Originally created 06/08/06

Stop the financial nosedives

Admitting you've got a problem is half the battle.

Are Richmond County officials ready to fight the other half?

Both the Augusta Commission and the Richmond County Board of Education are deficit spending - by the millions.

The school board's proposed budget would spend $3 million of the district's reserves - leaving $11 million, which would run the schools for about two weeks.

The Augusta Commission has been knowingly spending down the consolidated city-county government's reserves for several years now - and the current budget is in the red by nearly $5 million. The reserve fund, at $29 million in January 2002, has bled down to $15 million.

Moreover, both entities have tapped out taxpayers: Even if taxpayers were inclined to hand over more money, the school budget raises property taxes to the highest level allowed by law.

And real estate values in Augusta aren't going to produce a deus ex machina: values, and therefore tax receipts, are expected to remain flat.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver argues that the best solution is growth, and he rightly laments the commission's failure Tuesday to approve an $80 million condominium project on riverfront property downtown that might have brought in $1 million a year in tax revenues for six years.

"To ultimately overcome our current budget situation, we absolutely must grow our tax base. There is no other long term solution," Copenhaver says.

He's right, of course. But growth of any magnitude won't occur until our elected leaders pull the county out of its financial nosedive. You can't attract much growth while maxing out on taxes and still spending more than you have coming in.

Mayor Copenhaver suggests a "deficit think tank" of local financial experts to consult with several commissioners on how to pull out of the tailspin. That's all well and good, and is certainly worth a try. But the Augusta Commission has a pretty poor track record of taking good advice - even from its own committees. A few years ago, for instance, a blue-ribbon citizens panel worked diligently to compose a fine list of needed projects for a sales tax initiative - a package of projects that could have energized the city's core and transformed the skyline - but commissioners pretty much tore it up and made their own list, which was roundly defeated at the polls.

And, anyway, didn't we elect a few think tanks in the form of Augusta commissioners and Board of Education members?

Isn't it their jobs to take care of this mess?


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