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Column: Maybe increased travel budgets for Augusta commissioners should go even higher than $7,500

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Augusta commissioners are set to increase their annual travel budgets to $7,500 apiece, so they can go somewhere and learn something, and they can’t do it on $4,500 a year.

They can attend only two state conferences and one national conference with $4,500, and they need to go to more, according to Mayor Pro Tem Bobby Williams.

“You’ve gotta go and learn in order to bring back to be able to apply what you’ve learned,” Williams said during a commission finance committee meeting. “I don’t think you can sit here in Augusta, Georgia and learn the things that you need to learn just sitting here.”

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If spending $30,000 more a year of your tax dollars on travel would actually make them smarter, maybe they should raise it even higher. Even if they didn’t learn all that much, they’d be gone long enough and often enough not to mess everything up.


They Love to Fly, but It Doesn’t Show

After 30 years of hearing commissioners say they need to travel to learn things to bring back to use in Augusta, I can’t think of a thing they’ve brought back except some things I can’t mention here.

But with the extra $3,000 they’ll be getting, perhaps one or two could travel to Washington and try to get our distinguished lawmakers to do something about the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam. There wasn’t a dime for repairs in the $22.81 billion list of Corps of Engineers building and maintenance projects for the year, which District 12 Congressman Rick W. Allen’s communications director said is not surprising. And the fact that Allen’s communications director would say that is not surprising either.

The Corps is still in mitigation with Georgia and South Carolina after years of litigation.

And since Mayor Hardie Davis Jr. is always in the Washington area anyway, perhaps he could drop by and talk to somebody about the single most important issue in North Augusta and Augusta since it was a trading post for beaver hides.

If Davis isn’t already up there, he could use his unlimited travel budget to take Augusta’s new lobbyist with him to do some lobbying to save the lock and dam. And instead of flying off to Quatar, the most polluted country in the world, as he did recently to talk about climate change, he should concentrate on what the climate will be like in Augusta if the Corps gets its way, tears down the lock and dam and the river downtown becomes a mosquito-infested mud flat.

Covering the Slums

Augusta Commissioner John Clarke summed up efforts commissioners made Tuesday in trying to get answers about three of Augusta’s dirty, crime-and-drug-infested, government-subsidized housing units, Azalea Park in south Augusta, the Bon Air in Summerville and the Summit on Broad Street.

“We tried to cover all of the slums, but we didn’t get nowhere because no one wants to be forthcoming with explanations,” Clarke said. “They’re all playing the same game, and the tenants are held hostage by slum lords.”

When the owner of both the Bon Air and the Richmond Summit and Administrative Services Committee members talked about conditions at the two Section 8-funded properties, it was apparent the owner and commissioners didn’t see eye-to-eye.

Nick Boehm, director of Redwood Housing, acknowledged that both Bon Air and Richmond Summit have crime issues but said the company is working on short-term, medium-term and long-term solutions. But Boehm’s perspective of what’s going on to secure the buildings to keep outsiders out wasn’t the same as commissioners’.

Commissioner Jordan Johnson said someone called him about drug dealers and others entering the Bon Air through unlocked door, so he went to see for himself.

“I walked right into the Bon Air,” he said. “Same thing at the Summit. People are sleeping in the stairwells at the Summit and at Bon Air.

“To be honest with you Mr. Boehm, when I go onto these properties, I can barely stand the smell, so the code enforcement issues, the security issues and the basic issues where quality of life is concerned is alarming to me.”

Johnson asked whether the owners had considered hiring security officers, and Boehm said he’d talked to sheriff lieutenants who said, based on the number of calls to the sheriff’s office, on-site security wouldn’t be beneficial.

Boehm said he’d been to both sites that day and couldn’t get into either without calling a property manager. 

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But isn’t it strange that the next day Johnson and Commissioner Catherine McKnight met at the Bon Air and walked right in a side door, McKnight said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, McKnight asked Boehm what he has in place right now for security.

“Obviously, during the day the property manager is on-site,” he replied, adding that they’d had dialogue with local lieutenants, have security cameras at both properties and secured entry doors on order.

And Boehm said new high tech security standards camera systems will be added within a year, as well as robots equipped with night vision cameras, to record what goes on in the parking lot.

McKnight asked that a list of 184 incidents complied by Richmond County Sheriff’s Office Lt. William Adams be put up on a screen.

