Editor’s Note: The city of Augusta and Richmond County officially consolidated on July 1st, 1996. Here is a primer on how consolidation came about and twist and turns the city went through to get there.
originally posted in 2006.
When the city of Augusta merged into a consolidated government with Richmond County almost 10 years ago, it was a union of necessity.
The city of Augusta was mired in financial turmoil, forced to fire more than 85 workers because of a huge deficit. At one point, according to municipal accountants, the city had only $100,000 in cash to cover more than $1 million in bills.
Many of the city’s black leaders feared loss of political strength, but consolidation was pitched as being “race neutral.”
For those citizens living south of Gordon Highway, the lack of paved streets, water lines and sewers in Richmond County was hindering growth. County taxpayers worried about the rising cost of government, but consolidation advocates promised a smaller bureaucracy. Plus, residents would get to tap into the city’s infrastructure.
Thus was born a civic marriage of convenience. A marriage that has survived 10 years, but one that some critics say is on shaky ground.
No dowry to offer
In the summer of 1995, the Augusta City Council faced a budget deficit of $7 million. As a result, the city council had to lay off a total of 87 employees to cover its deficit. Morale sank to an all-time low.
Augusta’s city comptroller, Aurelia Epperson, resigned earlier that year after revealing that then-Augusta Mayor Charles DeVaney had been aware of the city’s financial woes for almost a year.
DeVaney, the popular, longtime mayor, suddenly found himself slapped with a “no confidence” vote from the city council.
The city of Augusta desperately needed stability in order to avoid bankruptcy.
“By the time consolidation came about, everyone knew that the city was writing bad checks,” said former state Sen. Don Cheeks. “It was no secret. You had to be somewhere in Alaska or Hawaii not to have known. Checks were bouncing all over the place.”
County’s cold feet
For almost 25 years, the Richmond County Legislative Delegation had considered proposals to consolidate the two governments. In 1988, citizens narrowly approved a consolidation bill, but that vote was ruled invalid by the Justice Department because the merger violated the Voting Rights Act.
“We had been striving to consolidate for years, but I had not been one of those advocating for consolidation,” Cheeks said. “Back when we started this discussion, I was in the House and represented mainly south Augusta, and they absolutely didn’t want any part of it.”
Richmond County voters did not want to risk a possible tax increase and many were distrustful of the city leaders, Cheeks said.
“It was only when I was able to get the bank account numbers for the city and found out that there was 100 and some odd outstanding checks and no money in the bank to pay for it that I knew something had to be done,” Cheeks said. “And then, I found out that on a daily basis the receipts from the water department were being deposited to cover the checks in the general fund budget.”
A sinking ship
The city’s utilities department was an enterprise fund and monies within that account were meant to be used for future upgrades to the water system, not to balance the general fund budget.
“The mayor kept saying, ‘The city isn’t broke. It’s in good shape,’” Cheeks said. “But I confronted the city with the information that I had and they couldn’t deny it.”
Once the truth came out, it was only a matter of convincing voters that the governments had to consolidate to save the city, Cheeks said.
As part of his case in supporting the merger, Cheeks told Richmond County voters that consolidation would allow the county an opportunity to tie into a 24-inch water line owned by the city.
“By tapping into that 24-inch line, we could supply water to south Richmond County,” Cheeks said. “So I went back to my area and sold consolidation on infrastructure and civic pride.
“I told them, ‘Whether you live in south Richmond County, west Augusta or the downtown area, Augusta is where you’re from. It’s the flagship and we can’t allow it to sink. And it is sinking.’”
The bill in black and white
While the city’s future looked dismal without consolidation, many of Augusta’s black leaders were against merging the two governments because they feared it would dilute their political strength within the community.
Some of the city’s most prominent black citizens, such as the Rev. C.S. Hamilton of Tabernacle Baptist Church, discouraged voters from supporting the bill.
In fact, during the previous 1988 vote, black leaders throughout Augusta were overwhelmingly against the joint government and actively campaigned to defeat consolidation.
