Mr. Copenhaver's declaration that the law is flawed and needs to be revised internally by commissioners and an independent source but without the help of local legislators came during his annual State of the City address.
"In essence, our consolidated government is one that was founded upon mistrust and continues to breed mistrust to this very day," he said. "All too often this has been made a political issue by power brokers who have sought to either protect or further their own personal interests with little consideration given to pursuing what is in the best interest of the community as a whole."
State Sen. Ed Tarver, D-Augusta, said that under the home rule provision, commissioners could revise the consolidation law if they have the required six votes. However, he said he was surprised when he heard about the mayor's plans because the local delegation had asked him before this legislative session whether there were any issues he needed to discuss with them, and the mayor said no.
Mr. Tarver said changing the law is a major issue that affects the city and everyone in it.
"I don't think you can get any bigger issues than changing the charter," he said.
Mr. Copenhaver said revision is needed because the current system of government has little centralized authority or accountability.
"For any organization to run at maximum efficiency, there must be a clear-cut chain of command, which currently does not exist within our local government," he said.
Mr. Copenhaver said it is not just the mayor's powers he is concerned with but every aspect of the law and the city's ordinances. He said commissioners will go on retreat in a few weeks and could begin a review.
Previous mayors, since consolidation, have tried without success to get the law changed.
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.
In his State of the City speech at the Botanical Gardens, Mr. Copenhaver stressed the city's progress and economic growth in 2007 and predicted more of the same. He also warned that Augusta must fight to keep its Savannah River water supply from being raided.
New businesses, construction and job growth boosted the city's tax digest by 6 percent and helped the city avert a projected $4 million deficit and create a $2 million surplus last year, the mayor said.
"We have seen our SPLOST 5 sales tax collections exceed projections by $4.5 million, while at the same time our hotel-motel tax revenues are up by more than 10 percent," Mr. Copenhaver said.
To protect the Savannah River water supply, Augusta must continue to make its voice heard in Atlanta and "state clearly that growth should follow the resource as opposed to allowing unsustainable growth in other parts of the state serve as a detriment to our city's future," the mayor said.
He said he has joined forces with the medical, business and education communities and nonprofit sector to reduce the city's 20 percent poverty rate by 3 percent during the next three years. The tangible signs of progress are everywhere and the momentum the city is experiencing will not be turned back, he said.
Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING:
STATE SEN. ED TARVER:
"I don't think you can get any bigger issues than changing the charter. So I think he would include the delegation in any discussion of changing it. I think it would be appropriate to include the delegation."
MAYOR PRO TEM BETTY BEARD:
"I'm open to discussing those type things. I don't see a problem with what he stated."
COMMISSIONER DON GRANTHAM:
"I think after 12 years there needs to be some revision. I don't think any document has proved to be perfect, even our Constitution that has been amended many times. I think the mayor needs a veto or a vote. The commission needs a majority vote. And we need to look at giving the administrator more power than he has right now."
COMMISSIONER CALVIN HOLLAND:
"I can't make an intelligent response until I sit down and discuss this with the mayor."
COMMISSIONER JIMMY SMITH:
"It should involve the legislators. I don't know how far it would go. I don't know how far it would get on the commission, but it would have my vote."
STATE OF THE CITY
As I come before you today to address the State of our City, I can state beyond a shadow of a doubt that Augusta has now begun to fully realize its vast potential as we have undoubtedly turned the corner towards a bright and prosperous future together. Where once there were dreams and visions of what Augusta could become, there are now tangible signs all around us of the City that Augusta is becoming. Where once we were a community all too often confronting self doubt towards our future, we are now a city growing in self-confidence as we have witnessed first hand just what Augusta is capable of when people from all walks of life work together towards a common goal. As our economic development and job creation efforts have propelled this community forward, so too has our renewed and strengthened commitment to community redevelopment as we have now dedicated the necessary resources to ensure that the needs of the lowest income areas of our city will go unmet no longer. There is still much work to be done and there are pockets of those who would seek to cling to the politics and practices of the past to overcome, but our course has been set and there is no turning back as we forge on towards the day when Augusta will serve as a model for other cities throughout this nation to follow. Ladies and gentlemen, today we stand in an Augusta that we can all be proud to call home.
Over the past year, we have made vast strides towards addressing the needs of all of our citizens while establishing a community wide vision for the advancement of our city. Our progressive efforts to continue to grow our tax base by the recruitment of new industry, while at the same time encouraging expansion for our local businesses, have been recognized throughout the Southeast and at the national level as well. From an economic development standpoint, 2007 was nothing short of an exceptional year for our City. In March of last year, T-Mobile announced that it would be bringing 750 new jobs and an 80,000 square foot facility to Augusta. The newly completed facility now stands a testament to the company's commitment to our community and the work place provided by one of our city's newest corporate citizens reflects the progressive mindset of the company itself, providing employees with everything from a fully equipped work out facility with men's and women's locker rooms to a fully modern game room for break time.
