Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Censored Comment Blasts Bad Parking Deck Deal


Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012
Augusta, GA
Posted at 9:25pm

We've told you before how The Augusta Chronicle has an inconsistent policy regarding censorship of reader comments: (See-->Banned From The Chronicle). There are certainly circumstances where censorship is warranted on an online paper's comments section such as: Obscenities, advocating violence against others, racial  slurs, misogyny, and libel, among others. But with The Chronicle, often comments are simply removed because certain people disagree (often the publisher) with the opinions being espoused. The terms of service (TOS) for commenting underneath stories says that the service is  intended for "robust debate"... well up to a point.

So it was no surprise to us when we noticed comments under a story about the recent debacle over the TEE Center Parking Deck being removed: See -->Augusta Parking Management Deal Stalls. Community activist and City Stink columnist Lori Davis first brought it to our attention, notifying us that several of her comments under the aforementioned story were removed with no warning or explanation. But then this should not be much of a surprise.. the company that is trying to get a 15 year contract to operate the parking deck is Augusta Riverfront LLC, which has connections to William S Morris III, publisher of The Augusta Chronicle.

Now to be fair, it is their website. They can make the rules and change them without notice. But it is worth pointing out the inconsistencies in how the terms of service are enforced regarding censorship. Knowing that certain opinions are filtered out intentionally may give readers pause that the purpose of the comments section is not about facilitating "robust debate", but rather suppressing it. 

There was one comment that stands out from all of the others on this particular story. It was written by a regular poster who goes by the handle Dichotomy. It remained on the site for several hours before being removed by site administrators in the evening of January 31. Luckily, someone saved it and sent it to us. We've reprinted it below:

Comment by Dichotomy that appeared on The Augusta Chronicle TEE Center Parking Deck Story that was later removed. (Below)
***************
I think that if you poured all of the idiots and crooks in Augusta into one beaker and shook it well you could not have created a bigger mess than this deal. The City supplied the idiots and the LLC(s) provided the crooks. The lawyer, I'm still not sure which side of the fence he would fall on but I suspect his motives.

Congratulations South Augusta and south RC, you paid for much of this. You don't own squat but you paid for it and you are going to continue pay to operate it. I was going to say you paid for a lot of this.....but you didn't even get the "lot". I'll bet Billy and Paul laugh every time they see their parking deck(s), hotel, and TEE. And by the way, Fred "yes I am complicit in all of this", wants to raise your taxes again so we will have plenty of money to pay Billy and Paul to operate their decks and hire attendants.

And if you think this is crooked, just wait until you see how you are going to get took for the ball park and some of the "deals" and payback "jobs" that will come out of that.

If you can't figure this out....it's all about the influential rich people downtown playing with YOUR money and our commissioners being too stupid, or too crooked, to look out for our interests. Our commissioners keep getting us involved in a battle of wits with the rich guys and between the idiots and crooks on our side we are totally unarmed. Throw in a suspected crooked lawyer or two and we are totally screwed.

*****************


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Magnolia Trace Prompts Cline to Challenge Trey Allen


CC Dist 2 candidate Damon Cline
Is it Time for Cline?

Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012
Evans, GA
By The Outsider

The blowback from the Magnolia Trace government subsidized housing development debacle in Martinez has already produced its first candidate for the Columbia County Commission. As reported in the Columbia County News Times yesterday, Petersburg Station resident Damon Cline has announced his intentions to challenge current District 2 Commissioner Trey Allen

Though this is Cline's first foray into local politics, his name is not unfamiliar to most people in the area, especially readers of The Augusta Chronicle. A journalist for  15 years, he was a former Business editor for that newspaper. Now  he works in the Communications and Marketing departments of GHSU and is editor of GHSU Today Magazine.

Articulate and looking a bit like David Duchovny, Cline fits the bill of someone running for political office, but he contends this was not something he had ever planned on doing... not if it was not for Magnolia Trace. Cline had hinted a few weeks ago on the Facebook group: Say No To Magnolia Trace Housing Project, that he would be willing to challenge Trey Allen if no one else stepped forward.

Early on there was buzz that Jennifer Mcrae, the leader of the anti Magnolia Trace citizens activist group, would challenge Allen, but she quickly dispelled those speculations, saying she had no interest in running for office. But after McRae, Cline was one of the more vocal members of the opposition to Magnolia Trace calling for more accountability and transaprency in Columbia County government.

