Originally created 08/25/04

With days to go, tax wish list is growing

The devil is in the details of creating a special purpose local option sales tax referendum, and for Augusta commissioners, everything is a detail.

The board met for six hours Tuesday, after a marathon 10-hour meeting Monday, during which they tried to pare down a list of requested projects to $386.4 million, the amount the Phase 5 tax is expected to bring in if approved by voters in November. But instead of paring the list, they continued to add projects, so by the end of Tuesday's meeting the running total stood at $579.2 million, prompting Commissioner Bobby Hankerson to ask when they were going to start "capping and cutting."

"We're only going to do $380 million, so we've got to cap off the projects," he said.

The problem is that each commissioner has a different idea about which projects should be capped and cut. Another is they have not figured out a methodology for capping and cutting.

Commissioner Betty Beard proposed that after funding the projects that would benefit the entire county, the remaining money could be divided equally for projects among the districts.

Mayor Pro Tem Willie Mays said that might not work because the needs in some commission districts are greater than in others.

"It may not be able to be even-Steven across the board," he said.

But Commissioner Jimmy Smith agreed with Mrs. Beard.

"We need to accomplish something," he said. "Up to this point, we haven't accomplished much."

Late in the day, at the urging of interim City Administrator Fred Russell, the board began compiling a "Straw List 2," a list of projects all tentatively agreed should go on the sales-tax referendum. However, the second straw list did not include any of the projects that have triggered disagreements among commissioners.

For example, it did not include almost $230 million of requested public works projects; $43.3 million of recreation projects; $55 million for the proposed $75 million judicial center; $60 million for a sports and entertainment center at Regency Mall; or $25 million for an amphitheater at Diamond Lakes Park.

Commissioner Andy Cheek renewed his call to cut $20 million from the $55 million requested in Phase 5 in order to cap judicial center costs at $60 million.

"I've heard a lot of lip service up here today," he said, referring to the proposed center as a "sacred cow."

The lack of progress has some commissioners mumbling that they will never meet their Friday deadline for completing the list and approving a resolution that must by law be advertised in the newspaper by Sept. 3, 60 days before the date it would go before voters.

Commissioners did agree on the second straw poll to spend $72.2 million on public facilities, such as two new pods at the Phinizy Road jail, two new fire stations and a fire and emergency training center, along with a racetrack in south Augusta.

They quickly backed off considerations to build new jail pods to replace the joint law enforcement center at 401 Walton Way after Facilities Director Rick Acree told them to do so would cost between $30 million and $40 million, compared with an estimated $9.56 million to maintain the current facility over the next 10 years.

They agreed only on $32.2 million of the requested $247 million of infrastructure and equipment requests and only $44.5 million of the $186,050 million quality of life projects.

The second straw poll deleted Mrs. Beard's last-minute $24 million inner-city transformation proposal, but it will be discussed later this week, and Mrs. Beard said she believes it will be approved.

Hephzibah and Blythe would also get their piece of the sales-tax pie. Hephzibah would receive $4.54 million for improvements to its water system and $2 million for a new fire station. Blythe would receive $1.9 million for improvement projects and $2.4 million for a new fire station.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylvia.cooper@augustachronicle.com.


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