“The only show in town”

Augusta’s City Administrator Fred Russell talks budget shortfall, his upcoming performance evaluation and the controversial “slum” designation

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“The only show in town”

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Augusta’s City Administrator Fred Russell.

He is currently facing a 2014 budget with a $8.5 million shortfall.

His 10 bosses have suddenly decided to give him a performance evaluation, the first one in more than a decade.

And he is getting hammered by some local citizens on a weekly basis over a proposal to rename a portion of the downtown a “slum.”

But, according to Russell, it all comes with the territory.

“These are tough jobs,” Russell said, laughing. “That’s why most people only last two or three or four years as city administrators or city managers. It’s tough.”

Criticism is around every corner, but it’s the way you deal with such negative comments that determines your legacy with an organization, Russell said.

“I’ve got a pretty thick skin. And I usually consider criticism from the source because it is hard to argue about what we’ve done,” Russell said, pointing to the more than $1 billion worth of public improvements that have been accomplished since he became city administrator. “It’s a free world. You can express your opinion. If you don’t like me or what I’ve accomplished, more power to you. But in the back of my mind, I keep thinking, ‘You show me what you’ve done.’”

Unfortunately, there is a small group of extremely vocal people in Augusta who seem to take great pleasure in criticizing anything outside their comfort zone, Russell said.

“We have a small percentage of the population who is very vocal and who don’t like anything, apparently,” Russell said. “But we have a large percentage of the population who doesn’t seem to care what the smaller percentage thinks of things, and supports growth and improvement.

“It is easy to be against something. Tell me what you are for and tell me how to do it. The hard part is actually making things happen.”

Russell admits he was a little surprised by some of the public’s reaction to his proposal to create an Urban Redevelopment Area in order to save money renovating the Municipal Building on Greene Street.

Basically, by accepting the proposed “slum” designation, the Augusta Commission would allow a special Urban Development Agency to issue tax-exempt bonds to renovate the Municipal Building under the Urban Redevelopment Law, which was initially adopted by the Georgia General Assembly in 1955.

The city could save between $2 million to $3 million over the life of the loan if the Augusta Commission agreed to the “slum” designation.

“I was pleased, in a back-handed kind of way, that people took so much offense to the slum thing,” Russell said, chuckling. “That’s good public spirit. But I was amazed that some of the people who took so much offense to it had been here several weeks ago complaining about how bad things were downtown. Then, all of a sudden, we use a 1950-something law to try and fix things and save money and they get upset about the verbiage.”

If you get caught up in the words, you can miss the big picture, Russell said.

“We do that a lot. We get upset about the verbiage and lose track of the end goals sometimes,” he said. “And that’s somewhat frustrating for somebody who would prefer to see the glass as half full rather than half empty.”

His job is to simply make recommendations and it’s up to the Augusta Commission to decide what is best for the city, Russell said.

“That’s all I do is make recommendations,” Russell said. “I have a pretty good history and I think we’ve done a pretty good job with those recommendations. But at the end of the day, for the last 12 years, I’ve been told to save money, save money, save money.”

It probably wouldn’t have been a controversial proposal had the media not discovered the “slum” terminology in the legislation prior to the Augusta Commission’s public discussion on the Urban Redevelopment Area designation, he said.

“It was on the committee meeting’s agenda to discuss and we had planned to speak about it for some length that Monday,” Russell said. “But the story broke sooner than that and the headline became ‘Declare Augusta a slum.’ The headline could have been, ‘Augusta uses unique funding mechanism to save taxpayers money.’ But, which one would you put in the paper if you were editor? So, I get it.”

The local media is always hungry for a story and the Augusta Commission can be an easy target because it isn’t afraid to openly discuss the problems or issues facing the city, Russell said.

“We are the only show in town,” Russell said, laughing.

The media won’t closely follow the Columbia County Commission or the city governments in Aiken County because they don’t operate like the Augusta Commission, Russell said.

“Look at the difference between my commission and the commission in Columbia County. Or my commission and the commission and councils across the river,” Russell said. “We have diversity that, in long run, makes us a whole lot stronger. But, in the short term, it creates a lot of conversation, which is a good thing because that diversity is one of our strengths.”

Diversity on the Augusta Commission allows for new ideas and better representation for all citizens in the Garden City, Russell said.

“There is no such thing as a rubber stamp here,” Russell said. “Everything gets vetted and vetted and vetted and vetted. We will go back and vet things that we did five years ago just to keep vetting them.”

People may find that frustrating, but Russell said the end result can be pretty amazing.

“Most places would kill to be in the position we are in,” he said. “I’ve been here 10 years running the show, basically, or attempting to run the show, whichever side of that argument you are on, and we’ve done about $1 billion worth of public improvements. We have increased our bond rating three times since I’ve been here. I’ve have got houses going up in Laney-Walker left and right, which people never, ever thought would happen.”

Many cities aren’t even half as lucky as Augusta, Russell said.

“My general philosophy is look at the Greenvilles of the world,” he said. “People compare us to cities like Greenville and Chattanooga. Those places hit rock bottom. They were struggling to survive. And they had to come together to figure out how to make it.

“We’ve had the luxury of sort of floating along for the last 50 to 60 years. We’ve had good days and bad days, but, generally speaking, we have been pretty lucky.”

Russell, a former deputy police chief from Richmond, Va., came to Augusta in 2002 after he was hired by his friend and former City Administrator George Kolb.