As you will remember, The Magnolia Trace saga blew up in early December of last year, when residents surrounding the proposed government subsidized housing development packed a Columbia County Commission meeting demanding answers and accountability. Commissioner Trey Allen, along with County Commission Chairman Ron Cross had met in county attorney Doug Batchelor's office in the Summer of 2010 to discuss the project and concluded it to be "good for the community."  City Stink revealed earlier this month that Batchelor was also working on behalf of the Missouri based developers of Magnolia Trace on the project, but did not disclose this to the county. See our story on that here: Magnolia Trace Double Take.

City Stink also revealed that the Missouri based Magnolia Trace develepors were donating to the campaigns of state level and Columbia County politicians. See our story on that here: Mag Trace: Money Traces to the Gold Dome.

Though initially defensive about the development, Trey Allen eventually started to understand the political ramifications when hundreds of citizens packed that Commission meeting on Dec. 6 2011. A more contrite Trey Allen made a motion at that meeting to hire outside counsel to try and stop the project. However, the Savannah based attorney hired by the county concluded that it was too late to halt it. Though it appears Allen did have a change of heart, for many people it was a little too little too late and was motivated more by fears of being kicked out of office than anything else.

Only two Columbia County commission seats are up for grabs this year, both held by Allens (though not related). Butch Holley already announced his intentions to challenge Commissioner Charles Allen (brother of Dist 12 Congressional candidate Rick Allen) this fall.

Not on the ballot this fall is Commission Chairman Ron Cross, though many people wish he was. At that Dec. 6th citizen packed meeting, Cross was indifferent, arrogant and downright insulting to the concerns of the hundreds of citizens who showed up. But Cross' days may be numbered, since a referendum to impose term limits on commissioners will be on the fall ballot.

However, citizens will have the opportunity to impose their own term limits for atleast two commissioners. As for Damon Cline, the test will be whether Magnolia Trace is still fresh in voters' minds come November, and whether the issue even plays outside of the immediate area surrounding it. But for this citizen turned citizen activist, Cline believes this election is about more than Magnolia Trace. As he told the CCNT reporter Donnie Fetter, Cline said:
"Columbia County needs a public watchdog. The actions of some county leaders indicate they have become out of touch with the wants and needs of the everyday people they are supposed to serve."

Well who better to be a public watch dog than a journalist of 15 years?***

Damon Cline's campaign website can be found here: DamonCline2012.com

***Do you have a story idea, a tip, or would you like to write for City Stink? Then please contact us at: citystink@gmail.com***

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Breaking News!: Committee Fails to Pass Parking Deck Agreement


Mon. Jan. 30, 2012
Augusta, GA
Posted at 2:47pm

!Breaking News!

This just in. The revised management agreement for the new $12 million Reynolds Street parking deck has failed to win approval in committee. In a 2-2 tie vote,  the motion to send the deck agreement to the full commission with committee recommendation failed by default. Committee members Jerry Brigham and Wayne Guilfoyle voted in favor of sending the deck management agreement forward without a recommendation. Commissioners Alvin Mason and William Lockett were opposed. It takes at least 3 votes to pass a motion. Ties cannot be broken in committee and thus the motion fails by default.

This vote comes amid a new controversy that City Stink broke last week revealing that there are liens on the property under the deck held by Wells Fargo Bank (formerly Wachovia) as collateral for a loan to prospective deck operator Augusta Riverfront LLC for more than $7,000,000.

Commissioner Bill Lockett wanted to hold off on the vote altogether to proceed with the management agreement until after a forensic audit of the land transactions and financing of the parking deck is completed. Brigham asked if the forensic audit was germane to the discussion over the management agreement. General counsel Andrew McKenzie said that it was.

Lockett's motion to delay the agreement pending the outcome of the fornsic audit  failed 2-2 with Guilfoyle and Brigham opposed.

The attorney who handled most of the legal transactions for the city over the parking deck, Jim Plunkett, was in the hot seat at today's committee meeting. As we told you last Friday, commissioners were never told about the liens by Plunkett or city administrator Fred Russell, nor were they told that a parcel under the TEE Center itself was never deeded over to the city by Augusta Riverfront LLC as it was promised on multiple occassions. That took most commissioners by complete surprise. Some commissioners were calling for Plunkett to be removed as the attorney overseeing the project on behalf of the city. That sparked Fred Russell to jump to Plunkett's defense. Committee chairman Jerry Brigham shouted over everyone that he had heard enough.

