Higher taxes equal more tension

Augusta Commissioner Ben Hasan takes office and the mayor breaks a 5-5 tie to raise taxes

Higher taxes equal more tension

Augusta rarely sees it.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver getting an opportunity to cast a vote and break a tie on the Augusta Commission.

But this wasn’t a regular week in Augusta-Richmond County.

Following the sudden resignation of District 6 Commissioner Joe Jackson last week, Commissioner-Elect Ben Hasan was sworn in Monday after the commission voted 9-0 for him to takeover the seat and fill the vacancy.

But Hasan didn’t have any time to bask in the glory of becoming the newest member of the commission.

Just minutes after Hasan was sworn in by Richmond County State Court Judge David Watkins, he was faced with one of the most difficult votes a politician will ever have to make: Whether to raise property taxes by 1.75 mills or slash the 2014 budget by more than $5 million?

tax-meetingHasan, who has attended the recent commission meetings and property tax hearings over the past few weeks, knew what was at stake.

He understood it would be the first property tax increase in seven years.

He knew Richmond County residents who own a $100,000 house would have to pay about $60 more this year on their tax bill.

He heard all of the comments from angry residents who filled the commission chambers last week and watched as Augusta commissioners failed to pass the proposed millage increase with a vote of 4-6.

Hasan also knew what a vote for a tax increase could mean for his political future.

But he did it anyway.

Along with commissioners Bill Fennoy, Corey Johnson, Bill Lockett and Marion Williams, Hasan voted in favor of the property tax increase. But five other commissioners — Mary Davis, Alvin Mason, Donnie Smith, Grady Smith and Wayne Guilfoyle — voted against it.

There was a tie, which meant Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver would have to make the final decision.

deke-4“It is 5-5?” Copenhaver asked after commissioners cast their votes.

While the mayor seemed somewhat surprised, it didn’t take long for him to make the call on what to do.

“Based on the fact that this is the recommendation of staff and the millage rate has not been increased in seven years, I will vote in favor of the motion,” he said, to the shock and disbelief of several citizens sitting in the audience.

Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason was also stunned by the results of the vote. He asked City Clerk Lena Bonner to once again read the names of commissioners who had voted in favor and who had opposed the millage increase.

After Bonner announced that Hasan had supported the tax increase, Mason muttered, “Welcome aboard.”

As dozens of citizens filed out of the commission chambers, clearly outraged by the vote, Hasan told members of the media that he felt he had no other choice.

Ben-Hasan“This was a necessary evil,” Hasan said, as the television cameras crowded around him and reporters put microphones in his face. “I had a conversation with Commissioner Joe Jackson last week. He talked to me last Tuesday in the back (of the commission chambers) and informed me he was going to be stepping down. He had run on a policy not to raise taxes, but he clearly understood that we needed the revenue. I took that to mean, he knew that’s what we needed to do, but he just couldn’t do it.”

After reviewing the information presented by the finance department relating to an estimated $5.9 million hole in the 2014 budget, Hasan said that voting for the tax increase would help stabilize the city.

“Nobody wants to see the community go under,” he said. “We anticipate next year will be better. We have three more new commissioners and a mayor-elect coming on board.

We will have an opportunity to do some things differently.”

When asked whether constituents in his district would be upset that the very first vote he cast was to raise the millage rate, Hasan said he believed those in District 6 understood that a tax increase was needed.

“The voters who spoke to me said they were in favor of it,” Hasan said, adding that he had talked to a woman from his district this past weekend who had just purchased a home and she told him she realized a tax increase was necessary. “We had to do it, but the citizens are anticipating, with three new commissioners and the mayor-elect, we will do better and they are willing to give us an opportunity to do just that.”

But some of his colleagues said Hasan must be suffering from selective hearing because the citizens they spoke to were firmly against a tax increase of any kind.

