Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason has built almost his entire campaign for mayor this year around the fact that he is against the $194 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax list set to go before voters on May 20.
He doesn’t believe there was enough public input given to the SPLOST list. He insists that more of the money should have been used for the county’s infrastructure.
Mason has even told the public that he doesn’t think the manner in which the city is utilizing SPLOST is legal.
Therefore, it wasn’t a huge surprise that, during the last full commission meeting prior to the May 20 election for mayor, Mason pounced on his concerns regarding the SPLOST list.
First, Mason asked for clarification regarding the $5.25 million that Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver campaigned to have included on the SPLOST VII list for the “Mills District” proposal.
The project, which has discussed renovating two historic textile mills in the Harrisburg area — the Sibley and King mills — to help the expansion of Georgia Regents University into Augusta’s downtown area, has been a proposal Copenhaver has strongly supported for more than a year.
However, Mason told his colleagues that he couldn’t understand how the $5.25 million for the proposal managed to be included in the $21.7 million portion of the SPLOST funding that would be bonded immediately by the city.
“Since it is being bonded immediately, I think the public would want to know, even more so than Alvin Mason wants to know, what is that going to be utilized for since that is in the immediate package,” Mason told his fellow commissioners on May 6.
“Clearly, that is more important than roads, bridges, public safety, sewage and drainage issues that we have in this community,” Mason sarcastically added. “So I’m trying to figure out what are we going to do with it.”
Since Copenhaver was absent from the May 6 meeting, the mayor’s assistant, Al Dallas, explained to the commission that the $5.25 million for the Mills District proposal would be used for land acquisition for the city of Augusta.
Dallas told Mason that the original SPLOST request for the project was $12 million, but that the $5.25 million would allow for the city to select essential properties needed for the proposal.
Mason said he was shocked to see such a project on the list to be immediately bonded considering the other critical needs throughout the county.
In fact, Mason pointed to Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree’s announcement last week that he supported the SPLOST list because the package would provide more than $22 million for public safety equipment such as patrol vehicles, mobile data terminals and in-car video systems.
“But there is not public safety being bonded immediately,” Mason said. “And so, if public safety is so important, I am trying to figure out why isn’t that a part of the immediate bonding monies.”
Dallas insisted that the Mills District proposal was not more important than public safety, road projects or infrastructure.
“I don’t think it is more important,” Dallas said. “I think it is a matter of timing with GRU’s master planning process.”
Following his questions about the Mills District, Mason asked Augusta’s General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie about whether the commission could legally remove the SPLOST referendum from the May 20 ballot.
Mason said he was asked if removing the SPLOST package was legal at a community meeting he recently attended.
“Is this something that could be legally done?” Mason asked MacKenzie. “And if so, how would it be done and what would it take to make that happen?”
MacKenzie explained since early voting on the May 20 ballot had already started and the voter boxes for the election have been sealed, reversing the ballot’s referendum would be “challenging.”
“But is this something that can be done?” Mason again asked. “Because you gave me other reasons why it probably shouldn’t be done. But my question was, can it be done?”
“Logistically, it can be done,” MacKenzie replied.
Lynn Bailey, executive director of the Richmond County Board of Elections, confirmed to the commission that the SPLOST referendum could be removed from the May 20 ballot, but it would be far from easy.
With two weeks prior to the election, Bailey explained that the voting equipment has already been tested, sealed, locked down and is ready to be deployed to the polls on election day.
“Not to mention the fact that we have probably 1,800 or so people who have already cast ballots and those ballots would certainly have to be taken into consideration somehow,” Bailey said. “There is a difference, though, between removing a matter from a ballot and treating a matter like one might a withdrawn candidate.
“There are ways to go about that, but the one thing that I do know for sure and for certain, to take a step such as this, this close to the date of an election would be a strain, to put it mildly.”
However, Bailey said her office would comply with the wishes of the commission.
“It would be a huge undertaking to have that happen and happen successfully,” Bailey said. “It would not be done easily and would require a lot of manpower. Not that we are not up to the task, but I’m just saying, it would be a big undertaking.”
In the end, Augusta commissioners simply accepted Bailey’s report as information.