Originally created 05/28/98

Commissioners continue debate over discretionary fund



All that the players on T.W. Josey High School's varsity girls basketball team wanted were rings to signify them as state champions -- the same kind of rings the boys varsity football team got when it won a state championship.

Augusta commissioners bickered over that request for more than an hour last month. That discussion has mushroomed into a major controversy on how money in the Augusta Commission's discretionary fund should be used and some commissioners defending the way they've already voted to spend taxpayer money in the past.

"What's the difference between the mayor having a discretionary fund and the commissioners having a discretionary fund?" Mayor Pro Tem Lee Beard asked. "Are they trying to say (Mayor Larry) Sconyers knows how to spend money and we don't?

"Besides," Mr. Beard continued, "if we start spending the money unwisely, the voters will deal with that through the ballot."

Augusta commissioners are considering giving one another $11,000 of taxpayer money to spend at their discretion. The debate is expected to come to a head Tuesday when they'll put it to a vote.

Mr. Beard and Mr. Sconyers proposed evenly dividing the $44,300 left in this year's $50,000 discretionary account among commission members.

Commissioners have already donated more than $5,000 from the "commission other" account to the Richmond County Fire Department, a judge's retirement party, Josey High's championship basketball team and for the Mayor's Prayer Breakfast.

Splitting the discretionary fund will give commissioners an opportunity to help out various groups in their respective districts, Mr. Beard said Wednesday.

"They can do that instead of bringing it down here and hammering it out for an hour or more," said Mr. Beard, who has supported spending money from the discretionary fund each time an issue has come before the board this year.

No commissioner has consistently voted against spending from the discretionary fund. The only commissioner who comes close is Moses Todd, according to city records.

Mr. Todd abstained when the commission voted to give Josey High $2,000 for the basketball team. He's voted "no" on all the other requests.

"Some commissioners have used the money for pet projects, which is not appropriate," said Mr. Todd, who earlier this year pushed for a resolution requiring commissioners to vote on donating money from the discretionary fund.

Mr. Todd believes having a discretionary fund is illegal, he said.

Commissioner Jerry Brigham has been consistent in voting against spending from the fund. He's only supported spending $50 for the prayer breakfast.

"I didn't feel like the items we were spending money on were emergencies," Mr. Brigham said. "I didn't think $50 for the prayer breakfast would break the fund and I felt like some of them needed to be prayed over. I know the mayor needs it a good bit. He needs all the help he can get."

But that's not how the money should be used, other commissioners contend. The discretionary account should be treated as a contingency fund and the money in it should only be used in cases of emergency.

"It shouldn't be there at all. But since it's there, we should only use it as a contingency. That's the only way to get any money saved so we can return something to the treasury," said Commissioner Ulmer Bridges, who voted against giving money to Josey High.

Mr. Bridges voted against donating $3,000 to the fire department, but supported shelling out $400 to cater former Probate Judge Iree Pope's retirement party and $50 for the prayer breakfast.