Attorney Jim Plunkett told commissioners that he had an agreement from Wachovia (now Wells Fargo) for release from the liens prior to construction of the deck. Plunkett also told commissioners that easments could not be established until after construction of the deck was  completed. From the expressions on the faces of commissioners and others in the chambers, it was obvious not many people were buying that  line. Bill Lockett asked about the timing and the release of information and why commissioners were consistently left out of the loop.

Commissioner Lockett told Plunkett: "This body has been misled over and over..."


Commissioner Aitken, who is not on the committee but was present in the chambers for other business, urged committee members to forward the parking deck on to the full commission for approval saying that he was proud that Augusta Riverfront LLC gave things up in the new agreement. But the revised agreement only had minor tweaks and did not address deeding the land to the city as commissioners were originally told it would be at the Dec. 9th, 2009 commission meeting where the TEE Center and deck were approved.

Aitken said: "Sometimes when votes are cast we have to deal with it and move forward"

But for now, the management agreement is stalled until commissioners get more information. But the city finds itself in a real pickle. According to Jim Plunkett an agreement between the city and Augusta Riverfront LLC must occur before the air rights will be released.

Now the big question is:  What happens next?


Bowles was absent from the committee meetings today. His position on the matter is crucial. Now the agreement moves on to the full commission next week without any action or recommendation from the committee. All eyes will be watching Bowles. He could be the wild card in all of this.
Stay tuned, we will bring you more updates.***

Please see our story from earlier today:
Deeds and Misdeeds: A "Chronicle" of Promises to Donate Land for Tee Center/Parking Deck

***Do you have a story idea, a tip, or would you like to write for City Stink? Then please contact us at: citystink@gmail.com***
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Deeds and Misdeeds: A "Chronicle" of Promises to Donate Land for Tee Center/Parking Deck

"Donate the land? We were only joking!"
Monday, Jan. 30, 2012
Augusta, GA


As the Augusta Commission wrangles over terms for the management contract  with Augusta Riverfront LLC over the new $12 million Reynolds Street parking deck and the TEE Center still under construction  , we must be reminded that this is not the first time this massive project has hit roadblocks and been mired in controversy. In fact this has been an ongoing saga for more than six years since voters approved $20,000,000 in SPLOST funds for a Trade and Exhibit Center on the Fall General Election ballot in 2005.

Dirty Deeds Not Done Cheap: A Time Line
As we told you in our breaking news story last Thursday: TEE Center Parking Deck Air Rights Gone With The Wind, not only was the land under the parking deck never deeded over to the city by 933 Broad Investment LLC (as commissioners were told it would be), but we also discovered liens on the property held by Wells Fargo Bank (formerly Wachovia) as collateral for a loan to Augusta Riverfront LLC totalling over $7,000,000!  But we also found out that Augusta Riverfront LLC also still retains ownership of a parcel under the TEE Center itself across the street that was supposed to be deeded to the city. 

Since Augusta Riverfront LLC  is ultimately headed by Augusta Chronicle publisher William (Billy) S. Morris III, it seems only fitting to turn to his paper to help fill in the paper trail on the true story behind the land deeds.

We found this Chronicle story from January 13, 2007 by staff writer Laura Youngs. At that time a TEE Center  task force had just finished negotiating a revised operating agreement  with Augusta Riverfront LLC for the TEE Center and recommended the facility be built on land adjacent to the Augusta Marriot Hotel and Suites owned by Augusta Riverfront LLC. Under the agreement then, Augusta Riverfront LLC "had AGREED TO DEED THEIR LAND over to the city for the TEE Center." 


Deeding the land  was viewed by some commissioners at the time as a quid pro quo for the generous operating agreement that had the city paying Augusta Riverfront LLC $350,000 a year for operating expenses and capital improvement costs for running the center, in addition to it being connected to their hotel. The TEE Center was being built entirely with public money.

But  commissioners continued to balk at the operating agreement as being too lopsided in favor of the interests of Augusta Riverfront LLC, with taxpayers assuming most of the financial risk. So it stalled again.

