Originally created 05/15/98

Commission may split discretionary fund



Augusta commissioners are considering giving one another $11,000 of taxpayer money to spend at their discretion.

The money -- $110,000 a year in all -- would be pulled from currently pooled travel and "commission other" accounts and divided among the 10 commissioners.

As a first step, Mayor Larry Sconyers and Mayor Pro Tem Lee Beard have proposed evenly dividing the $44,300 left in this year's $50,000 discretionary account among the board members.

That way, each commissioner would spend his share however he desired without permission of the others.

Currently, to spend or donate any of that money takes a majority vote of six commissioners. But debating the merits of each expenditure in public is time-consuming and divisive, said Mr. Sconyers.

"I think it would be a good thing," he said. "A lot of times commissioners get asked for things from certain groups. It would make it a lot simpler if they could just dispense it, vs. getting in a group and fighting over it on the floor out here."

Mr. Sconyers said he and Mr. Beard have discussed giving commissioners discretionary accounts "basically like the mayor has."

Mr. Sconyers has a $60,000 annual account to spend at his discretion.

"It would be interesting to see if they each had their own account how they would manage it," he said.

Asked why the government should take taxpayers' money and give it to commissioners to give to somebody else, Mr. Sconyers said, "Because they're your elected officials, and you elect them to use discretion in how they rule your government. And they should be the same way with your money."

Asked the same question, Commissioner Ulmer Bridges said, "Well, they're doing it one way or another. At least by dividing it up, you limit it and make the people more responsible for what they spend.

"The public's going to see it, and then it's going to be up to each commissioner as he runs to face the public with it.

"It's no different from what we're doing right now. It's all in one pot. For example, $21,000 has been spent on travel thus far this year. Divide that by 10, that's $2,000 per commissioner."

The commissioners have $60,000 in an account to use for travel.

Commissioner Jerry Brigham said he is definitely not in favor of dividing the "commission other" account, which commissioners use at their discretion.

"I thought it was there to cover our unusual expenses," he said. "Kind of like a rainy-day fund."

Mr. Bridges said he had tried during the budget process to make the "commission other" account a contingency fund but did not have the votes to do it.

"`Contingency' implies you only use it in an emergency," he said. "`Commission other' implies it's extra, and you can so spend it as you so see the need. So I think there's a greater encouragement to spend the money out of `commission other.'

"I think to divide it up among the 10 is not the best option. I think to make it a contingency is the best, but I think it is an improvement over the existing way of doing it. And that way if a commissioner wants to buy a table at Josey High School, he can do that without obligating all the other commissioners."

Each commissioner gets an annual salary of $12,000. The mayor pro tem makes $20,000, and the mayor gets $65,000.

Mr. Bridges said he would like to see both accounts divided evenly among commissioners.

During the budget process, Commissioner Moses Todd also pushed to eliminate the "commission other" account and the mayor's discretionary account.

Acting Comptroller Glenn Greenway said dividing the money would solve the long discussions at commission meetings over spending the money.

"I would not want a discretionary fund like that," Mr. Greenway said. "I would prefer to have it specifically either in the budget, or if it's in a contingency then it would require commission approval. I think that would ultimately be the best controls."