AUGUSTA, Ga. – Some Augusta-area residents are hoping for another SPLOST defeat at the polls Tuesday.
With three weeks of early voting ending Friday, all Richmond County polling places will be open Tuesday in the single-issue election that’s costing the government about $155,000 to conduct.
If approved, special purpose local option sales tax 8 will be Augusta’s eighth renewal of the 1% tax, charged at the cash register.
Augusta commissioners, Mayor Hardie Davis and City Administrator Odie Donald have put together a $250 million list of projects that includes several big-ticket items.
They include $25 million to further work on a new James Brown Arena; $16.5 million to pay off the Cyber Center parking deck; $14 million to add parking in an effort to redevelop the city-owned “Depot” property; $11 million to rebuild the Richmond County Correctional Institution, a state prison that supplies labor for the area; $20 million to build drainage infrastructure not funded by the city stormwater utility fee; and $23.5 million for resurfacing unspecified roads.
Smaller but more eye-catching is the package’s $5 million to launch plans for a water park in south Augusta. Officials said it wouldn’t be run by city employees, unlike other similar facilities around the state.
Urban Redevelopment Agency member Brad Owens formed a “Defeat SPLOST 2021” group on Facebook last month and announced this week that the organization is registered as a political action committee with the Richmond County Board of Elections.
Owens said his discontent began when the project list appeared without any of several requested museum projects – funds for the Augusta Jewish Museum, a military museum and a James Brown wing for the Augusta Museum of History.
“The NGOs really have no other option for funds,” Owens said, referring to non-government entities. “I don’t think the commissioners understand what a ‘special purpose’ is.”
Two-time District 1 Augusta Commission candidate Michael Thurman also is among the group’s more outspoken members. His opposition to the SPLOST includes a warning that self-insured Augusta will be stuck with a huge bill if a child dies at the water park and Richmond County Sheriff Richard Roundtree not getting the projects he wanted.
While the package does not include the jail expansion Roundtree sought, it does include $6 million specifically designated for new vehicles for the sheriff’s office.
Thurman also claims Augusta does not need a new arena, although consultants on the massive project have done extensive market and feasibility studies and would say otherwise. The project will need at least $200 million more for completion, and its source – potentially a referendum on the November ballot – is not guaranteed.
Another local critic, Mike Dixon, says the massive SPLOST haul could be used to solve Augusta’s homeless problem at three times the population.
“Our people should be valued more than buildings and wings made of vanity and wax,” he said in response to Thurman’s online critique.
Coming from another direction is former Commissioner Marion Williams, who has opposed the SPLOST since he served on the commission.
Williams was enthusiastic about a $50 million plan to build a convention center honoring Brown that included a museum and artifacts, but it was not included on any of last year’s project lists. He doesn’t like the new arena location – at its current site – and says the list needs more of the “wow” factor.
“It’s not being done right. They need to go back and rewrite that SPLOST. The same folks are benefiting that always benefit,” he said. “People are thinking if they vote for the SPLOST they’ve building a water park. It’s tricking the people.”
Former Commissioner Moses Todd, who is helping campaign to get the SPLOST passed, took credit for cemetery funds and the water park being on the list. He said the opposition is largely conservatives who don’t want the city to have anything.
“I think it’s a conservative Republican Trump group that is miserable in Democrat Richmond County,” Todd said.
If SPLOST failed in Richmond County, it would not be the first time. In 2014, 51% of voters said “no” to an $187.4 million sales tax package that included funds for the Georgia Cancer Center, a “mills campus” for Augusta University, Paine College and downtown theaters.
In 2004, 79% of voters rejected the $478.7 million SPLOST 5, which included an $81 million sports arena, $18 million performing arts center and $40 million amphitheater.
The government has to wait a year before presenting a new SPLOST to voters, but in the earlier defeats, when project lists were culled of some non-government and very large projects, voters gave them the OK.