“I was very much opposed to it at that time in 1988 and I even made a trip up to Washington, D.C. on behalf of the community and the Baptist Ministers Conference to oppose consolidation,” said former Augusta Commissioner Moses Todd. “We put together a team in Washington, D.C. which was comprised of students from Howard and Georgetown universities and we were successful in getting the Justice Department to deny the consolidation of Augusta-Richmond County.”
However, when talks of the 1995 consolidation bill began, attitudes among some of the most powerful black leaders had changed.
Then-state Sen. Charles Walker insisted that the consolidation bill was “race-neutral” and told voters that it would promote economic development throughout the county.
Walker and the late state Rep. Henry Howard worked hard to protect the black community’s voice in the new consolidated government, Cheeks said.
“Henry (Howard) had been on the county commission for years and it was hard for him to compromise on certain aspects of the bill,” Cheeks said. “And Charles (Walker) just wouldn’t agree to anything because he wanted more black influence. And that’s the truth. Charles did not bite his tongue about it.
“He used to say, ‘I’ll never do it until we share the wealth.’”
But Walker and Howard had a right to be concerned about how minorities would be treated in the new government, Cheeks said.
“You have got to realize now, that Augusta was not the most outreaching or forward-thinking city in the state,” Cheeks said. “They had good reason to be cautious and make sure the bill was written so they could stand behind it.”
It took a meeting in 1994 at Augusta State University led by community leaders like the late George Cunningham, local businessman Julian Osbon and then-County Commission Chairman Larry Sconyers to convince Todd to vote for consolidation.
“We talked about consolidation and the positive aspects of it,” Moses said. “They convinced me that the minority representation would be there with the reorganization of the government.
“So, with Sen. Walker buying into it and the rest of the delegation standing behind consolidation, it convinced the ministers and the community to support it.”
Charting a new future
In order for the two governments to consolidate, state law required voters to abolish the city charter.
That proposal didn’t sit well with some local leaders.
Interim Augusta Mayor Willie Mays was serving as a county commissioner in 1995, but he was already considered a veteran politician, having served initially on the city council and then the county government since 1979.
“Having been a student of old city government and knowing that we had a charter that had been there basically since the creation of the city of Augusta back in the 18th Century, right or wrong, it was a very good charter,” Mays said. “It was our history and what we were facing was its total demise with the formation of the new government. That wasn’t easy.”
Former state Rep. Bettianne Hart, who now serves as an assistant district attorney for Fulton County, said she knew abolishing the charter would make many Augustans uncomfortable.
“I think it was tougher for city leaders than for county leaders because whenever you take off one layer of bureaucracy, the fear is, ‘My influence is going to be gone,’” Hart said. “We were changing the role of the mayor, changing the basic structure of the government and changing the actual body of government.
“And I think more city officials knew they were going to be displaced through consolidation than county officials, but we tried to do it in a way that wouldn’t scare people.”
The wedding day
With 67 percent of the voters approving consolidation on June 20, 1995, local citizens gave their blessing for Augusta and Richmond County to become one.
By the end of the year, the new government’s family was in place. Larry Sconyers, owner of Sconyers Bar-B-Que, was the consolidated government’s new mayor and seven of the eight county commissioners were voted into office. The only city councilman elected to the new Augusta Commission was the late Lee Beard.
From day one, Sconyers said that he was concerned about the manner in which the new government was being formed.
“The things that were important to the voters that we promised them, like a smaller government, kind of got pushed to the back burner and it shouldn’t have,” Sconyers said. “Consolidation turned out not to be about the people, but the politicians. It was a bill that just got passed back and forth until certain people were satisfied and that became the new bill for the city of Augusta.”
Former Augusta Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who is currently seeking re-election to the District 7 seat, said the formula for consolidation was easy. It was the details of the government that were complicated.
