After months of debating over the 2014 proposed budget and its $8.5 million shortfall, the Augusta Commission has finally adopted a balanced budget.
Two commissioners, Alvin Mason and Bill Lockett, forced the board to make a decision on Tuesday instead of waiting another two weeks to take a vote.
Many observers couldn’t decide whether Mason and Lockett were the cleverest or just the stubbornest commissioners on the board because for more than an hour it appeared there would be no end to the gridlock.
Commissioners were still deeply divided on City Administrator Fred Russell’s recent proposal to balance the budget by generating $1.5 million in revenue from the energy excise tax, cutting all city departments by 2.4 percent and using $4 million of the city’s reserves.
Russell had backed off his original suggestion to provide each county employee a cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, of $1,500. Instead, he recommended that every employee receive $500.
The city administrator also told commissioners during the December 3 budget meeting that he had come to the clear understanding that he did not have the six votes he needed from commissioners to raise property taxes to generate additional revenue.
“So the budget today does not have a tax increase,” Russell told the commissioners, adding that even if the board approved the budget that day, they could amend it at any time. “The budget is not written in stone. It is a plan of action that we attempt to implement to move this government forward.”
But in order to move forward, Russell again stressed six commissioners would have to agree on how to balance the budget.
“At some point you’ve got to vote,” he said. “You’ve got to make up your minds.”
While Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith said it sounded nice that the budget could be easily amended next year, he didn’t buy it.
“I have never seen a pig move away from the trough in all my years,” Smith said. “When you start feeding a pig, it keeps eating. And I don’t think you are going to see this government come back in here and say, ‘Let’s cut this budget,’ in June or July.”
Russell joked that Smith was actually wrong about a pig’s behavior.
“I’m not too sure that I don’t take offense to being called a pig. But after many years of being called one, I’m not too sure that is such a bad thing,” Russell said. “If you look at actual animal science… a pig will back away from the trough. They are probably one of the few animals who eat what they need and not what’s only placed in front of them.”
Mason told his colleagues that they were getting off topic and asked if the commission could at least vote on some of the specific items in the budget to see if they had consensus.
He suggested that they begin with whether or not to institute the energy excise tax to generate $1.5 million in additional revenue.
Russell said that was an excellent suggestion.
“Because I’m spinning my wheels at this moment,” he said, explaining without any consensus, he can’t balance the budget.
First, the commission faced a motion not to implement the excise tax. That motion failed with a 5-4 vote. Commissioners Corey Johnson, Mary Davis, Wayne Guilfoyle, Marion Williams and Grady Smith voted not to implement the excise tax.
Commissioners Joe Jackson, Donnie Smith, Mason and Lockett supported the excise tax. Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy was absent form the meeting.
Donnie Smith decided to try the exact opposite motion, to implement the excise tax for the 2014 budget.
Not surprisingly, that motion also failed with a 4-5 vote because all of the commissioners stood their ground.
“I’m totally in shock,” Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver joked.
Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson made a motion not to use the excise tax or provide the county employee’s with a cost-of-living-adjustment and take $4.5 million out of the city’s reserves to balance the budget.
The city currently has about $27 million in the city’s reserve fund, Russell said.
That motion also failed with a 5-4 vote with commissioners Grady Smith, Davis, Johnson, Guilfoyle and Jackson voting yes. Mason, Lockett, Williams and Donnie Smith voted against the motion.
“I withdraw my idea,” Mason said, referring to his suggestion to try and reach a consensus on some of the items. “This ain’t working.”
Copenhaver suggested that the commission, for a third time, agree to not adjourn the original budget hearing on November 19 so the board could discuss some of the financials over the next few weeks.
He also requested unanimous consent to add the agenda items from the commission’s regularly scheduled December 3 meeting to the November 19 agenda so they could be addressed that day.
This was basically the city’s legal way of not having to approve the 2014 budget in November as required by the city ordinance.
“You do not have unanimous consent,” Lockett clearly told the board.
The mayor looked stunned.
“So, if there is not unanimous consent we’ve got to keep open the November 19 meeting in order to approve a budget,” Copenhaver said. “And we cannot open the (December 3) meeting for today.”
There were several people in the audience waiting to hear items that were on the regularly scheduled December 3 meeting.
The mayor asked for an official vote to decide whether there was unanimous consent, but Mason and Lockett voted against the motion.
“We have no other avenues as far as I see it,” Copenhaver said. “I can’t adjourn the November 19 meeting. We have got to keep it open.”
So, the budget discussion began again. Russell went over some of the commission’s options regarding reducing each of the department’s by 2.4 percent.
But some of the commissioners began talking and his suggestions appeared to fall on deaf ears.
Copenhaver asked Russell to repeat his suggestion again to the board.
“I don’t have any ideas,” Russell said, looking clearly frustrated at the different options the city was facing. “There was no consent to do that, so we have nothing.”
The mayor appeared to be ready to beg Russell if necessary.
“No, just… some commissioners are looking, and would you just, for clarity, please. For my sake. Put it out there again,” Copenhaver said.
Russell again walked up to the microphone.
“If you do not include the excise tax you are down $1.5 million,” Russell said. “If you do not include the $500 COLA, you are up $1 million. That means you take $4.5 million out of fund balance.”
That proposal would also include a 2.4 percent cut of each city department, Russell said.
Davis made a motion in support of Russell’s proposal.
To the audience’s surprise, it was approved with a 6-3 vote with commissioners Johnson, Davis, Mason, Jackson, Guilfoyle and Grady Smith supporting the motion. Commissioners Lockett, Williams and Donnie Smith opposed it.
Donnie Smith could barely believe his colleagues had supported a budget that did not include an energy excise tax.
“The excise tax is going to cost us $1.5 million this year. What is it going to cost us next year?” he asked Russell.
“About $3 million next year, give or take, and $4 million the following year,” Russell said.
Donnie Smith warned taxpayers that they should brace for a property tax increase in the very near future.
“We are going to pass $3 million next year onto the taxpayers,” Smith said. “And $4 million the year after that.”