Later in the month of March, ground was broken for the new half a billion dollar National Security Agency facility at Fort Gordon. Upon completion, it is estimated that the new facility will house over 4000 people and create 1000 new jobs in our local market. I cannot stress enough that this serves as one more example of the integral role Fort Gordon plays in our community not only as a community partner, but as a driving economic engine as well.
In July, we once again saw significant progress in our job creation efforts as Automated Data Processing held the grand opening of their new offices on Steven's Creek Road. Representatives of ADP, a Fortune 300 company, stated emphatically at the opening how impressed they continued to be with the quality our labor force and that they were well underway towards hiring 1000 new employees in our market place. Just last week, ADP took another significant step forward towards becoming a cornerstone of Augusta's economy when company representatives broke ground on a 160,000 square foot solutions center. During the event, it was noted several times that Augusta and our marketplace continue to exceed the company's expectations. I know that I speak for the entire community in stating that we look forward to a strong working relationship with ADP for many years to come.
This past October, I was invited to tour Martin-Marietta's Augusta facility and see firsthand the progress they are making with their $50 million expansion. It should be of great encouragement to the citizens of this community to know that the company has focused on this investment providing them the opportunity to remain in Augusta for the next fifty years
In December, ESi, a global leader in crisis information management technology, held the dedication of their new world headquarters in the National Exchange Bank building at 823 Broad Street. In addressing the crowd gathered for the event, company leaders stressed their commitment to Augusta and to being a strong partner in our ongoing downtown redevelopment efforts. The restoration of the building is nothing short of remarkable with ESi's efforts recently garnering the company a preservation award from Historic Augusta.
Our retail sector received a tremendous boost in 2007 when the new Augusta Mall Promenade held its ribbon cutting in November just in time for the holidays. During the ceremony, representatives from General Growth Properties stressed their confidence in making such a significant investment into the Augusta marketplace and their commitment to our City and its future. The project will no doubt become a regional draw, thus bringing sales tax dollars into our local economy from surrounding communities.
The past year has also seen a wave of investment in our medical infrastructure. From Triad's purchase of St. Joseph's Hospital to form Trinity Hospital to ongoing local expansion projects at University Hospital, the Medical College of Georgia and Doctor's Hospital, Augusta will undoubtedly continue to be known as having one of the finest medical communities in the southeast for generations to come.
The economic activity outlined above, along with a multitude of other projects, has helped spur a six percent growth in Augusta's tax digest over the past year. The growth, coupled with sound fiscal management by our local government, helped lead us from a projected $4 million deficit to a $2 million surplus which allowed us the opportunity to begin replenishing much needed reserve fund balance. We have also seen our SPLOST V sales tax collections exceed projections by $4.5 million, while at the same time our hotel/motel tax revenues are up by more than 10% over the previous year.
In January of this year, for the second straight year the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business predicted our local economy to grow faster than the state's economy. Though such a prediction should not be taken as an opportunity to rest on our laurels as talk of a national recession continues throughout the nation, we, as a city, should take this as sound evidence of a healthy local economy on which to build our city's future.
As we look towards future economic development opportunities, it is of the utmost importance that we focus not only on business recruitment on a national level, but on the international level as well. Augusta has the distinction of having an internationally known brand name in being the home of both the Masters Golf Tournament and James Brown, the legendary Godfather of Soul. I was recently asked to serve on the Georgia Chamber of Commerce's International Development Committee and readily agreed to do so as it is my firm belief that Augusta should be an active participant in the global economy. The Committee was formed in order to recruit more international investment throughout the state of Georgia and I believe Augusta will benefit greatly from this forward thinking and visionary endeavor.
Over the past year, our local government has taken several progressive steps that show not only a commitment to improving the current conditions of our community, but also reflect a vision for Augusta's future. In July of last year, the Commission approved our City's first Business Improvement District. The results of this action, brought about by the dedicated work of the Downtown Development Authority's Margaret Woodard and a team of stellar volunteers, will begin to show this month as our City Center will be cleaned up like never before. The addition of ambassadors to direct visitors and residents alike to local attractions, increased bicycle patrolmen and street cleaners in caddy attire atop golf carts will no doubt continue to build on an increasing sense of pride in downtown and beyond.
The approval of our new Trade and Exhibit Center by Commissioners in August not only provided for a venue which will allow Augusta to compete in drawing conventions and visitors to our city for years to come, but also dedicated $37.5 million to much needed community redevelopment efforts for our historic inner-city neighborhoods that have been neglected for far too long.
