees get a significant Discount off rooms inside Mickey World.

Riverman1 06/08/14 - 07:32 am
Waste Of Money

I've been attending conferences all my professional life. I've been everywhere from Disneyland to Disneyworld with all points in between. Sometimes I feel like Orlando is my second home. But with the internet, video and self paced material, there's absolutely no reason for such expenses. The information can be presented better using that medium. That's the truth.

At some meetings the opening speakers are remarkably honest. They will tell you the meeting is to "have fun, charge your batteries and see some old friends." That's also what the conferences for county employees are about. You telling me the infamous Hawaii conference was about learning how to govern a county?

shelby547 06/08/14 - 07:40 am
Conferences all over

I too, like many others, have attended conferences all over the country. I am not defending this conference in particular, but this is the norm. These types of conferences know that to attract participants, you have to have it in a desirable location. National conferences are held in big cities that have hotel space, restaurants, night life, etc to get more attendees. Although Disney Land may seem like a stretch, this is not uncommon.

I often find myself spending more money on conferences that are in smaller cities because of travel costs. Airfare to smaller airport more expensive, longer more expensive cab rides.

As far as what they do after hours, as long as it is on their dime, they should be able to explore the city they are visiting. We would all do the same.

IBeDogGone 06/08/14 - 07:43 am
Conferencdes are Valuable

If you have good speakers that are knowledgeable about the issues pertaining to the conference that open your mind to new alternatives that are useful in you job or operation these can be valuable. Yes they can be viewed on web sources, but I feel I learn as much in break out sessions with other attendees sharing their ideas on the subject that I would not get from a webinar even one with an open discussion forum.

jimmymac 06/08/14 - 09:45 am

I attended many conferences and honestly most were just an excuse to have fun on the company dime. Many "learning sessions" were over before noon and then we headed to golf courses and beaches. Any learning can be done in your home site and that's when you'll actually get some value out of the money being spent. The rest is just a waste of time and money. Call it a reward for being who you are.

balloon2008 06/08/14 - 09:59 am
Worker Bees

These are the people that actually do the work. They need to know how to use these systems that I m sure we will be paying millions for! When the systems go online it will hopefully save us millions. The department heads sent them ( which they should) don't blame the worker bees! They have a budget make everyone stick to it and be accountable. If it was not in the approved budget fire the person that approved it!!

itsanotherday1 06/08/14 - 11:59 am

Riverman hits a home run. Having also attended many conferences and training sessions, I can say without equivocation that with today's technology, there is very little that can't be done over the net; trade shows being the obvious exception.

If it is purely information, webinars work just fine, at a fraction of the cost.

Conservative Man
Conservative Man 06/08/14 - 02:20 pm
Its common knowledge...

….among the "minions" at the Marble Palace that those sent to these "seminars" view them as paid vacations….

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