“I look at noise and disturbance, 41; domestic violence, 22: suspicious people, 36;  theft, 16,” she said. “You’ve got a parking lot back there that has drug dealing going on. I have friends that have called me on several occasions, constituents, about gunshots coming up Cumming Road from that parking lot. Is there anything coming up in the next coming weeks – can you tell me what’s coming up to fix this? To get these numbers down?”

Boehm asked about the time frame of the report.

“This was between January 2021 and December 2021,” McKnight replied. “When did you take over the Bon Air and Summit?”

“Last March,” Boehm replied.

“So, nothing since you came in March of last year, so far no security” McKnight said. “You’ve had it almost a year. I was over there in late November. Nobody stopped me. It smelled so bad. And people that live there are scared.”

“I know a lot of steps have been taken since then,” Boehm said. “At each property, there is one main entrance, so steps have been taken to restrict people getting into the building.”

McKnight had not finished her questioning, but committee Chairman Ben Hasan cut her off, which she, as the District 3 commissioner representing the Bon Air, did not appreciate.

“He said we were taking up too much time, but my constituents wanted answers,” she said. 

Boys Will Be Boys

McKnight also did not appreciate commissioners at the dais to her left giggling while she was speaking, all except for Jordan Johnson.

She interrupted her questioning to ask them whether they had something they wanted to say, prompting Hasan to say, “Let’s be respectful of my colleague.”

”It’s not just me they do it to,” McKnight said later. “They do it to John Clarke too. I don’t see Jordan doing it. What I don’t appreciate is I don’t remember them giggling and carrying on like that when my daddy was on the commission. I just think it’s disrespectful.”

It is indeed disrespectful, and there’s no excuse for such rude and childish behavior by those little boys on camera and in front of God and everybody. And they wouldn’t have done it to Commissioner Grady Smith. He was 6-4 and carried a cane.

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They Called it Mainstreaming, but They Were Daydreaming

In last week’s column in summing up the state of the nation, I wrote, “Augusta’s Homeless Task Force is busy trying to feed, clothe and house the homeless population who contribute nothing to society with predictable results: If you want more bad behavior, reward it. 

“Just look at Austin, Texas; Los Angeles and New York City, among others where governments are spending billions more on their soaring numbers of riffraff than on small businesses and family and children’s services.”

To that, Thomas Yarbrough commented that he loved me to death, but we need to acknowledge a significant portion of the homeless are mentally ill and need our help.

“They do need our help and are not among the remaining riff-raff,” he wrote.

To that, I say, “Thomas, I couldn’t agree more. The problem is that separating the riff from the raff is like separating the wheat from the chaff. It takes some doing now that they’re all mixed together, thanks to the state lawmakers who cut the funding for mental health treatment centers such as Gracewood in the late 1980s-early 1990s and put seriously mentally ill patients out on the streets to fend for themselves. Everybody with a grain of sense knew that would be catastrophic, and many argued against it to no avail. After it happened, I was talking to a doctor high up in the state mental health system who said, “If you had any idea of who some of the people walking down the street beside you are, you wouldn’t go out at all.”

So, Thomas, I want you to know there’s not a living soul who thinks mentally ill people need our help more than I do. It’s that other riff-raff I object to incentivizing with taxpayers’ hard earned dollars.

Speaking of which, Daniel Evan, planning development supervisor for the city’s Housing Department reported that Housing and the CSRA of the United Way have spent $5.48 million of the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program money to prevent 1,123 households from being evicted. And they still have more to spend for a total of $7.1 million to pay landlords for housing folks who didn’t pay their rent during the pandemic. Should we applaud or boo?

Happy Trails

So as not to end up on a sour note, I’ll tell you something I hope will make you smile.

When I was about six years old, I fell in love with Roy Rogers and dreamed of marrying him, but he was already married to Dale Evans. So, I wanted her to die, so he could marry me.

Well, I made the mistake of telling that little story to my editor at The Chronicle, James Folker, who from then on sent me every snippet of news and information about Dale and Roy he ran across. Finally, he sent me Dale’s obituary, but it was too late.

Sylvia Cooper is a columnist with The Augusta Press. Reach her at [email protected]  

20 COMMENTS

  1. As always point on, I suggest Commissioners Johnson and McKnight take the giggling commissioners on a tour of these stinky, dilapidated buildings that our federal taxes support and see if that want wipe the smirks off there face. Since they are not county buildings and mask are not required they shouldn’t even wear a mask.

  2. Not paying attention when a Commissioner is speaking during a Com Meeting is the height of disrespect. Does not the Mayor have a gavel with which to call order? I can’t imagine why Comms need to attend more than three conventions a year. Would love to know what goes on at these conferences that really helps. And wish you would not talk about mentally deranged people like most of those men sitting on the city’s dais weekly.