Fast forward to July of that same year. Now we find  a July 8th, 2007 guest column in The Chronicle penned by Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) Barry White and CVB President and CEO Phil Wahl.  They both sing the praises of Augusta Riverfront LLC and their generous offer to donate their riverfront land for the facility, writing: "Not only does Augusta Riverfront LLC bring proven expertise, it has offered to donate to the city downtown real estate valued at an estimated $1 million. The LLC also will pay annual center operating expenses over $250,000 and capital improvements over $100,000 a year." 

Donation of the land was one of the major selling points to commissioners for locating the TEE center next to the  Augusta Riverfront LLC owned Augusta Marriot Hotel & Suites and awarding them the operations contract. 

Now fast forward to 2009. The TEE Center project is still stalled because now it is learned that the facility will cost nearly double the $20,000,000  voters had approved in the 2005 SPLOST. That news had many people rethinking the whole deal altogether and even suggesting alternatives, such as renovating existing facilities to use  with the initial amount from the SPLOST. Former Augusta Mayor Bob Young penned a guest column that appeared in The Chronicle on September 27, 2009 that suggested the James Brown Arena could be expanded and essentially function as a TEE Center at a significantly lower cost than building a new facility. Also, the city already had a management contract with Global Spectrum to operate the arena and this could cover the TEE functions as well, instead of entering into a separate contract with Augusta Riverfront LLC for a new facility on the riverfront.

A rebuttal to the former Mayor's column appeared  a week later in The Chronicle  from former Augusta CVB  treasurer and chairman Abram Serotta, telling us that the "TEE project MUST be ok'd."  Mr Serotta once again brings up the issue of land ownership at the Reynolds Street site, writing : "Land purchases have been negotiated and, in total, the city has invested more than half-a-million dollars in the project to date.

Bad Investment
But some critics were trying to tell us that spending  money on a TEE Center was just simply a bad investment, period. Commissioner Betty Beard had made a motion in September 2009 to see what it would cost to bring Dr Heywood Sanders, a professor in the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas-San Antonio to Augusta to rebut claims being made by Barry White of The CVB and others that a TEE Center would be an economic boon. Dr. Sanders authored the 2005 Brookings Institution study: Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy, which debunks many of the myths about convention centers being significant economic stimulators. 

In a Sept. 16, 2009 Augusta Chronicle article by Johnny Edwards, it is stated that: "Dr. Sanders said cities throughout the country are losing money on trade centers and, desperate to book events, are offering discounts and incentives that make competition even stiffer."

In the end, Dr. Sanders was never consulted by the Commission and the TEE Center and a new parking deck were  approved on Dec. 9, 2009.

In a Dec. 10, 2011 Chronicle article by La Tina Emerson we learned that the CVB is having difficulties with booking conventions for the facility still under contruction.

Commissioners Ask Questions About Land Ownership

Hatney: "The other question I would ask to our Administrator I remember when we 
talked about the parking deck before. We were not so warm on that issue and the volume was
$500,000 and you’ve come back and you said you were going come back with a lower scale
because it would be more cost effective to go ahead and do that then to I believe pay a $1.1
million or something like that on I guess the lease or rent or whatever you do and still that
eventually buy the property. You said this property’s going to be given? Talk to me."


Russell: " I need the map. There we go.  If you look at the round area up there, there
if you look at that brown area would be the area that we’re looking at for the building the parking
deck. And then if you look at the two areas that are not being donated, one of which belongs to
the radio station which is a, sorry about that. That’s where the hotdog stand is. That’s owned by
a private individual. The other part of the place is owned by WAGT Television. The balance of
that is owned by Riverfront Development and that’s the property that’s going to be donated
."

and later on in the minutes....

Hatney: "About donating the site, about donating? Did we check with them yet on
the possibilities?"

Russell:   "They’ve agreed to donate the property.


At this meeting Fred Russell was referencing a map  outlining the various land parcels that the city would need to acquire or would be donated for the parking deck and TEE Center:

Russell: "I haven’t finalized anything waiting for your approval but I’m getting very close to giving you the final documents on all three if not the schematic designs, the land acquisition and the operating agreements. Land acquisition, the green part is the park for the TEE Center. The area in black is owned by the Riverfront Development Corporation or some subsidy there is, there are. They will be donating that property towards the completion of the TEE Center. The other two pieces of property in negotiation are the Lock Shop and the warehouse building on the corner."