“The city had the water and the county had the land,” Brigham said. “So we needed to work things out economically for the overall community’s good. Making that happen was the hard part. It was kind of like sitting down to a plate of jumbled up spaghetti and trying to put some order to it.”
In order to get the new government rolling, the Augusta Commission voted to hire Bill Carstarphen, a retired city manager from Greensboro, N.C. to help manage the merger. He was paid $87,000 a year for the temporary position.
“I think one of the major mistakes that we made is we brought Carstarphen in here to put the government together,” Sconyers said. “We could have done the same thing ourselves. The fire department and the sheriff’s department merged themselves and had no problems whatsoever.
“But we brought this hotshot in here to do all the other merging and all we did was create a bureaucracy.”
Sconyers said he also quickly learned that the wording of the consolidation bill often tied the commission’s hands. For example, the bill did not allow for the firing of any former city or county employees. Staff reduction within the government had to occur through attrition.
“Consolidation was going to streamline government. But instead, everything has gone up. Nothing has gone down,” said Sconyers, pointing to the fact that the city’s proposed 2006 general fund budget is $114 million compared with the former county’s 1995 budget of $50.5 million.
“There is a lot of redundancy still going on today,” Sconyers said. “We have people on the payroll who are not productive. Those kinds of things should have been eliminated a long time ago.”
Former Augusta Commissioner Bill Kuhlke, who now serves as a board member for the Georgia Department of Transportation, agreed that many citizens are disappointed that they haven’t seen any savings as a result of consolidating.
“When I first went into office in 1996, I recall our first general fund budget under consolidation was about $80 million,” Kuhlke said. “And that first year, the sheriff’s budget was $24 million. This year, that sheriff’s budget is $44 million.”
However, the government’s workforce has not changed, Kuhlke said.
“When I went into office, I think we had 2,700 employees. When I left office two years ago, we had 2,700 employees,” Kuhlke said. “Is that progress?”
Two of everything
Donna Williams, assistant director of the finance department’s accounting division, said it’s almost impossible to make a valid argument criticizing the cost of consolidation.
“There are some students up at Augusta State University that have been assigned a group project to determine whether or not consolidation worked,” Williams said, laughing. “I’ve told them to just pick an answer and then support it. Because if you look at just the budget numbers, it’s not apples to apples.”
Augusta-Richmond County is completely different than either the former city or county governments, Williams said.
“The very next year after consolidation, we added in a whole new jail on Phinizy Road that wasn’t there before,” Williams said. “That required millions of dollars worth of staffing and equipment.
“We added new fire stations and new recreation projects like Diamond Lakes. Insurance alone has skyrocketed. The cost of group insurance has probably gone up from about $4 million in 1995 to about $17 million for 2006. And that had nothing to do with consolidation.”
Former Augusta City Administrator Randy Oliver, who is now the city manager of Peoria, Ill., said it was difficult achieving parity between the two former governments.
“We had two of everything,” Oliver said. “We had two health insurance plans and I remember one had only a $1 co-pay on prescription drugs. There were two computer systems and it was as if one spoke English and the other spoke Russian.
“To me, it was kind of like merging General Motors and Ford. They both manufacture cars, but they do it completely differently.”
For former Augusta Commissioner Ulmer Bridges, the merging of the government was running fairly smoothly until Oliver was, in his opinion, chased out by politics.
“When Randy Oliver was basically run off, it was a huge blow to this community,” Bridges said. “Randy was a C.P.A., an engineer, a professional administrator and none of the departments buffaloed him.
“When he left, I think that took a lot of steam out of the way the city was headed. It was a turning point.”
Breaking the vows
Over the past 10 years, the Augusta Commission has had its share of shouting matches, name-calling and distrust among members.
In recent years, public opinion of the local government has been so poor that members of the local legislative delegation have presented a number of bills calling for the restructuring of the consolidated government.
These bills have asked for changes ranging from giving the mayor more power to reducing the number of commissioners on the board.