  3. Commissioners should not have to travel to these conferences to bring back good policies they never use. They approve a budget that pays their department heads good money to bring good ideas to the table. If the commissioners aren’t getting the expertise they need, maybe they should clean house and start over. These commissioners need to realize that their job is to make Augusta Richmond County a better place for its citizens, not some childish game. The citizens should demand better from a commission that they entrust with a billion dollars of their money annually.

    • Bingo. These conventions are little more than junkets on the taxpayer dime. There is nothing discussed in those workshops that can’t be discussed via zoom or in a video presentation locally. The only travel commissioners should make is the occasional situation where the may visit another city whose had success in a particular area of governance, to visually experience the results.

  4. On point ???? Which leads me to continue to talk about the govt officials spending money to learn. Once again people taking a seat without understanding the position.
    I understand on the job training but running for office or even department positions should have a level of insight of solutions and how to get things done. Understand the conferences small business owners must go on $2k+ a pop not including travel (one thing good about Covid) in which we pay for our of pocket not with govt dollars just to learn more in our industries.
    At some point ???? before running for office or take the dept positions bring something to the table besides a bunch of (motivated marketing) talk, giveaways and selfies. Bring your expertise in business and your experts in industry who actually have a clue how the cogs turn.
    I remember going to commission and committee meetings some 20yrs ago. Things were different than they are now but one thing is for sure the plans they worked on then you can actually see built today. I’m actually afraid of the plans being made today because my children with have to undo what is being done.
    Sadly, It’s Easy to Give It Out But It’s Hard to Take Away What has Been Given – Need an example: here’s two Healthcare and Welfare

    • Excellent reporting on the continually sad state of politics in Augusta.
      Also, thanks for so many very true comments from other readers. Comforting to know that I’m not alone in my opinions of this mess.

  5. Each commissioner attending a conference should be required to bring back one good idea for the betterment of Richmond County and present that idea to the full Commission. If they don’t bring back a reasonably good idea, that conference cannot be attended next year by that Commissioner. There are many ways to fudge this requirement but at least they are made to realize there is a purpose in their attendance.

  6. I bet they could learn all they need on the computer just by googling what they need to know. But no one is going to do that, it doesn’t make them happy just sitting there and learning, like in a school setting. And there are plenty of very smart people in our community they could ask questions to; these are the smart people that can’t run for office because they have a job.

  7. As we work to help those who really need the help, we need to remember that paraphrased line from Field of Dreams; “Build it and they will come…” We need to insure that we do not become the Mecca for the homeless in the Southeast. It might help if other cities would stop putting these folks on a bus and shipping them to us. (Yes, we know that they actually do that.) On the bright side, it appears that the General Assembly has bipartisan support for Governor Kemp’s very large mental health budget. Many of these people live in a “revolving door” of governmental support. We need better programs that can assist them on to a path leading them to self sufficiency.

  8. For the money they are asking and WILL spend on these vacation junkets, they could have in – house training done by the various colleges and universities in the state. Also, the rude, socially ignorant commissioners should be going to social etiquette classes or remember what their mommas tried to instill in them. After all, their behavior does reflect on their upbringing.

  9. Anyone wanna guess the reason behind the laughter? Augusta is a big water circle going down a huge white pot into a sewer system..of course if it’s a Augusta sewer system in probably is substandard and needs a consultant to tell them how to fix it..2 things I’m glad of. 1: I moved away from that fiasco of a joke and 2: I finally sold what remaining property to get off of Augusta tax rolls for good. I had hopes of maybe moving back one day but every week the politics of Augusta tilts me toward never residing there again…ever. It’s a shame too..used to be a great place and had a mayor and politicians that loved their town and not their pockets…

  10. May the Augusta commissioners could save on there travel budget by visiting the Bon Air, Azalea etc. Rent rooms for a few days to absorb the full ambience the places offer. Then they could all get to gather and pool the wisdom they absorbed in their travels.

  11. I don’t expect much out of 7 commissioners, the mayor or the administrator. They prove over and over they are absolute lowlifes, elected without substance. They laugh and think it’s all funny because they aren’t intelligent enough or had the upbringing to know better

  12. The increased commissioner travel budget allegedly aimed at making our commissioners SMARTER is the sham of the year! All we have to do is assess the large amount of travel, some mysterious, by our outgoing mayor Hardie Davis and its uselessness as evident by his consistent poor governing, to predict that travel and smarter governing have absolutely no relationship!

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