For the past week, Mary Stephens has walked the median parting Greene Street, collecting trash to add to a small cardboard box she placed beneath a nearby oak tree last week.
The daily gesture is not about litter control, the resident said.
It’s about getting the attention of the city’s 12 groundskeepers.
“Maybe now, they’ll know someone’s here and come by more often,” Stephens said, dropping an empty soda can and open candy bar wrapper into her collection.
For nearly two decades, Stephens has watched from a downtown park bench as the two-mile stretch of island walkway extending along Broad and Greene streets has become an overgrown jungle.
In the mid-1990s, the resident said she would encounter a city groundskeeper three to four times a week, working hard to make downtown a calm and comforting place where people wanted to come sit and relax.
Now, she sees fewer maintenance workers and more weeds that than workers, a problem that has enveloped various pockets of the city, most notable at the on and off ramps of Gordon Highway, the shoulders along Riverwatch Parkway and the curbs lining Tobacco Road.
A city supervisor said Tuesday that local government is doing the best it can to keep Augusta’s roads, ramps and walkways at their best, but that a wetter-than-usual summer, paired with a rather limited maintenance agreement with the Georgia Department of Transportation can make such a task difficult.
“I love downtown. It’s where everyone goes,” Stephens said. “But lately, the city has not sent out enough people to make the streets look as nice as they once did. They could do a better job.”
Right-of-way and median maintenance is a responsibility spread across three department budgets in Augusta.
The Recreation, Parks and Facilities department assumes the lead role in the effort, employing eight groundskeepers at its maintenance shop – at a combined salary of $187,000 – to mow, spray, edge and prune the county’s island walkways, city records show.
City gateways and drainage zones typically get priority, as well as downtown, where Maintenance Shop Operations Supervisor Sam Smith said his staff spends 90 percent of its time, working with inmate crews from the Richmond County Correctional Institute to groom highway medians.
“If we’re not downtown, we’re on the Hill,” Smith said.
Smith said maintaining Augusta’s public areas is a full-time task that has the supervisor seeking five more groundskeepers to hire and help his staff with the work.
The Engineering and Public Works departments each staff two groundskeepers. But according to city records, public works concentrates on roads and walkways, while engineering deals with levee banks and off ramps.
Complicating the problem is the Department of Transportation, which only covers 13.6 miles of public maintenance in Richmond County – the third lowest mileage total out of the 10 Georgia cities that receive a share of the $1 million in-state assistance to help mow, clean, and re-seed or re-sod municipal right-of-ways, shoulders and ditches.
Smith said his office rarely receives complaints from residents or business owners and that it works with Old Towne Association to ensure islands are kept cut and trimmed.
“Sure, we get behind sometimes when the weather is rainier than normal, but all we can do is put forth our best effort and try to stay ahead of it,” Smith said. “Sometimes that can get to be difficult.”