The newly completed terminal at Augusta Regional Airport stands as a testament to the progress we, as a city, are making and I applaud the can-do attitude exhibited by our Aviation Commission in their seeing this project through to completion. Just two weeks ago, literally thousands of people turned out on a cold and blustery day for the Grand Opening Ceremony to see what can only be described as a truly state of the art facility. The enthusiasm exhibited by the crowd was something to behold and the sense of civic pride from those gathered was palpable. The speakers, including Senator Saxby Chambliss and Congressman John Barrow, did a great job of letting people know how much this project means to our community as the development of transportation infrastructure is key to our future economic growth. Cedric Johnson, our Aviation Commission Chair, did a wonderful job in stressing that this project was a true team effort that was delivered on time and on budget. Mr. Johnson also stressed that the completed project shows what can be accomplished when a diverse group of individuals come together to work towards a common goal. Our Aviation Commission, Buster Boshears, Dianne Johnston, McKnight Construction and all involved in this project are to be highly commended for their can-do attitude and for their unwavering commitment to moving Augusta forward
This same spirit has been exemplified by the Downtown Stadium Exploratory Committee in our ongoing efforts to develop a new riverfront multi-use entertainment facility to play host to Augusta Greenjacket's baseball and a multitude of other community events. As we stand here together in the newly re-opened Augusta Botanical Gardens, I cannot help but imagine the positive attention that a facility of this type, attached to these gardens now open for all to enjoy, would bring to our city. I know that our entire committee looks forward with anticipation to the completion of the feasibility study, funded completely by private donations, in a matter of days. I would like to personally thank all those serving on the Committee as their unwavering dedication to providing Augusta with a project that will certainly serve as a source of community pride for generations to come continues to serve as a source of inspiration to myself and many others.
Another hopeful sign for building a better future for Augusta is a significant increase in volunteerism throughout our City. Volunteer clean-up crews have been organized by local citizens throughout our community and their work is reaping dividends from the banks of our Savannah River to the permanently protected greenspace of Butler Creek. I cannot overemphasize just how much that this type of civic mindedness means to our City as we see citizens from all walks of life display a renewed willingness to simply role their sleeves up and get their hands dirty in service to Augusta. This sense of a volunteering spirit is especially apparent in our younger generation of Augustans as teenagers and twenty somethings compromise a large portion of these efforts. Getting our younger generation involved has always been a goal of mine and seeing their enthusiasm and optimism should be something that excites all Augustans.
We are currently standing in the midst of another fine example of what a selfless can-do attitude can do for our city. As we have gathered here in these Gardens which are now open to all citizens free of charge, I would like to take a moment to recognize Tom Beck, Daryll Bennett and the rest of our Parks and Recreation staff. It is through their hard work and dedication that we have been able to re-open this sight as truly public gardens and they deserve a round of applause for their efforts.
The most recent election cycle has provided for a youthful new look to the Augusta-Richmond County Commission as we move into the coming year. Having had the opportunity to work with our newly elected Commissioners Corey Johnson, Joe Jackson and Alvin Mason, I can assure our citizens that all have expressed a strong commitment to building on the momentum Augusta is currently experiencing and working together to the benefit our community as a whole. A concrete example of just how your Augusta Commission is working together took place at a meeting held just last month. In a vote that received little attention, but that I feel served as a historic moment for setting the tone of local government for years to come, the Commission unanimously approved the award of the contract to proceed on our new Judicial Center. I applaud this Commission on its vision and we look forward to breaking ground on this long overdue project this year.
As our City enters into a period of unprecedented growth, we must continue to strive to bring prosperity and hope to all areas of Augusta. I have often said that my vision for our City stems from a holistic approach to community building. Although our focus on economic development and job creation is important, a single-minded focus of this sector of our local community, though our efforts may be fruitful, would ultimately leave our City no better off than we have been in the past. In essence, a community is only as strong as its weakest link and I have stated clearly and unequivocally since taking office that we must constantly focus our time, our talent and our resources on community redevelopment. In 2007, this government approved the largest investment in community redevelopment that Augusta has ever seen by approving a dedicated funding source to go towards the redevelopment of our historic inner-city neighborhoods. In approving a one dollar increase in our hotel/motel room fees while approving our new Trade and Exhibit Center, we have set the stage for returning these historic neighborhoods to their former grandeur.
During the month of January, we were able to see strong examples of Augusta's renewed and strengthening commitment to community redevelopment as several families became a part of the American dream by purchasing new homes in the Laney-Walker area. I would like to take a moment to applaud the efforts of the Laney-Walker Development Corporation and Antioch Ministries as their efforts to provide homeownership opportunities in our city center led to a wonderful start to the year for these families. I would be remiss if I did not take particular note of the fact that Ms. Patsy Cooper, the proud owner of a new home, was an eighteen year resident of Gilbert Manor.
