Special Assignment: Commissioners Contribute to Budget Deficit

By: Jonathan Martin
By: Jonathan Martin

September 25, 2006

Augusta commissioners are trying to fix the budget, but have they taken the time to see how they're contributing to the deficit?

In this special assignment, News 12's Jonathan Martin looks at some of the costly decisions made by commissioners.

Commissioners ultimately decide how millions of your tax dollars are spent...and while they're looking at solutions for this budget shortfall, some ask: are they a part of the problem?

Augusta is facing a $5 million deficit for the second straight year.

"It's a mess, it really is," says Augusta resident Diane Godsey.

And while commissioners have talked about making cuts to areas that are said to be losing money, like transit, there hasn't been much talk about the Commission's role in the budget shortfall.

"I'll admit freely that some shortsighted decisions by past commissions have put us in the budget situation we're in now," Augusta mayor Deke Copenhaver told News 12.

"That's a lot of money that has been spent that's really unnecessary," said Commissioner J.R. Hatney. "I'm not faulting or blaming anybody, but it's not been done."

The biggest way the Commission has cost you is by not following the city's charter, which calls for a legal department.

That means instead of your tax dollars paying a salary of $250,000 to an attorney who works for the city, you pay private attorney Steve Shepard by the hour...which has added up to at least $2 million a year.

"How we do not have an in-house legal department to this point after it was called for by consolidation...it was actually voted on three times to move forward with that," Copenhaver said.

But it never did move forward. Mayor Pro Tem Marion Williams says he's addressed this before, but got little support.

"None of the other commissioners want to address this," he said. "When the taxpayers want to look at money, they need to see how many millions of dollars goes into our attorney's budget versus the city's budget."

Another decision that's cost you millions was the Commission giving eight percent raises to all 2700 city workers. Not only were the raises unbudgeted, but the city administrator warned city leaders before about the negative effect that large of an increase would have.

"I just don't think you can go outside of the budget like that," Copenhaver said. "That was a very shortsighted decision."

And while commissioners certainly are not to blame for all of the budget problems, when you factor in some of their decisions along with the fact that some continually go over on their city cell phone and gas budget, perhaps it can be argued that city leaders have played a role.

"They're fully responsible for all of the things they blow away," says Augusta resident John Force. "They just blow away things; they don't put it into perspective."

"We're going to work through some of this," Commissioner Hatney said. "It's going to take some soul searching and heart searching."

City leaders tell News 12 there is a committee currently in place to establish a law department. As far as what commissioners will do to fix this year's budget, that is still in the works.

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