The green part that Russell is referring to on the map is a parcel under where the TEE Center would be built that Augusta Riverfront LLC had agreed to deed over to the city, as we told you earlier in the Chronicle paper trail. And as we told you last week, Augusta Riverfront LLC still owns that parcel. It was never deeded to the city as promised.

Betty Beard asks for clarification about this parcel at the July 7, 2009 meeting:

Ms. Beard: --- what are they donating again?

Mr. Russell: The area in the black is the property that they own.

Ms. Beard: In the black?

Mr. Russell: The little black square up there, green I’m sorry.

Mr. Mayor: Outlined in black.

Ms. Beard: Oh across the street.

Mr. Russell: That’s the location of the TEE Center itself.

And later in the minutes Betty Beard had the foresight to bring up the issue of  the significance of Air Rights regarding the parking deck:

Ms. Beard: In one part of the information it said air rights would be donated.

Mr. Russell: I’d like to talk about that a little bit later. That gets into the parking issue and there’s a couple items we’ve got there that we need to talk about if you don’t mind.

Ms. Beard: Well, what about the Trade Center itself?

Mr. Russell: That’s the green property.

Ms. Beard: I mean the air rights.

Mr. Russell: We build a building there. The air rights would not be significant. It would be part of the building itself.


Ms. Beard: I don’t know why people say they are not significant. Okay. 

Betty Beard was right. The issue of air rights are extremely significant, as we now know  that is all the city ended up with for the parking deck as the land was never donated by Augusta Riverfront LLC. And the green parcel across the street under the TEE Center that Beard references was also never deeded to the city. So what about the air rights over there for the TEE Center?

Today the Augusta Commission meets in committee to decide whether to approve a revised management contract with Augusta Riverfront LLC for the parking deck and TEE Center. It would be wise for them to hold off on that until this matter can be investigated further. Rushing into things without having all of the pertinent  information is what initially put them into this mess and rushing now into another bad contract is certainly not the way out of it. We will have an update on this story as it becomes available. Stay tuned.***

Related Stories:
***Do you have a story idea, a tip, or would you like to write for City Stink? Then please contact us at: citystink@gmail.com***
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Friday, January 27, 2012

Fred Russell is Running Out of Excuses

Friday, Jan. 27, 2012
Augusta, GA
Commentary
By The Outsider

Just how many more major screw-ups from Fred Russell will Augusta Commissioners tolerate?  Well it doesn't get much bigger than the total clustermuck over the TEE Center Parking Deck. As we told you with our breaking news story yesterday: TEE Center Parking Deck Air Rights Gone With The Wind!, not only does the city not own the land under the deck, but that land has liens on it held by Wells Fargo Bank (formerly Wachovia) for use as collateral on a loan for over $ 7 million to Augusta Riverfront LLC, the same entity seeking the management contract for the deck and the TEE Center.  That not only puts the city at a huge disadvantage in the negotiations over the management contract, but it also appears to leave taxpayers at risk of losing their $12 million dollar asset if Augusta Riverfront LLC defaults on their loan. That's a position the city should have never been put in.

But that's exactly where we are. And what's Fred's response? Well this is what he told George Eskola of WJBF yesterday:
“We've got lawyers, we got bond attorneys, we've got everybody who's charted around, thinking this is safely where we need to be. at the end of the day and people on the sidelines are having issues,”


Oh really? I suppose the "people on the sidelines" Russell is referring to are the citizen activists like Lori Davis, members of Augusta Today and City Stink who exposed this new bombshell. And we have to wonder if this news would have ever come out if not for the tenacity of  these citizen activists. It appears that commissioners were completely surprised by these revelations. Mayor Pro-tem Joe Bowles said in George Eskola's report:
"We didn't know that, of course, and that's something we just got information on. I'm waiting for clarification from our attorneys. If we built a building on property that, you know, secured debt for somebody, I do have a serious issue with that.”

We are glad that the Mayor Pro-tem is taking this issue seriously, but he and other commissioners and the Mayor should be more than just concerned, they should be downright outraged. It seems that the more layers of the TEE Center/Parking deck onion you peel away the more rotten it gets. And it appears that commissioners have been left in the dark through the entire process. And who's job is it to keep commissioners in the loop? City administrator Fred Russell.