In speaking of our community redevelopment efforts, I must also recognize Mr. Chester Wheeler, our Housing and Community Development Director. Since taking the position last year, Chester has proven to be a godsend to Augusta through his vision, his work ethic and his commitment to improving the lives of residents throughout the city. Augusta is blessed to have a man of this caliber in this key position as we begin to transform our inner city into a place that the residents can be proud to call home.
Although we have made significant strides forward in addressing the needs of the least of these throughout our community, there is still much work to be done. Our poverty rate continues to hover around 20%, which should be unacceptable to the citizens of this community. In addressing this issue, we must focus on many factors including housing, easily available and affordable medical attention and education. Having had the opportunity to establish a strong relationship with Dr. Dana Bedden, our new school superintendant, I can assure you that he shares my concerns and we have begun discussions on how best we can work together to help address the issue. In order to have a significant and strategic impact on those living below the poverty line in this community, we must have in place a coordinated effort with representatives from our local government, our medical community, our business community, our education community and our nonprofit sector. It is now my intention to call together the leadership of these sectors to coordinate all of our ongoing efforts in order to achieve my stated goal of reducing our local poverty rate by three percent in the next three years. I have full confidence that, working together, we will be able to achieve this goal.
We, as a region, are currently ranked third in the state in our reported HIV/Aids cases. Over the past year two years, I have been blessed to work with Ms. Sandra Wimberly of the Richmond County Health Department in an ongoing effort to raise awareness on this issue throughout our community as we must strive to remove the stigma from the disease in order to stop its rampant spread. Organizations such as St. Stephen's Ministries should be applauded for their tireless efforts to bring comfort and dignity to the lives of countless individuals and families living with HIV/Aids. I believe that these efforts, and the efforts of dedicated citizens and officials throughout our region, will ultimately lead not only to a better state wide ranking, but also a better quality of life for our citizens infected with this insidious disease.
Augusta is blessed to be located on a clean and abundant water resource in the Savannah River. As the state Water Plan is being addressed in this year's legislative session, we must remember that the battle to ensure that Augusta is able to sustain our current growth levels while maintaining adequate water resources to provide for our region is far from over. We must continue to make our voices heard in Atlanta when we state clearly and emphatically that growth should follow the resource as opposed to allowing unsustainable growth in other parts of the state to serve as a detriment to our City's future.
As a City government, we must also commit ourselves to working with the Medical College of Georgia in their ongoing expansion efforts. This institution in one of our City's strongest assets and I know that to help them in any way possible is to serve the best interests of the citizens of Augusta and the entire region.
In order to continue our ongoing efforts to address crime in a proactive manner, our City government must continue to strive to give our Sheriff's Department the tools necessary to attack the problem head on. As evidenced by the recent Augusta Inc. operation, our men and women in uniform are fully committed to providing local citizens with a safe environment to live in and their efforts in serving us under difficult circumstances are to be commended.
As we move forward as a City, we must also continually address the need for our local government to run more efficiently and effectively. After twelve years of consolidation, it is my firm belief that it is now time to thoroughly review our city's charter as I have seen first hand over the past two years the difficulties that working upon the foundation of a flawed document can cause on a daily basis. In essence, our consolidated government is one that was founded upon mistrust and continues to breed mistrust to this very day. All too often this has been made a political issue by powerbrokers who have sought to either protect or further their own personal interests with little consideration given to pursuing what is in the best interest of the community as a whole. It is my firm belief that we must now take the politics out of it and review the document from top to bottom internally letting common sense, and not raw emotion, be our guide. Our current system of government, when looked at from a logical and unbiased perspective, is one that has very little centralized authority and thus very little centralized accountability. For any organization to run at maximum efficiency, there must be a clear cut chain of command which currently does not exist within our local government. As with any business, it is simply time to review our business plan and to study the operation of governments of similar size throughout our region and to adopt the principles which they have found to be successful.
Though we, as all cities, have difficulties to overcome, let there be no doubt that the tangible signs of progress stand all around us and the momentum our city is now experiencing will not be turned back. I have stated time and again that my goal is for Augusta to become the most thriving mid-sized City in the Southeast and my belief that this will come to pass remains unwavering. In closing, let me clearly state that the days of the City we love being held back by the voices of individuals who would stand to further their own personal agendas above the greater good of the community as a whole are over. I have heard loud and clear that the citizens of Augusta will no longer tolerate this type of self serving leadership as we move ahead towards the brightest days that this city has ever seen. My fellow citizens, today, at this very moment, let our voices join together in one harmony and be heard throughout this great city and let the message remain clear for this generation and generations to come. Though we take pride in every area of Augusta in which we live, there is no longer any separation between East Augusta, South Augusta nor West Augusta. Today, let us make it known that we have now committed ourselves to tearing down every wall that has ever driven a wedge between us. Today, let us say together with a renewed sense of civic pride that there is only One Augusta and that our time is now!!!!!