Originally created 03/08/06

Drag strip study OK'd; Smith cut from payroll

For Augusta commissioners Tuesday it was all about money. They decided to spend it to study a drag strip, to quit spending it to keep fired public works director Teresa Smith on the payroll, and to tell downtown panhandlers to quit asking for it or they'll go to jail.

Commissioners voted 8-2, with Commissioners Jerry Brigham and Jimmy Smith voting no, to authorize City Administrator Fred Russell to spend $25,000 to tell them whether a drag strip would be economically feasible, where to put it and how to pay for building it.

Commissioner Jimmy Smith's motion to delay authorizing a study until City Attorney Stephen Shepard could determine whether building a drag strip on the proposed site off Mike Padgett Highway would be legal failed with only Mr. Smith, Jerry Brigham and Don Grantham voting for it.

Mr. Smith has received information from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Historic Preservation Division concerning two old cemeteries on the proposed 1,700-acre site that could bar construction of a drag strip there. Mr. Shepard said he could issue a ruling by Monday, but arguments about building something to bring people and money to Augusta prevailed.

Mr. Smith said he was shocked to learn that businessmen on the board would vote to spend $25,000 before Mr. Shepard could rule on the legality of the south Augusta site. The study, however, will not be limited to that site but will evaluate other possible sites.

Mayor Pro Tem Marion Williams withdrew his motion to authorize the study and then proceed with building the track if the study was favorable to it after Mr. Russell said that would be premature and he did not feel comfortable with the idea.

After a closed-door session that Mr. Williams and J.R. Hatney left early, commissioners voted 6-1 to take fired engineering department director Teresa Smith off the payroll Friday.

Commissioner Calvin Holland voted against the motion, and Commissioner Richard Colclough abstained.

Commissioners fired Mrs. Smith on Dec. 19 and placed her on administrative leave with pay until a severance package could be worked out, but the board couldn't agree on the issue, which left her on the payroll while the city staff attorney negotiated with her and her lawyer.

"We voted to cut the money off because the demands her attorney is making are unreasonable," Mr. Smith said. "So it's going to have to go to legal."

Mr. Grantham said there is a possibility a severance package might still be in the offing.

Commissioners also approved an ordinance to make aggressive panhandling a criminal offense in the downtown area and around Armstrong Galleria on Laney-Walker Boulevard.

After six months, the number of arrests and the impact on jail overcrowding will be evaluated. If the results warrant, the ordinance could be expanded to other specific areas.

The ordinance cannot be applied throughout the entire county because it would not withstand a constitutional challenge, Mr. Shepard said.

The ordinance was approved 9-1 with only Mr. Williams voting no.

Other commissioners who spoke against the ordinance were swayed to vote for it when the Galleria area was included.

Afterward, Sheriff Ronnie Strength said the ordinance will create added financial burdens for his department and county taxpayers alike. But the new law will be enforced.

"It's a double-edged sword. If you give them (panhandlers) a citation to go to court, they won't have the money to pay. Then we'll issue a bench warrant for their arrest. They go to jail, then to court to be fined but unable to pay the fine. Then they're back in jail. Which creates more overcrowding for us," he said.

With inmate medical expenses costing $3.5 million in 2005, Sheriff Strength said many panhandlers have medical conditions that must be addressed while incarcerated at the Law Enforcement Center.

He does not plan to increase police staffing, but will shift deputies from other beats to curtail the panhandling problem on Broad Street.

He said business owners and patrons alike should be assured that his deputies will enforce the law.

"It's a problem that needs addressed. Downtown merchants and patrons don't want people coming to them asking for money," said Sheriff Strength.

The ordinance and another that changes the way distances are measured from bars and lounges from churches or synagogues for permitting purposes in the downtown business district must be read a second time to become law.

New applications for alcoholic beverage licenses will be subject to distance requirements of 300 feet measured from the main entrance of the applicant's building to the main entrance of a structure originally built as a place of worship instead of from the property line.

Any structure in the district not originally built as a place of worship will not be considered in applying distance requirements in issuing alcohol licenses, except for those already being used for that purpose.

Commissioners also approved Mayor Deke Copenhaver's request to have city staff identify 10 of the city's most marketable properties to sell at auction as a stop-gap measure to help with the city's current projected budget shortfall.

Staff Writer Timothy Cox contributed to this article.

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


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