A status report on $153.6 million in unspent money from the first four phases of Augusta's special purpose sales tax programs is out, to mixed reviews.
Augusta Commissioner Barbara Sims, who has been pushing for months for an accounting of projects from the earlier phases that have not been done and why, is somewhat satisfied with Administrator Fred Russell's report.
"I'm never 100 percent satisfied until I see 100 percent on everything and everything's done," she said. "So I'm satisfied. I'm pleased, and I think Fred's done a good job. It has taken him a long time, and it has not been easy."
Mrs. Sims said some things on Mr. Russell's one-page accounting will need to be explained in more detail.
Far less constrained in his remarks is Richmond County Republican Party Chairman Dave Barbee, who says it's a disgrace that a number of old projects have only 10 percent of the design work done after years on the drawing board. With voters facing a $160 million extension of the sales tax on the November ballot, he sees a need to re-prioritize some of the old projects and finish them.
"Where I see the problem is making sure that the people in Richmond County have confidence in the commission and mayor, this mayor or the next mayor," he said. "It doesn't make any difference if they will make sure these projects get completed. You can't do them all at one time. You have to prioritize these projects. The thing is we're collecting money, but we're not getting anything back for it. We're not finishing anything."
Mr. Russell said the unfinished projects could be re-prioritized but that would be a decision for commissioners.
"If the design is only 10 percent complete, and you want to use the balance to do something else, that's fine," he said. "But what do you tell the people that live on Bel Air Road that want their road fixed?"
Lowell Greenbaum, Richmond County Democratic Party chairman, said he needs more detail about the money for specific projects in some categories of sales-tax projects before commenting.
The status report, Mr. Russell said, shows that the city has done a good job of building recreation centers and fire stations.
"That's pretty simple," he said. "You buy a piece of land, you put a building on it, and it's over. And those dollars are established and explained fairly well. We've got other dollars sitting there waiting for things to happen."
The controversy stems primarily from about $99 million in unfinished road and drainage projects that until a few months ago were entirely under the supervision of Public Works Director Teresa Smith.
"And it's a little different to build a road than it is to build a building," Mr. Russell said. "To build a building you have to put together one, two, three pieces of property. To build a road, you might have to touch 50 pieces of property. There's a lot of hassles there - the design, the construction, working with the Georgia Department of Transportation."
Some of the projects are awaiting DOT funds or Army Corps of Engineers studies and matching dollars, he said.
Mr. Barbee said Mr. Russell "has done a yeoman's job in trying to straighten out a mess that's 20 years old." He is, however, critical of the status report.
"The sad thing is he don't have any help," he said. "And we've got $150 million in projects reduced to the front and back on a sheet of paper. If you give me enough time and enough regulations and bureaucratic baloney, I can hide an elephant."
Mr. Barbee said voters will be hard pressed to approve the sales-tax extension in November because of the unspent $153.5 million.
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