In September, state Sen. J.B. Powell, who was also a former Augusta commissioner during consolidation, proposed a bill that would give the mayor veto power, make commissioners’ abstentions count as “no” votes and allow for a simple majority of the board to act as a quorum.
“These are the changes that I’ve heard people say would help this government,” Powell said. “But the question is, how far does the public want to go with changes in the charter? My bill basically cuts the commission down to eight districts, it gives the mayor some power and it addresses the abstention rule.
“But I will say this, we can not legislatively repair personality conflicts. And I think you have some of the commissioners down there that just don’t like each other.”
Powell said it is very difficult to watch public opinion of Augusta’s government decline, while the rest of the state continues to steadily progress.
However, interim Augusta Commissioner Freddie Handy, who also served on the first commission of the consolidated government, said he is not sure that changing the consolidation bill is the answer.
“I don’t think you should change the bill just to change it,” Handy said. “If you want to change the government because you feel that we don’t have enough leadership ability at the top, well that’s one thing. If you think we need to change the government because it will make things run smoother, that’s another. But you would have to look at who is going to benefit from changing the government. You have to prove to the public that changing the bill will solve the problem.”
Columbia County’s turn
While Augusta continues to struggle with the difficulties of consolidation, neighboring Columbia County has begun discussing the possibility of incorporating the Evans-Martinez area into a consolidated city/county government.
“The truth of the matter is, if Columbia County consolidated, and the rate of growth continues as it has in the last 10 years, Columbia County becomes the dominant county in this region,” Kuhlke said. “That’s the truth. And all of your federal funds will go to Columbia County.”
But Kuhlke said that he doesn’t anticipate Augusta’s neighboring county to consolidate any time soon.
“Consolidation won’t be easy for Columbia County either,” Kuhlke said. “They don’t have the racial situation that we have here, but they do have turf wars. You look at Harlem and Grovetown. They are a lot like Hephzibah and Blythe in Richmond County. Those cities have their pride and will want to keep their identity.”
A disgrace about race
Ever since Sconyers left the mayor’s office in 1998, he said he’s been shocked by how the commissioners treat each other in public.
“It’s a disgrace,” Sconyers said. “I think the Augusta Commission today has worse racial relations than we did 10 years ago. And there is no excuse for that. But, I guess, the way that the government was set up with five white commissioners and five black commissioners actually created the division.”
Rob Zetterberg, a former Augusta commissioner who now spends half the year at his home in Michigan, said that he’s proud of the job he did during consolidation, although working through the commissioners’ racial differences was challenging.
“I think through consolidation, we almost put a death knell to the good ol’ boy system,” Zetterberg said. “And I’m very proud of that. But we were still never able to break the logjam between the representatives from south Augusta, like Mr. Powell, who would align themselves with the minority commissioners, and would block a lot of significant changes.
“I found it very hard to move forward because I think there is still a mistrust between the races. It was my position that the white community was more than happy to share power, but I think the minority community has taken advantage of that.”
A decade without divorce
As one commissioner who was always willing to discuss proposals with any of his colleagues, Todd said that he too has been dismayed by what he calls “race baiting” on the commission.
“During consolidation, politics wasn’t as personal back then like it is now,” Todd said. “We didn’t bicker over who had the ownership of an idea and we had a much better relationship between the majority and minority communities.”
But before voters buy into the “doom and gloom” scenario about Augusta, interim Mayor Mays believes that citizens should actually study both the positives and negatives of the government.
“Whenever you draw up a new government, there are going to be bumps in the road,” Mays said. “You have got to make sure you are not drawing a government up based on any personalities or designed to win support from any one side of town or another. But we are not a city in crisis.
“Instead, I believe consolidation is what you make of it. In this position as interim mayor, I may have lost a vote, but I didn’t lose my voice, I didn’t lose my vision and I didn’t lose my ideas. So, it’s up to me, as an individual working with a body of 10 other commissioners, to accomplish what needs to be done. You can’t blame any personal failures on consolidation.”