Originally created 07/31/05

Leader promises tax answers



Augusta Commission members should get some of their questions answered about why the city has $152 million on hand from the four previous special purpose local option sales tax issues this week and why many projects have not been completed, according to City Administrator Fred Russell.

Commissioners will meet at 3 p.m. Wednesday to get that information, without which some of them, including Commissioner Barbara Sims, say they will not vote for Mr. Russell's $139.9 million sales tax proposal or any other.

Mrs. Sims has repeatedly asked for an accounting of money on hand, which projects have been completed and which have not. Previous attempts by city staffers to answer her questions have been less than satisfactory. But Mr. Russell said this time he thinks it will be different. He and staffers will provide the details she's been looking for.

"What we will be doing Wednesday is saying specifically what the money is designated for," he said. "We'll hit the major projects."

Much of the $152 million is tied up in ongoing projects, most of them public works projects. Many of these take years to coordinate with other agencies, such as the state Department of Transportation, to acquire rights of way, design, engineer and build.

"If I've got $5 million planned to do Wrightsboro Road, the issue isn't that I haven't spent it. It's that I'm waiting for somebody else to match the dollars or the project's in the planning phases," Mr. Russell said.

"You know how long it took them to build the interstate (Bobby Jones Expressway into South Carolina) here. That stuff doesn't happen overnight. And you've got to have the money. You don't want to tell the state, 'OK, we've got $5 million bucks to do this,' and then after they say OK, you don't have the $5 million bucks. So there's a planning process there, the engineering and all that other stuff that's required."

At the meeting, Mr. Russell will explain that of the $2.02 million remaining in the recreation and parks account, $150,000 is still going toward Diamond Lakes Regional Park, which is still under construction, and $70,000 is for playground improvements at the Lock and Dam Park, among other projects.

Of the $4.8 million remaining for public safety projects, $1.5 million is for fire station 15 at Flowing Wells Road, which hasn't cleared the books. The station will be opening Aug. 5 at a cost of $1.64 million.

"What I'm attempting to do is to show if it sounds like we've got money sitting in a bank, but we don't," he said. "We've got money designated. And whenever you take a look at the dollars, you take a snapshot of where projects and money are that day."

The largest pool of unspent money - $99.23 million - is in roads and drainage.

"We'll be giving the rationale for the major projects that are under design, under construction or waiting for state matching dollars," Mr. Russell said. "Or the question could end up being, 'If it was a good idea then, is it still a good idea now? Is that still something we want to do? Do we have enough money to complete it? And if we don't have enough money to complete it, is that something that we want to change?'"

Commissioners can use the money for another project in that category but cannot shift it from one to another, such as from roads and drainage to public safety.

The big bank account in roads and drainage money is the reason Mr. Russell said he only included $11 million for such projects in his latest sales tax proposal.

"And doing that is not going to stop work," he said. "It's not going to stop progress, but there's no need to have a big pot of money there that we're not going to spend for three or four years anyway."