Originally created 12/12/04

When officials meet, taxpayers beware



The Richmond County legislative delegation met last week for the first time since June when then-delegation Chairman Sen. Don Cheeks adjourned the meeting in a huff after they couldn't agree on procedure.

The lawmakers, sans Mr. Cheeks, met Tuesday to elect officers and later with Augusta commissioners. On Wednesday, it was the Richmond County School Board's turn, then on Thursday night, the public's.

It was all a kick in the head.

Here's a peek at some of the things commissioners, school trustees and legislators have in mind for you taxpayers:

 •  Raising emergency 911 fees to $2 per month per phone from the current $1.50

 •  Doubling the mayor's $60,000 salary

 •  Doubling commissioners' $12,000 salaries

 •  Eliminating term limits for commissioners or putting term limits on school board members

 •  Removing the local cap on school property taxes

 •  Removing or reducing the school property-tax exemption for people 65 and older.

What They Say: "I did not put the word 'double' out there, but I will say I will work hard to make sure there is a raise for the mayor," said Rep. Henry Howard. "The commissioners should get a raise as well."

Insiders say the proposed raise is not meant for Mayor Bob Young but for his successor, whoever that might be. And Mr. Young said he certainly hasn't asked that his pay be doubled.

As for eliminating term limits, Richmond County Republican Party Chairman Dave Barbee said: "Rather than a servant's job, they want to make it a career. And that means if they get somebody in there young, they'll stay until they die."

Maybe we'll go first. We can only hope.

Of course, the hottest topics are uncapping the school property tax and doing away with the over-65 exemption. The latter would bring in between $1.9 million and $3 million more in taxes, said the city's chief tax appraiser, Sonny Reece.

There are two opposing opinions on the school tax proposals, as articulated by Democrat Rep. Quincy Murphy and Republican Rep. Sue Burmeister.

"It costs $200 per day, per child to keep a kid in YDC for 180 days, the amount of time he should be in school each year," Mr. Murphy said. "If you factor that over 180 days, that's $36,000. We're spending between $6,900 to $7,200 to educate a child for that same period of time.

"Somewhere, we've got to shift our emphasis from incarcerating our kids to educating them."

"I hear that all the time," said Mrs. Burmeister. "If we spend the money, we won't have the YDC problem. Let me tell you, there are a whole bunch of parents out there that are enabling these children to do what is inappropriate. There are no structures. No rules. Can we legislate that? No. You cannot legislate anything to get parents to do the right thing. And there's only so much people can continue to pay in taxes."

WHOSE RULES DO THEY USE? The lawmakers elected Mr. Howard chairman; Mr. Murphy vice chairman; Rep. Pete Warren secretary; and Mrs. Burmeister, the lone Republican in the bunch, treasurer as delegation officers.

Sen.-elect Charles Walker, who nominated Mr. Howard, had to straighten him out about the rules. Mr. Howard was conducting the meeting using House rules, which Mr. Walker said did not apply to the Senate.

"We can't be governed by the House rules," Mr. Walker said. "We need the delegation rules."

So Mr. Howard did what any experienced official does in an awkward moment: He appointed a committee to look at the rules.

"EVERYBODY WANTS TO KICK US. NOBODY WANTS TO PAT US ON THE BACK.": That was the theme of Augusta commissioners when the lawmakers met with them. Commissioner Marion Williams actually said those words afterward, but others said it in different words during the meeting.

We love you, Commissioner Andy Cheek, but this whining about bad publicity needs to stop. Don't you know yet that "Dog bites man" is not news but "Man bites dog" is?

Just do what Mr. Howard told you to do at the meeting: "Don't bicker publicly."

No fun in that, though.

THE MAN WHO SLAPPED THE BEEHIVE AND BRAGS ABOUT IT: Woody Merry, the founder of the Citizens Action Committee, keeps on showing up to cold receptions and cold shoulders. They wouldn't let him speak at the joint commission-delegation meeting. He said he just came to invite them to a public forum he and Mr. Cheek are emceeing at Augusta State University at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Mr. Howard told him he'd pass the word to the other members of the delegation but couldn't guarantee they'd come.

That's an understatement. Only he and Mr. Murphy showed up Thursday for their own meeting with members of the public, one of whom was Mr. Merry. Mr. Howard told him he would have to pare down his presentation to 10 minutes, just like the other half-dozen citizens there.

"If my own preacher preached an hour, I wouldn't be sitting under him," Mr. Howard said. "I'm not willing to last that long, but I'm willing to see what you've got."

Mr. Merry said his group has calculated the city will go bankrupt in five years. And that's without taking inflation into account, he said.

He said he has found one industry that maximizes every asset Augusta has and will spawn economic recovery like nobody's business.

"In 1840, a man named Henry H. Cumming came up with an economic plan to save our people when our city was dying when the rails took trade away from the Savannah River," he said.

Mr. Merry wants to do the same.

DISCOVERY STARTS IN JANUARY: And you can be sure that the indicted Mr. Walker and his lawyers will be carefully watching former Democrat state Sen. Van Streat Sr.'s suit against Richard S. Thompson, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, as it makes its way through U.S. District Court in Augusta.

Mr. Streat, from Nicholls in southeast Georgia, was subjected to state indictment and federal investigation in 2002 on allegations that he helped a convicted murderer move to a different prison in exchange for campaign contributions. The charges were dismissed later that year by a special prosecutor who found no merit in the criminal charges.

A few days later, Mr. Thompson issued a news release that stated he had filed three Open Records Act requests to further investigate Mr. Streat and any possible connection between that special prosecutor and the governor, who was also a Democrat.

Mr. Thompson resigned in January, and the Office of Professional Responsibility rebuked him publicly for the news release. Mr. Streat filed suit in October, accusing Mr. Thompson of malicious use of privilege.

Mr. Walker was under investigation by federal prosecutors in Mr. Thompson's office at the time of the resignation, and contends the moving force behind the investigation that led to his 142-count indictment was political and involved former Sen. Don Cheeks and Mr. Thompson.

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



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