The consolidation of Augusta and Richmond County a decade ago was supposed to save money.
It also was supposed to end the bickering between city of Augusta and Richmond County officials, which it did, only to be replaced with bickering on the Augusta Commission that continues to this day.
Follow the money
The city's general-fund budget has gone up since 1995, the year before consolidation when the combined budgets of the old city and Richmond County totaled $77 million.
In 2006, it is expected to cost $114.1 million to operate government departments such as the sheriff's office, engineering, recreation and finance. That's a 48 percent increase, of which only about 25 percent is attributable to inflation.
The number of employees has increased by 351 to 2,840, or 14 percent. Payroll costs since the first year of consolidation have increased by $23.1 million, or 39 percent, despite the reduction of 40 positions in the sanitation department in 1997, when the government began using contract haulers, and 45 more when the wastewater treatment plant was privatized. Finance and tax offices have lost 12 positions; public works 23 and recreation and cultural areas 44 employees.
Most of the employee growth has been in public safety and the judiciary, City Administrator Fred Russell said.
Public safety, which includes the sheriff's office, the emergency 911 center and the marshal's department, has grown by 246 employees. Staffing the public defenders office added about three-dozen more. Included in the public safety total are 97 employees who were added to open the Phinizy Road Jail in 1997.
Ralph Walker, a professor emeritus and director of the Research Center at Augusta State University, said employee growth is to be expected after any merger between two governments.
"People want to look and say we have more employees now than when we did when we consolidated," he said. "But look at the additional services they are supplying."
More hirings were in the works for next year, but Augusta Commission members refused to approve any of the budget-balancing proposals Mr. Russell presented that included either new hires or the 1.92 mill increase.
Instead, they decided on a 1.09 mill increase, employee layoffs and dipping once again into the city's emergency reserve funds.
Commissioners agreed to use $3.825 million of the reserves to pay for 8 percent employee raises next year, which will bring the reserves down to $17.47 million. That would leave the city with enough money to keep the government operating for 54 days, six days shy of the desired 60 days, city Finance Director David Persaud said.
Further use of reserves is almost certain, possibly to the tune of $2 million, because the mandated 6.9 percent cuts that were supposed to save $5 million this year have actually saved only $4 million, and the manpower savings plan in which non-emergency vacant positions were not filled for 120 days has saved only $2 million, not the planned $3 million.
Another $2 million drawdown would reduce the number of days the city could operate to 48.
Several years ago, the city had enough money in reserve to keep the government going for 90 days, but the reserves were used to balance this year's budget and the 2004 budget. Mr. Persaud has repeatedly warned city officials against raiding reserves. He contends that method of balancing the budget does not address the problem, which will be compounded the next year.
On a positive note
One financial situation that has improved since consolidation is long-term debt, with the exception of revenue-bond debt, which is paid by water and sewer and solid waste fees.
The city has $468 million in water and sewer revenue bonds and $11.6 million in solid waste revenue bonds. Other government debt was paid off in 2003.
In 1995, Richmond County owed $5 million in general obligation bonds and $9.2 million in Certificates of Participation, and the city of Augusta owed $2.6 million in general obligation bonds and $24.11 million in notes payable, all of which have been paid off, Mr. Persaud says.
Another area that has improved since consolidation is waterworks. Richmond County relied on well water and was never able to develop a system to draw water from the Savannah River and maximize development in south Augusta.
Consolidation and almost a half-billion in revenue bond money has allowed the city to access the river and get water to a new distribution plant on Tobacco Road.
In retrospect, the bickering between city of Augusta and Richmond County officials that was considered so detrimental might have been a good thing, says Charles DeVaney, the mayor of the old city of Augusta from 1984-96.
"In hindsight, what we probably did was push each other toward better government," he said. "Now there's no level of government setting a standard. Everybody's on their own. And hasn't that produced wonderful chaotic results?" referring to a recent walkout by four commissioners and then-interim Mayor Willie Mays, along with Monday's racially divisive meeting over proposed changes to the consolidation law.
The bickering between city and county officials did end when the city's charter expired Dec. 31, 1995.
But it wasn't long before the 10 members of the racially balanced Augusta Commission were squabbling among themselves, often dividing 5-5 along racial lines on significant issues with no resolution to no-action votes, which occur when a commissioner abstains or leaves the room to keep the mayor from voting to break a tie.
Many consider the legislation that created the government flawed, and the first attempt to change it began almost immediately with complaints by the new government's first mayor, Larry Sconyers, who said then and now, "Give the mayor some power or do away with the job."
Experts, beginning with the government's consolidation manager, Bill Carstarphen, said the problem lay in the city not having a true charter.
So in 2001, Mayor Bob Young formed the Augusta Charter Committee, a group that met for five months before disbanding after splitting along racial lines about whether to grant the mayor and administrator more decision-making power.
White committee members favored increases in power; black committee members wanted things to remain the same.
So after 10 years, three mayors and a half-dozen legislative efforts to reform the government by changing the consolidation law, the squabbling goes on.
Last week, in a racially charged meeting, proposals by Commissioner Andy Cheek to give the administrator hiring and firing power, give the mayor a veto and allow measures to pass by majority vote were effectively defeated with 5-4 votes.
Afterward, Mayor Pro Tem Marion Williams, who led the charge to defeat each measure, saying they were racially motivated, described the meeting as a good one.
Mr. DeVaney, however, said it illustrated how the consolidation law promotes bad government and that elected officials' refusal to fix it is "a great disservice.
"What I think it has done is hurt Augusta economically," he said. "It has hurt us politically. It has diminished our clout in state politics. And I certainly think when people look at meetings like this past Monday, they would probably prefer to move on to another city for an economic development where they don't have to deal with those types of tactics.
"You don't need barriers this day and time. Our competition for new business and industry and growing tax base should not be ourselves. I think we shoot ourselves in the foot with a meeting like that."
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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