HomeOpinionOpinion: Spooky Arena Referendum Looms Ahead

Opinion: Spooky Arena Referendum Looms Ahead

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Here it is Halloween, two days before a $235 million referendum on a new James Brown Arena, and I don’t know which is spookier.

Coliseum Authority members and consultants are promising us treats, but they could be tricking us with what the real cost could be because they’re also using $25 million in SPLOST money, which brings the total to $260 million.

They’re also promising huge crowds and economic returns that probably don’t have a ghost of a chance of materializing. Then the city will suck our personal skeleton budgets dry like vampires with higher property taxes until after the old folks are dead and gone.

For the younger folks, it will be for 30 years as the city continues to carve their paychecks up like pumpkins with higher property tax assessments, rain taxes and streetlight fees.

Of course, City Administrator Odie Donald will deny all of that. After all, he said the arena would be “the most transformative project in Augusta history.” But then, he also said there was no increase in his proposed 2022 budget that blossomed to almost $1 billion, an $80 million increase over the 2021 amended budget.

And the General Fund portion of that total increased to $177.6 million, or $9.6 million, according to Donald’s proposed budget, which he put online.

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The increase includes a planned use of $39 million from SPLOST 8 money and a $41 million infusion of cash from the American Rescue Plan, some $4.5 million of which made it possible to balance the 2022 budget, according to Donald’s draft.

Yet, he seemed aggravated during the commission’s Finance Committee meeting Tuesday because the media had reported what was in his proposal, using his budget numbers and statements.

“So, to make it clear, at my directive there was no increase in the budget,” he said emphatically. “Everyone was required to operate within a flat budget.”

He went on to explain how some increases, like health insurance costs, are “baked into the budget” and some expenses are new and apparently really don’t count as budget increases such as salaries for new employees. Neither do things such as $200,000 for traffic calming devices added to the Traffic Engineering budget.

Donald singled out Mayor Hardie Davis’ budget, and said he was “a little surprised” it was reported the way it was and hoped the reporting would be corrected, but he wouldn’t bank on it.

Here’s how I reported it in last week’s column, using the figures in his budget proposal:

“News Flash! The Mayor Wants More Money!

“The proposal includes upgrading a part-time assistant to a fulltime executive assistant in Mayor Hardie Davis’ office.

“Davis asked for $672,970, or $187,760 more than his 2021 budget total. Donald recommended a $68,810 increase to $554,020 and eliminated the mayor’s My Brothers’ Keeper slush fund.”

Tuesday, Donald said, “Everyone had a flat budget, and that included our mayor, and he had no issues with that coordination. So, when we looked at the mayor’s budget, we simply removed the My Brother’s Keeper, ($36,870), and I think this is important for our public to know that the narrative is correct. My Brother’s Keeper was called out as a separate category, but to make sure we kept the budget flat, we simply included all of those things and also provided room for mayoral initiatives. We simply included all those things in the mayor’s operating budget.”

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The only increase was upgrading a part time assistant to a fulltime assistant, so the budget only increased by 6 percent, Donald said.

So now I ask you, “Did Davis ask for more money – $672,970?”

Yes.

Did Donald recommend a $68,810 increase to $554,020?

Yes, according to his budget proposal.

Did Donald eliminate the $36,870 MBK slush fund?

Yes, but he then added it to Davis’ operating budget.

So, what’s the big difference?

 A whole lot of semantics. Doublespeak. And trying to control the narrative. It’s like the lies coming out of Washington about the costs to the American people of the stimulus packages.

“Let’s Go, Brandon!” Biden said his $3.5 trillion stimulus would cost zero.

How is the Augusta Commission Majority Similar to Hydrilla?

Why, amid all of the ARP money being handed out in government employees raises and new hires, bonuses and $100 bribes for people to get COVID vaccinations, won’t the Augusta administrator and commissioners help maintain the city’s most historic feature?

The city-owned Augusta Canal is not only on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s also a National Historic Landmark and is designated as the only regionally important resource in the state by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. Congress also designated it as a National Heritage Area, one of only 55 in the country.

But the canal’s budget has been in the red for five years and got worse last year because of COVID, according to Augusta Canal Authority Executive Director Dayton Sherrouse.