Russell knew about the liens, but neglected to tell commissioners. But Russell also told commissioners the land would be donated for the deck, but neglected to inform them again when that changed to only "air rights." How can commissioners continue to have confidence in a city administrator who consistently leaves them in the dark on some of the most important and expensive issues facing the city?

And it's not like this is the first time. Russell cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands more than it should have cost to terminate incompetent employees because he did not keep accurate records of their true job performance and then he negotiated their very generous golden parachutes. When commissioners gave Russell more authority over personnel matters, he took that as an opportunity to award generous raises to over 40 select employees, when commissioners were looking for more cuts to balance the budget. We could take up an entire column on previous Russell screw-ups, but we will leave that for another time.

Now Russell is saying that the issue of the bank liens on the property where the $12 million parking deck sits is just a matter of some "loose ends" that need to be tied up by "the lawyers." Oh really? Well shouldn't all of these "loose ends" had been taken care of before the city built a $12 million parking deck with taxpayer's money on land it doesn't even own that has liens against it? Who would build a house on someone else's property that had bank liens against it? You don't need a degree in finance to understand the stupidity of these actions. And Russell's excuses just aren't adding up.

And what about those lawyers? Russell is not the only one to blame here. Commissioners should also have some serious questions for attorney Jim Plunkett, who handled most of the legal transactions and bond financing for the city over the TEE Center, the parking deck, and the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem Redevelopment. Surely Plunkett knew about the liens, so  why did he not take care of clearing up those "loose ends"  before the city started up the bulldozers on the construction of  the $12 million parking deck? Why were the bonds issued before the liens and other ownership issues were taken care of? And should we expect any similar surprises over the transactions involving the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem redevelopment with its bond financing inextricably tied to the TEE Center/parking deck?

Plunkett has a long relationship with the city in handling legal matters involving these public-private partnership real-estate ventures. Records show that the city paid the Sherman, Plunkett and Hamilton firm $577,538 for outside legal work last year. According to a Jan. 8, 2012 Augusta Chronicle article by Susan McCord, "Jim Plunkett specializes in economic development legal work, such as the public-private partnerships between Augusta and operators of the Trade, Exhibit and Event Center and the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem redevelopment project."

But in this case it appears it was the private interests being protected and the public's interest was being put at great financial risk. We have to wonder if this is the first time something like this has happened regarding one of these Public-Private Partnership real-estate developments, or is it just the first time it has been exposed? Perhaps that's something for investigative journalists to look into.

But now the ball is in the commissioners' court. How will they proceed  over the management agreement with Augusta Riverfront LLC with these  revelations? And how will they deal with this latest Fred Russell screw-up? And what about that forensic audit that commissioners approved back in December to look into irregularities over the land deals involved in the TEE Center Parking deck? Should that not be expanded to included the entire TEE Center and the Laney-Walker redevelopment? And why would commissioners trust Fred Russell to help choose the auditing firm to essentially investigate him? And can commissioners now truly trust Russell to negotiate a deal over a proposed downtown ballpark with Ripken Baseball in the best interest of the taxpayers? Maybe it's time for commissioners to rescind that vote on tasking Fred Russell to develop a creative financing package for that ballpark. Can they really trust Russell with handling another multi-million dollar development after this?

Ok, commissioners, it's up to you now. It's time to stop dragging your feet on the forensic audit. And it's time for you to honestly reevaluate the confidence you have placed in city administrator Fred Russell. Oh and we're still waiting to see some leadership from Mayor Deke Copenhaver on this issue. Time is running out and the public is watching.***

Stay Tuned. More is to come on this issue.

Related Stories:
Exclusive: TEE Center Parking Deck Air Rights Gone With The Wind!
Exclusive: The TEE Center LLC Trap
Fraudits With Less Than A Full Deck
ParkingGate: Leave it to Fred!
Land Swaps, Bonds and Air Rights; The Parking Deck Saga Continued

***Do you have a story idea, a tip, or would you like to write for City Stink? Then please contact us at: citystink@gmail.com***
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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Breaking News! TEE Center Parking Deck Air Rights Gone With The Wind!

!!CityStink Exclusive!!
No Police Protection, Just a Liened Deck?

January 26, 2012
Posted at 1:37pm
Augusta, GA


Let me say right now I am not a real estate expert. I can only speak from years of owning, buying and selling homes. Every time I bought a house and financed it, there was a security deed recorded by the bank that had to be satisfied before I could sell it or at the time of the sale. My lawyers would get a cancellation of the security deed recorded so that the property liens would be ended. We all know and have been through this.

