The vote for the proposed 2015 budget wasn’t unanimous, but Augusta’s new city administrator, Janice Allen Jackson, accomplished a great deal by getting her proposed $786 million budget passed before heading into the Christmas holidays.
Even better was the fact that there was no real fuss or arguing over the budget as in previous years.
As many Augustans will recall, there was always a battle between former City Administrator Fred Russell and commissioners during the budget hearings.
Just last year, commissioners were arguing over a proposed 2014 budget that had been out of balance by more than $8.5 million for weeks.
At that time, Russell said he had not received enough input from the entire commission during the budget workshops and he did not have the six votes needed to support any of the individual budget suggestions from commissioners.
Therefore, Russell strongly encouraged the commission to raise the millage rate to reduce the budget shortfall.
Along with several other adjustments to the budget, Russell also suggested a 2.4 percent across-the-board cut of each department.
At the time, many of the commissioners were fuming over Russell’s suggestions.
“I’m pretty sure I’m right on this,” Guilfoyle told Russell last year. “The administrator is supposed to present a balanced budget.”
Russell quickly responded, “You have got one in front of you, sir.”
Guilfolyle immediately shot back, “That is not a balanced budget.”
Russell replied, “Yeah, it is.”
It was like a conversation between kindergarteners.
Back in 2013, Guilfoyle told Russell that, for the past three years, the budget has been “laid in the laps” of the commission instead of Russell taking the reins.
Russell shot back that it was simply an “exercise in futility” if the commissioners did not approve those budget cuts.
What a difference a year makes.
With less than two weeks on the job, Jackson worked with former Interim Administrator Tameka Allen and Finance Director Donna Williams to come up with a plan that would satisfy the wishes of the majority of the Augusta Commission.
And she actually met with each commissioner to see which items they supported in balancing the budget.
Jackson also didn’t make rash decisions.
For instance, she agreed not to cut some of the outside agencies, such as the Greater Augusta Arts Council or the Richmond County Health Department, by 25 percent.
Instead, those agencies are budgeted at the current 2014 funding levels. However, Jackson said she would like to review the funding of those outside agencies to determine the effectiveness of their services.
But not all of the previous budget suggestions were included in Jackson’s proposal.
When it came to Mayor-Elect Hardie Davis’ request earlier this year to more than double the 2015 budget for the mayor’s office, Jackson said there was not enough support by commissioners to fund that request.
And how did she know there was not enough commissioners supporting Davis’ request?
Jackson actually discussed the budget with each commissioner.
“The mayor-elect had made a request, but the level of support for that was relatively low,” Jackson said, referring to the number of commissioners agreeing with Davis’ request. “I think the consideration can be given to a request at a later date was the consensus that came out of the conversations that I had with y’all. I think the idea was once he has a chance to serve for a while, he can take a look at what the office really needs and, at that point, he can come back with an informed request.”
Davis had proposed increasing the mayor’s 2015 budget from $305,700 to more than $600,000 to hire adequate staff, including a “chief of staff” position that could help him, as mayor, concentrate on the “day-to-day operations” of the city.
The only major concern with Jackson’s budget proposal for some commissioners was the inclusion of a stormwater utility fee that would help balance the general fund budget.
But overall, even some of the harshest critics of previous budgets felt Jackson’s proposal was a decent compromise.
“This is a great presentation for a very short period of time,” Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason told Jackson, pointing out that she began working for the county on Nov. 17. “You addressed a lot things that I would otherwise have questions for that would normally not be presented. For your first budget presentation, I think it was an excellent job.
“If this is an indication of the type of work that you are going to bring to Augusta-Richmond County, I’m very proud to have been a part of having brought you aboard.”
While Mason said he did not agree with 100 percent of the budget, he insisted it was a huge improvement from last year’s proposal presented by Russell.
“Just as a point of note, so that you know, I have not voted for a single budget that has been presented to me in seven years,” Mason said. “I feel pretty good about this budget that is being presented today. All things being equal, I think I can support it so I’m very, very happy with the direction that you are moving the city in. In front of God and country, I think you’ve done an outstanding job in addressing these particular issues and the needs.”
In the end, commissioners voted 7-3 in support of Jackson’s proposed budget with commissioners Grady Smith, Wayne Guilfoyle and Louis Harris voting against the motion.