The canal area is owned by the city but gets no money from the local government except SPLOST money in the past. It won’t get funding in the latest SPLOST 8 package although Sherrouse requested it.

Earlier this year, he asked the administrator for $900,000 from the $82 million ARP money the city is receiving but didn’t get any. In August, he submitted a request to the city’s finance staff and asked for $475,000 in next year’s budget, but when the budget came out, there were zero dollars for the Canal Authority.

The authority usually makes about $1 million a year gross from operating the hydroelectric plants at Enterprise, King and Sibley Mills, but there are lots of operating and maintenance costs involved. And that income has been declining because growth of the invasive hydrilla and water hyacinths has increased so much this year, it’s clogging the gates and restricting the flow of water into the turbines thereby reducing the number that can run at Enterprise and King Mills, Sherrouse said.

“At one point, we were selling a million dollars a year. Last year, it was $600,000. The power is important for the community because we can provide low market rate power for the redevelopment of the former textile mills,” he said.

Fees for boat rides and sales from the gift shop are also down.

Still, the expenses are there – $50,000 a year for streetlights on the urban side of the canal trail, $90,000 for off-duty police officers last year for security, more than $100,000 for property and liability insurance for trail restrooms and recreational trails the authority put in, repair and maintenance another $95,000, personnel costs for grass cutting, tree trimming and removal, etc.

“I hope we can prevail, but we cannot continue to incur the costs to provide these services for the city because, in a couple of years, we’d be out of business,” Sherrouse said. “The alternative is to simply stop doing it.”

Well, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s not the plan hatched up at the Marble Palace. Get rid of Sherrouse and hire somebody’s friend from DeKalb County. Sherrouse doesn’t think that’s the case though.

“After speaking with several of the commissioners, I am hopeful they can see the benefit of approving this funding to ensure the financial security of one of Augusta’s most treasured and important resources that is a major tourist draw for our community,” he said.

Will Redistricting Leave Some Taxed but Not Really Represented?

Some Summerville and Forrest Hills residents who floated the idea of seceding from Augusta and forming their own city are still talking about it. But right now, that’s all there is.

“This is all talk,” said Augusta attorney and Forrest hills resident Wright McLeod. “But the talk continues as an alternative to the ‘redistricting mess.’”

The redistricting mess will likely split the neighborhoods three ways, placing some in District 1 and some in District 2 to reduce the population in District 3.

People in Sandy Springs, which incorporated, love having their own city, as do citizens of John’s Creek. And Buckhead in Atlanta is trying to do the same thing, McLeod said.

The city of Hephzibah in Richmond County is the best run government around, he said. “The city of Summerville would be no different than Hephzibah, Blythe, Grovetown, Harlem, North Augusta or Beech Island. The advantages of incorporating are smaller, more efficient government, less government and better representation. Maybe, McLeod added.

“We don’t like the way Augusta is going, and this is the best idea we’ve got,” he said. “If somebody’s got a better idea, I’m all for it.”

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McLeod said there’s no historical reason it can’t be done. The boundaries of Summerville are not set by the legislature. It’s up to the people to vote on them. But first, citizens have to form an exploratory committee, raise money and have a study done. Then the people have to vote, and McLeod thinks 80 percent of the Summerville and Forrest Hills residents would vote to incorporate.

“I think it’s worth taking a good look at,” he said.

“At the end of the day, consolidation has not worked as well as we had hoped,” McLeod said. “I think our government can do a better job. Are we better off than we were 20 years ago? I don’t think so. Is Pendleton King Park better today than 20 years ago? I don’t think so.

Follow the Crookedly Bouncing Ball

Disappointing to hear, there’s another academic scandal brewing in college sports, this time right here in our own backyard.

Augusta University men’s basketball Coach Dip Metress has been suspended and former Assistant Coach O’Neal Armstrong fired for helping a student athlete cheat.

Although it’s been almost 40 years ago, Jan Kemp, the coordinator of the UGA remedial program, blew the whistle on the school’s preferential treatment of student athletes and was demoted. Many people remember it vividly. It became a national news story. Kemp sued for violation of her freedom of speech rights and was eventually awarded $1.1 million.

Twenty years later, UGA men’s basketball coach Jim Harrick was forced to resign amid an academic fraud scandal within his program and the NCAA discovery of a final exam given by Harrick’s son, Jim Harrick.

