For the past several years, Augusta has gotten used to a mayor who simply smiles, bites his tongue and tries to be friends with everyone.
Well, Augusta, get ready for a change.
Apparently, Augusta Mayor-Elect Hardie Davis has an opinion and he’s not afraid to use it.
While attending his first Augusta Commission’s retreat held at the Kroc Center on Friday, Davis surprised both staff and commissioners with some extremely pointed questions regarding this year’s budget.
When Finance Director Donna Williams presented a budget proposal that included a suggested 2-mill property tax increase, many of the commissioners began to squirm.
As always, the idea of having to tell their constituents that a tax increase is in their very near future is like death to politicians.
But, faced with about a $5.5 million budget shortfall this year, Augusta Commissioner Bill Lockett told his colleagues that he felt the commission had no other choice but to raise taxes.
“You can only cut for so long,” Lockett said, adding that Augusta is suffering from hundreds of dilapidated houses, unkept yards and no transit system in south Augusta. “The quality of life in Augusta-Richmond County is deteriorating. We have to be men and women enough to step up to the plate and say, ‘Hey, this is something that we’ve got to do.’”
Augusta Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle insisted that the citizens of Augusta are demanding that commissioners cut expenses.
“Why don’t we make an agreement? If we raise taxes by $100, we cut something by $100,” Guilfoyle said, as several commissioners shook their heads in disagreement.
Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy said Guilfoyle’s district isn’t faced with the same challenges as District 1 with abandoned houses that attract everything from drug activity to snake infestations.
In response, Guilfoyle said commissioners needed to think outside of the box, including possibly charging nonprofit organizations fees for the basic city services provided to them since they already enjoy several tax exemptions.
“They use our city services,” Guilfoyle said. “But that all falls on the backs of the taxpayers.”
Charging them some sort of fees would be a “great start,” Guilfoyle said.
Davis, who is pastor of Abundant Life Worship Center on Brown Road in south Augusta, turned directly to Guilfoyle and asked, “What church do you go to?”
Guilfoyle seemed slightly confused by the reason for the question, but he didn’t hesitate to answer.
Then, Davis continued to press him.
“Have you talked to your pastor about this?” Davis asked.
Again, Guilfoyle didn’t back down from his position.
“No, but I will,” Guilfoyle said, adding his church has been in the process of changing pastors, but he wouldn’t mind discussing the matter with the new pastor. “I wouldn’t have a problem with that.”
Guilfoyle said he wasn’t attacking churches, simply looking at ways that all nonprofits could help pay for the services they use.
“It’s all different types of nonprofits,” he said. “I’m not proposing something just on churches.”
Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith said commissioners are going to have to face the fact that they aren’t going to be able to provide a lot of extra community services, even if they agree to raise taxes an additional 2 mills.
“We are $5.7 million in the hole as we speak today,” Smith said. “In Bill (Fennoy)’s district alone, it is going to take $5 million to get rid of all the dilapidated buildings.”
“On my street,” Fennoy sarcastically added, as the room exploded in laughter.
“If this 2-mill increase were to be approved, we are not going to get wholesale changes throughout our city,” Smith warned.
Williams agreed, but she explained the 2-mill increase would “stop the bleeding,” especially considering the commission hasn’t raised taxes in seven years.
“No. You’re not,” she said to Smith. “But you are going to quit falling behind. You are going to quit having that hole you have to fill… In those seven years, we have been steadily falling behind.”
“But you’re right,” she added. “It’s not Christmas. It’s not flipping through the Sears catalogue time.”
The discussion then turned to the new energy excise tax, which local counties can basically use to replace the sales tax on energy that was eliminated by the state.
Here is where things really got interesting.
Davis, as a state senator, helped co-author that particular legislation that exempted industries in Georgia from paying sales tax on energy.
That decision put pressure on all the counties throughout the state to decide whether the governments should replace that lost revenue with this new excise tax authorized by House Bill 386.
Losing that sales tax revenue from industries is “not working well for us,” Williams told commissioners.
In 2013, Augusta lost $1 million in revenue and this year, the city is expected to lose $2 million, Williams said.
That amount will grow to $3 million in 2015 and $4 million in 2016, she said.
But Davis immediately questioned whether it was wise to implement a 2-percent excise tax.
“My question on the table is: Is it not true that you can implement it at 1 percent, as opposed to 2 percent?” Davis asked Williams.
Williams said the ruling she received from the Association County Commissioners of Georgia was that Augusta would have to implement a 2-percent excise tax if it chose to replace the sales tax elimination.
“So, it is not true that GMA has a different position?” Davis asked, referring to the Georgia Municipal Association.
General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie said he was unaware that the two organizations had differing opinions on the matter, however, he agreed with Williams that he thought legally Augusta would be required to collect 2 percent.
“If we decided to do 1 percent on this, who is going to take us to task?” Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith asked. “I mean, if we do 1 percent, who is going to stand up and say, ‘You’ve got to do two?’”
MacKenzie sheepishly raised his hand, admitting he would have no choice but to take the commission to task on the matter.
He explained that if Augusta didn’t not follow the proper guidelines in collecting the excise tax, the city could have a “tax credit challenge” and eventually be required to pay back the taxes that had been collected if they weren’t done properly.
However, Davis didn’t let the commissioners or Williams off the hook about the new excise tax.
“My question is: Are we competitive by doing it?” he asked. “Are we being revenue- neutral by doing that?”
Lockett insisted that Augusta really didn’t have much choice because the Georgia General Assembly took that revenue away from local counties.
Davis simply laughed.
“I was there,” Davis said to Lockett. “I’m on the committee. I helped write it.”
As Davis seemed to revel in the fact that he played a major role in creating the legislation, Lockett turned the tables on him.
“I know. That’s why I will direct a question to you, Mr. Mayor-Elect,” Lockett said. “What was the intent? I mean, that was a good thing done in Atlanta, but we are suffering from the consequences here.”
Davis simply answered that the Legislature gave local counties the option of the excise tax to replace that lost revenue.
“But you didn’t answer my question,” Davis said to both Lockett and Williams. “The question of the day is: If you implement the excise tax, are you being revenue-neutral?”
Williams said she didn’t buy into the argument that fewer industries would come to Augusta or companies would leave Richmond County if the government implemented the energy excise tax.
So, in response to Davis’ question, Williams simply replied, “We are making up for revenue lost.”
With that, Davis sat back in his chair, crossed his arms and looked concerned that the Augusta Commission wasn’t seeing the big picture.
Some of the commissioners joked whether Davis was uncomfortable discussing the actions taken by the Georgia General Assembly or the proposed excise tax.
“No, no,” Davis said, chuckling. “I’m just enjoying this conversation.”