“There is no question about it, there is fat in the budget, and we took the avenue of least resistance without any real say-so from taxpayers,” Mason said after the vote. “We have allowed this government to raise the taxes and not address the issues that got us in the deficit in the first place, nor do we have a plan for moving forward of how we are going to rectify this. There is just no plan there and all of that results in a very unfortunate situation for this government and for the citizens, in particular.”

Mason said he was so disturbed by some of his colleagues’ willingness to increase taxes that he seriously considered abstaining to prevent the mayor from breaking a tie.

“I haven’t used the abstention up here since I’ve been on the commission for anything other than legitimate reasons,” Mason said, adding that he believes he has only abstained once in the seven years he has been on the commission. “But I was tempted to use it today because I could clearly see there was a will of this commission to let the mayor break the tie. There were certain commissioners that were not going to take responsibility for the vote to increase taxes, and that’s unfortunate.”

But Mason said his “strength of conviction to do the right thing” could not allow him to abstain from voting.

Deke-“Although I know that I could have and I certainly thought about it, but I was just hoping that everybody would vote their convictions and do what they felt was in the best interests of this community versus taking this way out,” Mason said. “I think my fellow commissioners knew that I was going to stick to my guns and vote ‘no’ and that really kind of allowed the situation for a 5-5 tie to come about.”

“So I am a little unnerved by that maneuver,” he added. “I could have done something about it, but I chose to remain who I’ve been for this entire time that I’ve been on this commission and I voted ‘no,’ and, unfortunately, as a result of that, taxes are being raised.”

Mason, who pointed out that he is a term-limited commissioner and therefore will not be able to “look out” for District 4 next year, said that he hopes citizens get what they want in 2015 when the newly elected commissioners and mayor take office.

“I’m very concerned about the future of Augusta,” said Mason, who also ran for mayor this year but lost to Mayor-Elect Hardie Davis. “I will become a civilian in December and my time will be up. I sincerely hope voters will get what they desired when they cast their votes. You’ve seen the results so far.”

Following the vote to increase taxes, Copenhaver said he had no doubt in his mind that it was the right decision for Augusta-Richmond County.

“It was really not difficult because based on staff recommendations and the fact that we had not raised the millage rate in seven years, we had dug ourselves into a hole,” Copenhaver said. “Nobody wants to increase taxes, but when you look at the long-term health and finances of this city, I didn’t see any other way.”

Despite comments from several citizens and some commissioners about wasteful spending in the city government, Copenhaver insisted that is simply not true.

“I’ve been down here nine years and I’ve seen how we have trimmed and trimmed our expenses. There is not fat in the budget,” the mayor said. “And when you have things like an ice storm that hits your budget, it has been a difficult year, so I know I’ve made the right decision.”

What many citizens don’t realize is the fact that almost every other municipality the size of Augusta throughout Georgia has a much higher tax rate than Richmond County, Copenhaver said.

“When you look at our tax rate compared to other cities, I don’t know that people actually realize how good we’ve got it,” he said. “Part of the explanation for that is, if somebody has lived here and never lived any place else, they have got no point of reference or nothing to compare it to. But when you get new residences coming in, they rave about the low cost of living, the low taxes and what you can get for your money here. So it is just different perspectives.”

However, Augusta Commissioner Grady Smith, who is a long-time supporter of Copenhaver, said he was disappointed by the mayor’s decision to vote in favor of the tax increase.

“I like old Deke. I think he has done a good job. I think he has tried to do what is best for bringing the group together, but I didn’t agree with his vote,” Grady Smith said. “But you know, Deke has got the money. I don’t. I have to work for a living.”

Grady Smith, who was recently re-elected to the Super District 10 seat, was extremely frank about his feelings regarding the property tax increase, saying that the next four years may be a struggle now that there is a power shift on the commission.

“Get ready. It is here. Six to four. It’s here. Beware,” Grady Smith said, referring to the fact that Augusta will now have six black commissioners and four white commissioners representing the county. “I would hope that everything would be voted on as far as what is good for Richmond County and not based on color. The only color that I care about is green. When everybody has a little bit of extra cash in their pocket, everybody is smiling and I know that from being in private enterprise.”

