In front of a packed chamber of frustrated Richmond County citizens, the Augusta Commission buckled and backed down from approving the proposed 1.75-mill property tax increase.
For almost three hours, commissioners heard complaints from concerned citizens and debated the fallout of approving the first property tax increase in seven years.
Even though Augusta’s Finance Director Donna Williams has explained several times over the past few months that the 1.75-mill increase would simply “stop the bleeding” and fill the $5.9 million deficit in the 2014 budget, commissioners failed to pass the proposed millage increase with a vote of 4-6.
Commissioners Marion Williams, Corey Johnson, Bill Lockett and Bill Fennoy were the only ones to vote for the property tax increase.
“We need to make a decision now,” Williams said, clearly frustrated with his colleagues. “We are sent up here to make a decision. We need to make a decision.”
Richmond County Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick, who had a scheduled meeting with officials in Atlanta this Friday to officially set Richmond County’s millage rate, said a further delay would throw a wrench in his department’s regular billing process.
“In Richmond County, everyone knows that their bills are due Nov. 15,” Kendrick explained to the commission during the Aug. 19 special called meeting. “By statute, we are required to give taxpayers 60 days in which to pay those bills, so traditionally we send out those bills by at least Sept. 15 every year.”
However, because the commission failed to set the millage rate prior to Kendrick’s meeting in Atlanta on Aug. 22, there is no way the bills will be able to go out by mid-September, he said.
Therefore, this year’s tax bills will be sent to residents much later, Kendrick said.
“If the bills go out on Oct. 1, then they are, by statute, required to be due on Dec. 1,” he said. “Now, for mortgage companies, who traditionally pay 40 percent of the tax bills that we send out to taxpayers, that causes some level of confusion for them because they are used to the Richmond County process.”
Kendrick also explained that the Richmond County School Board needs for the bills to be sent out in September because the school system requires that money for operational expenses.
While Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson wished the commission could come to a decision on the millage rate prior to Kendrick’s meeting in Atlanta on Friday, he said he realized that wasn’t going to happen.
Instead, Johnson called for another meeting to consider adopting the millage rate on Monday, Aug. 25, at 11:30 a.m.
Ironically, just minutes after commissioners spent hours talking about tightening their belts and cutting the fat, they were faced with another potential budget increase.
And this increase will be a tough one for his colleagues to ignore, Marion Williams said.
Earlier this month, the Augusta Commission voted to increase the entry level salary of firefighters more than $3,000 to about $30,000 a year.
On Tuesday, Richmond County sheriff’s Lt. Lewis Blanchard went before the commission requesting a similar salary adjustment for deputies.
“Law enforcement and public safety is different than all the other departments out there,” Blanchard said. “It is the primary function of government to provide for public safety. We are out there 24/7, 365 and we have to do whatever it takes to make sure that our law enforcement is taken care of.”
Therefore, he explained that Sheriff Richard Roundtree was requesting salary adjustments for all deputies and 911 dispatchers.
“We don’t call them raises because that is not exactly what we need,” Blanchard said. “We need salary adjustments to do what needs to be done in this county… If we are going to be the best, we have to be able to hire, recruit and retain the best as well. And currently, we just aren’t able to do that.”
The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office cannot compete with surrounding counties and the salaries they offer deputies, he said.
“Hey, anybody that puts on this uniform, they know they are not here to get rich,” Blanchard said. “That’s not the goal, but once they have a wife and a child and they are offered $3,000 to $4,000 more right down the street and even more if they have a college degree, we are not able to retain them.”
To make matters worse, deputies in Richmond County are expected to handle a lot more stress and juggle a much bigger workload than other law enforcement departments around the state, Blanchard said.
“We have to make some changes in our sheriff’s office and we have to do them now,” he said. “Since 1998, over 200 personnel positions have been removed from the budget of the sheriff’s office. So we are doing more with less.”
Simply put, Blanchard said deputies need a salary increase similar to the one recently approved for the fire department.
“For deputies making less than $35,000, we are requesting a $3,000 increase,” he said, adding that other pay increases from $1,000 to $2,000 were also included in the proposal, but any officer making more than $60,000 was excluded.
The average salary in the state of Georgia for police recruits is $34,700, Blanchard explained.
In Richmond County, deputies make between $31,880 to a maximum of $34,900.
“We are the second largest law enforcement agency in the state,” Blanchard said. “Our call volume is through the roof compared to other departments. The chances of being injured in the line of duty is much greater here than in other areas and when it comes right down to it, we need to do whatever it takes to recruit, retain and hire the absolute best people.”
Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith, who has worked for the Georgia State Patrol for more than 20 years, said he understood that the sheriff’s office was stretched thin. “Basically, you are missing 10 deputies from each shift, which means there are 10 beats that are being underserved,” Smith said.
Blanchard agreed, saying they have had to make a lot of adjustments in the department through the years.
“We cut our crime suppression team in half to move people to the road patrol because the road patrol is the No. 1 priority of the sheriff,” Blanchard said. “But we have issues like, we can’t cut the gang task force. We have to address those issues. The bottom line is, we have cut 150 positions since 1998. We are doing what we can and we are moving people around, but we need help.”
The commission agreed to accept the sheriff’s request as information.