The Marble Palace was all abuzz this week as news spread that Augusta Commissioner Marion Williams owed more than $3,500 in overdue taxes on properties in Richmond County.
Just last week, Williams began pressing his fellow commissioners to consider implementing a policy that would require future city employees to live in Augusta-Richmond County.
His reason: Too much of taxpayers’ money was leaving Augusta and going to neighboring counties where about 30 percent of the city employees reside, Williams said.
“If you are going to get your bread and butter, you ought to eat it at this table,” Williams insisted last week. “Don’t take it to someone else’s table.”
Even though there are a handful of current department directors who lived outside of Richmond County and take home a total of more than $500,000 a year, General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie told commissioners there is a Georgia law that restricts residency requirements for government employees.
MacKenzie explained that the commission could not tell prospective employees that they would not get a job with the city if they did not live in Richmond County, unless there was a “compelling governmental reason” for such a requirement.
For example, a law enforcement agency could require a deputy in some cases to live within the jurisdiction to ensure faster response times. But the reason for such residency restrictions was extremely limited, he said.
When Williams brought the issue up again this week during the Augusta Commission’s administrative services committee on Jan. 13, several of his colleagues tried to convince Williams that a residency restriction on future employees was pointless and prohibited by law.
But Williams still insisted on receiving a full report on the number of all city employees who did not reside in Augusta.
“I’ve got a lot of criticism and a lot of support. However you want to look at it, it doesn’t mean a hill of beans to me,” Williams said. “I’m trying to address an issue that bothers me.”
Interim City Administrator Tameka Allen, who happens to live outside of Augusta-Richmond County, gave each commissioner a list of all active city employees and their salaries and outlined which lived in the county and which did not. Approximately 32 percent lived outside of Augusta-Richmond County.
After receiving the information, Augusta Commissioner Bill Lockett said generating such a list was pointless.
“Mrs. Allen, this tells us the annual salary of those people who live outside this county, but it doesn’t tell me how much money they spend in this county,” Lockett said. “What we are doing is we are assuming that if you live in another county and work in this county, you are not spending money in this county.”
Lockett then began to poke fun at Williams’ request.
“Did you by any chance find that we have any citizens who reside in Augusta-Richmond County that work in Columbia County, McDuffie County or Aiken County?” Lockett asked. “What happens when those counties put this policy in place if they haven’t done it yet?”
Williams told Lockett that if he wanted to request that information from the law department or the county clerk’s office, he could do so.
“I think that is a rhetorical question,” MacKenzie said of Lockett’s comment.
As several commissioners began shaking their heads at the entire residency discussion, Williams told his colleagues that they didn’t have to support his request for the information.
“You don’t have to like this,” Williams said. “But if these numbers are true, it is some serious money we are dealing with. And I don’t care where they spend the money at. I know where they get the money from. That was my point.”
In other action, the public services committee voted to delay the construction of the city’s new $9.4 million transit operation and maintenance facility on Highway 56 because of possible contamination on the proposed site.
Augusta Solid Waste Director Mark Johnson told commissioners it was discovered during one of the environmental evaluations that the property did have some trash buried underground including tires, paper and some metals.
Johnson said organic matter was also located on the site, which could result in the production of methane.
Due primarily to that concern and the fact that there was trash buried underneath the land, the property was classified under the Georgia Environmental Protection Division as a “waste disposal facility,” Johnson said.
“The previous owner was disposing of their own materials,” he said. “They were doing vehicle salvage, but they buried some tires and buried some trash, but it met the EPD criteria as a waste disposal facility because of the methane.”
But that wasn’t the only bad news Johnson had for the commission.
“There are also portions of that land in the floodplain,” he said.
Augusta Commissioner Alvin Mason said he could not believe what he was hearing.
“We have a piece of property here that we are contemplating about approving that, at the very least has some gaseous emissions, and it sits on a floodplain?” Mason asked. “And you mean to tell me that we are talking about potentially utilizing this for the purposes of transit?”
While the $9.4 million transit operation and maintenance facility is 80 percent federally funded, Augusta Commissioner Donnie Smith insisted that the county should go back to the drawing board and rethink the location of the project.
“At some point the buses either in the ingress or egress are going to be in the floodplain. That’s playing dominoes,” Smith said. “We are going to put the public in danger and at some point it is going to be a problem for the people who work there.”
“I think somebody made a terrible decision here and we, as a government, have to try to correct that,” Smith added.
Sharon Dottery, the transit contract manager, and interim City Administrator Tameka Allen said they believed the commission had time to stop the project from moving forward.
Lockett said he was relieved to hear that it wasn’t too late.
“I’ve been trying to get answers to these questions for a long, long time,” Lockett said to Dottery and Allen. “I know you all had a muzzle on it and could not talk about it. But I’m glad that you are able to speak freely now.
“Usually I don’t have a problem expressing myself, but this has gone on so long for us to know that we are trying to build a house on sand and somebody not saying, ‘Hey, we have to stop this madness and do what is right.’”
The public services committee agreed to delay moving forward on the project until the commission could receive more information about the proposed site.
At the end of the discussion, Williams said that he fully supported rethinking the proposed site, but he also wanted to make sure people knew who had been pushing for the location in the first place.
Williams insisted that former City Administrator Fred Russell was in support of the Highway 56 location.
“What we hadn’t been honest about is how this whole thing got out of the gate in the first place,” Williams said. “Now, Commissioner Lockett said there had been muzzles put on some folks. I don’t see no mules or no oxen in here, but somebody has been told to be quiet. This all came from the previous administrator.”