Non-governmental organizations such as the Imperial Theatre, Augusta Family Y, Paine College and the Augusta Mini Theatre will not be a part of the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax list scheduled to go before voters in November.
But the debate among Augusta commissioners to include or exclude these non-governmental groups clearly showed the differences that exist across this community.
Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis began the SPLOST discussion on Aug. 18 by asking that each commissioner look toward the future of Augusta-Richmond County when voting on the proposed sales tax list.
“Historically, Augusta voters have approved a series of SPLOST dating back to 1988,” Davis said, adding that some of the projects that were developed from SPLOST include the Diamond Lakes Regional Park, Augusta’s Convention Center on Reynolds Street, the Augusta Judicial Center and the downtown library. “The reality of it is the pennies of individuals who travel into this community, not just those who live here, are working to keep Augusta a great place to live, work and to play.”
Whichever SPLOST package the commission approved, Davis pledged to support it.
“I don’t have any pet projects in the SPLOST package, but I do know over the last two decades Augusta has used this as a tool to the tune of almost $750 million of sales tax funds to make this a better community,” Davis said. “We have also been able to minimize long-term debt and save substantial resources as it relates to financing as opposed to issuing bonds.”
While the mayor said he supported SPLOST, he also asked commissioners to begin to work diligently to develop a capital improvement program for Augusta.
“As a community we should not have to rely on SPLOST every five years in order to continue to make Augusta, Georgia, better,” Davis said. “A community our size should have one of those capital improvement programs in place already.”
Commissioners considered three different plans: a $228 million SPLOST proposal that commissioners developed last week; a revised $220 million package, which includes $7.5 million for the non-governmental organizations; and a $215.5 million plan which did not include any of the non-governmental organizations.
Right from the beginning of the discussion, several commissioners supported the $215.5 million SPLOST package without non-governmental organizations.
“This SPLOST package is a necessity for the survival of Augusta-Richmond County, as well as Blythe and Hephzibah,” Augusta Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said. “This package is designed for infrastructure, first responders’ needs and information technology, as well as government needs.”
Guilfoyle insisted there was no room for non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, in this round of SPLOST.
“To be truthful, people are getting really upset that we are giving money away to NGOs,” Guilfolyle said. “The way I look at it is, a NGO can survive five years but Augusta-Richmond County cannot survive without SPLOST.”
But Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams said if this SPLOST package does not include any non-governmental organizations, it will fail at the polls in November.
“We haven’t done anything to attract or grow our economic development,” Williams said. “I think all of us support public safety. You can’t never have too many officers. If you had an officer on every corner, you wouldn’t have too many officers. But we have got to support this whole community and not just the public safety side or the infrastructure.”
Simply improving the county’s infrastructure won’t bring more people to Augusta, Williams insisted.
“The infrastructure is probably getting worse every day and by the time one SPLOST is over, the stuff that we’ve done fixed needs to be fixed again,” Williams said. “If we don’t put something in this SPLOST to excite this community and get the people behind us to say, ‘Hey this is something different. This is something good. This is something we can benefit from.’ I think we are going to lose it.”
Despite what some commissioners believe, Williams insisted that the $215.5 million SPLOST proposal did not reflect the needs of the entire community.
“This is one-sided as it has ever been. It is west Augusta,” Williams said, referring to the $215.5 million proposal. “When you look at the southside and you look at the things that it needs, we ought to be one city, Mr. Mayor. You talk about one Augusta. But this list is not put together for one Augusta.”
Williams also felt it was unfair to completely cut off all of the non-governmental agencies such as The Miller Theatre, The Imperial Theatre and The Augusta Mini Theatre.
“We don’t give no advanced warning. We just swing the hatchet,” Williams said. “As long as they aren’t cutting our throat, then we have no problem with it. But I do support them.”
Williams said he also supported the idea of trying to bring new development into the Augusta area, such as a museum honoring the late James Brown.
“We need something that is going to attract the people to come to this city and spend money so that our SPLOST will make more money,” Williams said. “We have the same folks here, we are doing the same thing, but we want something different. Somebody said that is the definition of insanity.”
Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy agreed that these non-governmental organization are what define Augusta’s community.
“What the NGOs are asking for today is less than 5 percent of the total allocation of SPLOST funding,” Fennoy said. “We are talking about less than a nickel out of the dollar.”
And while some people believe that Fennoy favors these non-governmental organizations because he has personal ties with them, he insisted that wasn’t true.
“I was talking to one of my colleagues this morning and I said one of the lasting memories that I have coming up with Y was being told that, at 16 years old, that if I go to Ethiopia, that I still couldn’t join the Y,” Fennoy said. “But that has since changed and I know the great job that they are doing in my community teaching my nieces and nephews how to swim, free of charge.”
Fennoy told his colleagues that those are invaluable services provided to this community.
“The biggest cause of accidental death among black kids is drowning,” Fennoy said. “The Y sees the need, they are addressing the need, and they are trying to do something about it… I do not believe we can afford to leave the non-governmental agencies out of this SPLOST package.”
In fact, Fennoy said the leadership that the Augusta Mini Theatre’s Executive Director Tyrone Butler has given this community is vastly improving the Garden City.
“It is hard to put a dollar figure on the number of kids that he has kept from going to jail, the number of kids that he has sent to college and the values that he has instilled in a lot of kids in our community,” Fennoy said of Butler. “You can’t put a dollar amount on that.”
Fennoy asked his colleagues to look at the big picture for the entire county.
“It is five cents out of a dollar,” Fennoy said of the funding requested by non-governmental organizations. “Five cents out of a dollar. The impact of five cents out of a dollar will be greater, I believe, than giving the whole 100 percent to governmental agencies.”
While Commissioner Ben Hasan sympathized with Fennoy’s opinion, he also said he had to listen to what the voters were telling him.
“You can build a building but a building don’t build people,” Hasan said, explaining that these non-governmental organizations are important. “But if you build people, people will build a building.”
However, the majority of citizens that Hasan spoke with over the past few weeks supported a SPLOST that concentrated on the county’s infrastructure needs.
In the end, commissioners voted 6-4 in favor of the $215.5 million SPLOST package that did not include funds for non-governmental organizations.
Those commissioners who voted for the package included Mary Davis, Sean Frantom, Wayne Guilfoyle, Ben Hasan, Sammie Sias and Grady Smith.
The proposed SPLOST package is scheduled to be placed on the Nov. 3 ballot for voter consideration.