Grady Smith said he didn’t want to prejudge anyone before they took office, but he was not surprised by Hasan’s decision to support the tax increase.

“Might as well start off on the right foot,” Smith said, sarcastically referring to Hasan vote to raise taxes. “I knew what the game was. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. Now, we know. He is out of the closet. We know how it is going to be for a while.”

Clearly aggravated by the tax increase, Grady Smith simply said that he hopes the voters in District 6 are satisfied with their choice for commissioner.

“Ben voted the way he wanted to vote. He knows he is not going to hear anything from me,” Grady Smith said. “The people voted for him. It is too late to bitch and moan. The game is started. You can’t change the rules in the middle of the game. We have Ben for four more years.”

Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams said he was disappointed to hear people already using negatives terms, such as the “gang of six,” in reference to the six black elected officials on the commission. He pointed out that Hasan had just been sworn into office and people were already getting negative.

“Someone has already asked me about a ‘gang of six.’ Come on, now,” Williams said, shaking his head. “I don’t think we are going to be a ‘gang of six.’ You are going to see some commissioners do the right thing. We aren’t going to do some black things or some white things, but some right things and that is all I want. Hopefully, with this new tax increase, we will be able to get this city moving, get commissioners doing some things with the new mayor who is about to come on board and Augusta can have a brighter day. Just like James Brown said, we can get on the good foot.”

Before the day was over, Copenahver got a second opportunity to break a tie. This time, the vote was about beginning the process to consider implementing a new excise tax on manufacturers.

For months, commissioners have been discussing a new energy excise tax, which local counties can basically use to replace the sales tax on energy that was eliminated by the state legislature.

Mayor-Elect Hardie Davis, as a state senator, helped co-author the legislation that exempted manufacturers in Georgia from paying sales tax on energy.

The legislation, called House Bill 386, put pressure on counties throughout the state to decide whether local governments should replace that lost revenue with this new excise tax on energy.

Finance Director Donna Williams explained that Richmond County has lost a great deal of the sales tax revenue from manufacturers due to HB 386.

In 2013, Augusta lost $1 million in revenue and, this year, the city is expected to lose $2 million, Williams explained. That amount will grow to $3 million in 2015 and $4 million in 2016, she said.

After a lengthy discussion about the excise tax, commissioners Fennoy, Mason, Lockett, Williams and Hasan voted in favor of starting the process to consider implementing the excise tax.

Commissioners Guilfoyle, Johnson, Donnie Smith, Grady Smith and Mary Davis voted against it.

Facing another 5-5 tie, Copenhaver decided to support the motion to simply begin the process to consider the excise tax.

Following the discussion on the energy excise tax, Donnie Smith said the commission will have to make some extremely difficult decisions about its financial future over the next few months.

“This has been building up for probably 18 months because, as our finance director said, revenue has not met expenditures,” Donnie Smith said. “The amount of money coming in has not met the amount of money going out, so we have had this discussion for a long period of time.”

Much of the blame falls in the laps of past commissioners who refused to increase the city’s revenue or cut expenses, Donnie Smith said.

“The previous commission that went out of office left a hole in the budget when this particular commission came in two years ago,” he said. “I don’t think this is anything that none of us didn’t see coming. It is just, now, how do we approach it?”

The challenge will be for commissioners to come together as one body and agree where cuts need to be made, he said.

“We have to have six commissioners agree on what is a priority,” Donnie Smith said. “And that can be tough because what I consider to be nonessential, Commissioner Fennoy may consider to be essential.”

But Commissioner Grady Smith said he fears those six votes may come a lot easier than the public realizes.

“It is going to be interesting,” Grady Smith said. “I like to give everybody the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully, everybody will do what is right. And, don’t get me wrong, not everybody is going to vote the way I want them to vote. As long as a man has his convictions and stands behind them and tries to do what is right, even if I disagree with him, I can live with it.

“But when I see a guy that just blindly votes for something because of color or religion or whatever, something is wrong. Something is really wrong.”

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