Harrick Jr., an assistant with the team, had been teaching a class on basketball strategy since 2001. His final exam led to Harrick Sr.’s firing and Harrick Jr.’s suspension.

Here are a few of the 20 questions on that infamous “Basketball 101 Final Exam.” 

– How many goals are on a basketball court?

a. 1; b. 2; c. 3; d. 4

– In what league do the Georgia Bulldogs compete?

a. ACC; b. Big Ten; c. SEC; d. Pac 10

– What is the name of the coliseum where the Georgia Bulldogs play?

a. Cameron Indoor Arena; b. Stegeman Coliseum; c. Carrier Dome; d. Pauley Pavilion

– How many points does a 3-point field goal account for in a basketball game?

a. 1; b. 2; c. 3; d. 4

– What is the name of the exam which all high school seniors in the State of Georgia must pass?

a. Eye Exam; b. How Do The Grits Taste Exam; c. Bug Control Exam; d. Georgia Exit Exam

– If you go on to become a huge coaching success, to whom will you tribute the credit?

a. Mike Krzyzewski; b. Bobby Knight; c. John Wooden; d. Jim Harrick, Jr.

At the finance committee last week, Administrator Odie made a presentation he called Budget 101 for the benefit of the public, and I’m wondering whether there’s going to be a final exam at the end of it. If so, one of the questions might be, “Is $999.6 million equal to $920 million?”

True or False

While most folks would answer false, Administrator Odie would answer, “True” because the budget had “baked in” increases and adding things to a department’s budget are not increases. I’m not sure what he meant by all that, but it sounds to me like he’s been cooking the books.

Next week, we’ll have more questions for the final exam on Budget 101 as presented by Administrator Odie.

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

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9 COMMENTS

  1. Appropriate WRITING for Halloween …. what’s going on with Augusta government/tax payer monies is truly FRIGHTENING ! SAVE SUMMERVILLE; SAVE OUR CANAL; SAVE AU BASKETBALL; SAVE AUGUSTA TAXPAYERS FROM THE JBA PALACE ON 7TH STREET; SAVE AUGUSTA! ALL I CAN SAY IS “BOO AUGUSTA SIMPLY BOO!”

  2. Someone PLEASE correct me if I’m wrong. Did this new property tax increase simply jump up and bite us recently, or has it been in the JB Arena plan forever and I just missed it? I have always been under the impression that the new arena would be funded as it always has — taxable promotions, lodging tax, alcohol tax, and SPLOST. When did this property tax scheme come about? I am hoping that the sheep stay away from the polls on Tuesday and the NO vote will prevail. Maybe the property owners will finally get a WIN.

  3. I cannot determine if Odie, Hardie, and all the other minions are so incredibly stupid that they believe their own budget accounting, or they believe voters are so incredibly stupid and disengaged that we believe their financial magic tricks or don’t care if our government taxes us to death in exchange for poor governance. PS: It’s a sure bet Mrs. Cooper knows what “Let’s go, Brandon!” means. She showed great restraint by not appending “#FJB”.

  4. My perdiction: 90% of home renters and Project dwellers will vote Yes; 90% of home and property Owners will vote No. Guess who will win—those voting to give themselves a piece of someone else’s money.

  5. The new arena will bankrupt the taxpaying citizens of Augusta. In fact beware of Odie’s budget – the use of ARP money is unsustainable. Already the taxpayers will need to cover the higher salaries, studies and other proposals in the new budget
    (read Sylvia’s column last week). The front page of today’s AC, was a wonderful juxtaposition of current issues/problems, “James Brown Arena referendum is Tuesday” and “Missed garbage collections annoy local homeowners”; the city needs to take care of the infrastructure issues first before signing on to fund an arena at TAXPAYERS expense. When the garbage pickup, flooding issues, parks/recreation facilities and others are maintained and cared for, perhaps then it is time for a discussion as to whether or not an arena is needed. Vote wisely, to avoid suffering from buyers remorse.

  6. “Baked in” is a terrifying phrase to this Ole time bank auditor, most especially coming from the Head Bean Counter in Charge. This makes me want to dive head first into the financial records.
    But, a last, I do have long enough left on this Ole earth to unravel this kind of arithmetic.

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