With four of the five mayoral candidates going on record as opposing the $194 million Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) that will be voted on May 20, much of the conversation has focused on the negatives, particularly the fact that agencies outside of Richmond County government would be receiving $21.75 million from it.
Mayoral candidate and Commissioner Alvin Mason even went so far as to argue that giving money to outside agencies is illegal. At the May 6 commission meeting, he asked if it could be removed from the ballot.
“A lot of people are focusing on the minute part of it,” says Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle. “But if you look at the reality, only 13 percent is going to outside agencies. The previous SPLOST and the SPLOST before that had a hell of a lot more pork in it.”
The final list includes $2.5 million to the Imperial Theatre for theater renovations, $4.2 to Symphony Orchestra Augusta for the renovation of the Miller Theatre and $2 million to the Greater Augusta Arts Council for public art implementation.
Guilfoyle says such expenditures are a necessary part of a healthy city.
“Any success for any city is in the arts,” he says. “You’ve got to support the arts, and we don’t have a cultural department within our government, so we have to use outside agencies for that.”
Brenda Durant, executive director of the Greater Augusta Arts Council, agrees.
“It certain cities, a Department of Cultural Affairs might be writing some of these requests for theater improvements and different things, but Augusta doesn’t have that,” she says. “I’m sure that saves them a lot of money by not having salaries and retirement and equipment and offices and all that, so the Arts Council serves as their public art agency. In my mind, that’s not really as outside an agency as I think some people perceive. There’s not a city department that’s set up to do that request, so we’re doing it on behalf of the city.”
That’s not to say the outside organizations aren’t aware of how they are perceived. With that in mind, Durant says Matthew Kwatinetz of the Augusta Regional Collaborative Project suggested to the different arts groups contemplating requesting SPLOST funds a set of guidelines for the amount of public use facilities should have.
“To me it made perfect sense,” Durant says. “It was kind of an unsaid guideline — if you’re going to take public money, there’s a certain public responsibility.”
She points to the Imperial Theatre as a good example an organization following that message, as well as the Jessye Norman School of the Arts, which although it did not put in a request this time around, has requested money in the past.
“They’re looking for ways to do a little more outreach in the community,” Durant says. “They’ve got an artist that has moved into a downstairs studio and they’re going to start doing some gallery shows in some space they’ve determined can be a public gallery. I think that maybe it got us all thinking about that responsibility from the SPLOST, which is good.”
What bothers Durant is the misinformation that persists about the tax.
“I think there are a lot of things that are misrepresented,” she says. “Someone said recently in an interview that if we vote this SPLOST in on May 20 that we’ll be collecting two SPLOST pennies. That is nonsense. Why that would even get printed is so alarming to me, because if one person believes it and votes it down because of that silly thing, that’s awful.”
Levi Hill IV, who chairs the Miller Committee for Symphony Orchestra Augusta, agrees with Durant that in Augusta it’s entirely appropriate for outside arts agencies to receive the tax dollars.
“These are all nonprofits that are requesting money,” he says. “And in order to maintain their tax status, nonprofits have to prove a community benefit, and many of the services that are rendered are given to the community.”
He points to SOA’s free Pops! Under the Stars concert as an example of how this kind of community outreach impacts the area’s quality of life.
“What are the things that attract people to a community?” he asks. “The arts and cultural assets, I think, are the main things that people look at when evaluating a community as a residence. You want a community that has a vibrant cultural complexion to it. I think the economic advantages are enough to sell us in the community on the arts, but it’s often overlooked. People tend to scrub the arts and concentrate on other things.”
The Miller Theatre project, which received $6 million in SPLOST VI and is asking for $4.2 million in SPLOST VII, has been fairly quiet lately, but Hill says that’s about to change. While currently still in the design phase, that will be ending shortly, at which point the construction phase will begin.
In other words, the possibility exists to have the Miller Theatre open within three years, which would include an increased stage size as well as building into the adjacent 18,000 square foot building at 710 Broad Street, which would house the Knox Music Institute, performer dressing rooms and some patron space.
And if the SPLOST fails?
“Well, we continue on,” he says. “It might take us a little longer to build out the project and we might have some features of the project that won’t be available to us in a phased development if we had to take that, but the project is still alive whether the SPLOST passes or not. It just might take us longer to build it.”
If the tax package doesn’t pass, voters will have to wait another year for a chance to vote, this time with a different mayor and different commissioners, which could potentially make it even more difficult to pass.
Also on the list is $5.2 million for acquiring land in the Mills District to offer the potential of a consolidated GRU campus in the urban core. Mayor Deke Copenhaver says the money would allow the city to buy property between the Mills and the property already owned by the MCG Foundation on 15th Street.
According to Copenhaver, GRU has said that they need student housing by the summer of 2016, which is why purchasing the land is considered so important and why, should the SPLOST pass, that money would be bonded in order to expedite the process of potentially creating student housing in the urban core.
Given the aggressive nature of GRU’s growth, how devastating would it be to the Mills project should that money not be available?
“It would create an obstacle, that’s for sure,” Copenhaver says diplomatically.
Durant cautions people not to look at the arts component on the SPLOST list as an either/or situation.
“Even though I do work for the arts council and I do love arts programming, I also like to have a street that doesn’t flood when it rains,” she says. “And I love libraries and recreation centers.”
And while Hill surmises that the absence of Administrator Fred Russell put added pressure on the city during the process, as did the legislature’s decision to move the elections to May 20, he says the process this time was not that much different than other years. Durant agrees.
“There’s been a lot of chatter about lack of public meetings,” she says. “But public meetings have always been after, to talk about what’s in the package. The public has never been invited to come to a meeting to put the SPLOST package together.”
As for the argument that the earlier voting date threw people off, she doesn’t have much patience for that one, either.
“I knew that the vote was gong to be May 20,” she says. “I knew that was the first thing that was going to be voted on when the legislation came back in January, and so did the city of Augusta. They worked on the SPLOST last year. That was not something that was a shock to most people, that this vote was going to be in May.”
Grow Augusta, a group formed to promote and pass the SPLOST, has campaigned in support of the tax with stickers and a Facebook page, but Durant fears that early voting has allowed uninformed voters to have an unfair impact on the process.
“If you’re not familiar with what’s in the SPLOST package and haven’t gotten to one of the public meetings and you don’t feel educated, then certainly don’t early vote,” she says.