When Kolb left Augusta in 2004, Russell, then a deputy administrator, was named interim city administrator.

Russell says he is extremely proud of the work he has accomplished during his 12 years in Augusta, as both deputy administrator and administrator of Augusta-Richmond County. And he welcomes the commission’s upcoming performance review of his accomplishments.

“Part of the most frustrating thing here is not to get direction,” Russell said. “How many times have you heard me say, ‘Tell me what you want to do?’ My job is to implement policy. It is not to make policy. But if nobody has made any policy or sent any direction, it is sometimes hard to do.”

But Russell said he is not concerned about his evaluation by the commission because he knows pretty much where he stands with each commissioner.

“I get evaluated every two weeks,” Russell said, chuckling. “Every time the commission gets together, I know all it takes is six of them to say, ‘Go away, Fred.’ We’ll shake hands and I’ll leave. That’s just how it works. There are no hard feelings.”

During his time in Augusta, Russell says he has tried very hard to stay focused on helping commissioners make significant improvements to the city. However, it is not always easy to satisfy 10 bosses all at once.

“Over the past 12 years, I’ve worked for 33 or 34 different people here,” Russell said. “That’s 34 different personalities, 34 different sets of expectations, 34 different visions of what Augusta needs to be and we’ve been able to carve a path through that that has been relatively successful. But, at some point, it is time for me to go.”

The reality is that being the city administrator of Augusta isn’t always easy, Russell said.

“I’ll be first to admit, that the energy levels come and go on occasion,” he said. “I get somewhat frustrated when we argue about stuff that we can’t do anything about and let those things that we could fix go by the wayside because we are dealing with stupid stuff. But I don’t get to pick the agenda. I just get to deal with what they give me. Be that good, bad or indifferent. “

Most people would cringe at the idea of having to work for 10 different people and the mayor all at one time. But Russell describes it as a “piece of cake.”

“Before I was deputy police chief in Richmond, Va., I was executive director of the State Crime Commission,” Russell said. “I worked for the legislature. I had 100 delegates and 40 senators, who each thought they were my personal boss. So, knock it down to 10, it’s a piece of cake. It’s all about perspective.”

In order to survive as city administrator of Augusta, the key is, you must have a lot of self confidence, Russell said.

“I know what I can do. Even more importantly, I know what I can’t do,” Russell said. “And I’m smart enough to listen to people who know about what I don’t. I’m not a subject matter expert at a lot of things, but I can reach out to people who are.”

When it comes to his position in Augusta, Russell says he considers himself much like a conductor of an orchestra.

“I don’t know how to play the tuba or the flute or anything, actually,” Russell said. “I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but I have people who can do all of that and I want to try and keep them all together. Sometime the question is what sheet of music we are playing, but that is a policy decision that comes from somebody else.”

Some days are easier than others. For example, the commission will have a difficult few weeks trying to decide how to balance its 2014 budget.

Over the next few days, the Augusta Commission will have to deal with the fact that the proposed $145.8 million general fund budget for 2014 is currently out of balance by about $3.9 million.

But the news gets worse.

Of the proposed $683.7 million total budget for the city (including capital projects, general funds, special revenue funds, debt service funds, enterprise funds, etc.), there is an $8.5 million shortfall between the estimated revenue and expenditures for 2014.

“Now, every time we’ve done this, there has always been a deficit to start out with,” Russell said, referring to the budget process. “It’s like going through the grocery store. You got the list of what you want to buy and then when you start pushing the cart up and down the aisle, you end up thinking about what you really need.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to Augusta’s budget, Russell said there is not much “fat” left and therefore the commission has the option to either slash services or raise taxes.

The state isn’t helping the matter either because the legislature recently decided to take away a portion of the local excise tax on energy.

“That was 2 percent of our sales tax on energy that went down the tubes, because the state, in their generosity, gave away four of their pennies and two of ours,” Russell said. “The state said, ‘Yeah, you can get it back, but you’ve got to be the bad guys.’ Come on, people. This is a big operation and a big business, but it also costs a lot of money to run.”

And, as we all know, money doesn’t grow on trees, Russell said.

“If you want to do the service, you have got to pay for it,” he said. “You can’t drive a Cadillac and make a Volkswagen payment. I mean, that’s just the reality of it.”

Also, the truth is that the city’s tax rate is less than what it was in 2008, Russell said. “There aren’t too many other things that are less than what they were in 2008,” he said. “That should be a flag that maybe we ought to think about raising taxes. It’s a horrible thing to do as a politician and not something I’m recommending, but tell me what you don’t want to do. It is one or the other. The hard part for us, we don’t want to decide what not to do.”

When it comes to raising taxes on properties, the financial impact to homeowners isn’t that significant, Russell said. But he understands that everyone’s budget is stretched thin these days.

“If you raise taxes one mill, it brings in a little over $4 million,” Russell said. “But if you look at the $100,000 house, it’s like $30-something dollars a year, which is about $2.50 a month.”

The Augusta Commission and its citizens must decide what government services they value and how much they are willing to pay for it, Russell said.

“I live in a place where I pay more for cable TV than I do for all of my government services,” Russell said. “And there is something not right about that, for me.

“To listen to everybody say that our taxes are too much, I have a hard time keeping a straight face when they say that. We’ve got it pretty good.”vv