I first raised my concerns about irregularities with the ownership of the land under the TEE Center and companion parking deck in an article that appeared in City Stink on January 11, 2012. See: Tee Center LLC Trap. At the time the local media paid little attention to my findings. Well, I think this new information may change that.

Why didn't Augusta Richmond County worry about cancellation of a series of security deeds, security deed modifications, and financing statements filed against the land 933 Broad LLC owns under the Tee Center deck? Why wasn't this done before Augusta built a $12 million structure on top of this land it doesn't own? (please see documents at the bottom of this story)

The very simple real estate indexes at the clerk of court's office show no cancellation of these security deed filings. Where are the cancellations?

IF there were no cancellations, and all of this paperwork is still good, hasn't our city-county government made one of the biggest errors any of us has ever seen? Whose parking deck is it now, anyway? If the TEE Center and deck management deal is for 15 years, is the deck that landowner's at the end of just 15 years?

IF the landowner defaults on the loans, won't Augusta lose its prized $12 million facility to the bank? There are no filings establishing any rights whatsoever of Augusta to this land, as far as I know and what previous media reports have told us.

IF the loans are still in place, how is the interest on the loans going to count against the Tee Center profit and losses that Augusta shares in?

IF the city had not established a value of more than $2.1million an acre (based on land swap and hot dog operator buy-out costs) for Senator Jackson's .07 acre corner, what would have claimed as the land value? The tax assessor's value? If Augusta has to buy the land after the fact, what will it cost after this charade?

IF all the liens are there, why on earth would the commission want to rush approval of the TEE Center and deck deal before Bill Lockett and the 5 other commissioners' forensic audit is done? Why the rush? I think we know now.

Can the other LLC, Augusta Riverfront, borrow against the parcel that it owns under the Tee Center itself? It doesn't look like there are security deeds on it, but that side of the street is a huge complicated blizzard of paperwork. I get a headache looking at this stuff.

How did Fred Russell expect to get any rights at all without running into the deeds? I got it – we got air rights!

The people got air rights while somebody got a free $50 million facility? Over in Harrisburg bullets fill our air because Ronnie Strength's budgets get slashed. If you think I am angry over this, you are right!

I am not a lawyer, but these are questions that demand answers and accountability.

Does anybody in Augusta's administration have a clue?

As of the writing of this story, city administrator Fred Russell has confirmed that liens still do exist on the property where the deck is located. Wonder why he never informed the commissioners about this?

Fred has to go.***

Stay Tuned to WJBF News 6 tonight for George Eskola's report on this story
Below are some of the documents supporting this article (3 seperate pdfs total)
There are more documents that will be released in due time so stay tuned.
933 Broad Plat 933 1st UCC 2010 933 UCC

Showdown Emerging to Replace Bowles


Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012
Augusta, GA
The Outsider

Well it looks like the race for the Dist. 3 Augusta Commission seat being vacated by term-limited Joe Bowles just got a lot more interesting. As we told you on Sunday, Mary Fair Davis was the first candidate to announce her intentions to run. She was scheduled to make a formal announcement yesterday at Enterprise Mill. She served as Mayor Deke Copenhaver's  chairperson for his 2006 mayoral campaign. Clay Boardman is heading her campaign.

Yesterday, it was announced that prominent Augusta attorney Ed Enoch will also seek the Dist. 3 seat. The reaction to this news was that of complete surprise with "wow!" being a common refrain among posters in Augusta Today and The Augusta Chronicle. In what appeared at first to be a cakewalk for Mary Fair Davis is now shaping up to be a real showdown between two powerful Augusta political factions. As soon as the news broke, people such as radio talker Austin Rhodes were already disparaging Ed Enoch's candidacy. Without giving specifics, Rhodes simply said "Do your homework on Enoch" on the Augusta Today Facebook group. RC Republican Party Chairman Dave Barbee also chimed in insinuating that he also opposed Enoch's candidacy.

That may have something to do with Enoch's connections to the Democratic Party. He is the campaign chairman for Democratic State Senator Hardie Davis, Jr. However, it is worth noting that many local Republicans supported Davis as well, even helping to pay off his campaign debt. Augusta commission races are non-partisan but it is usually known among political circles where various candidate's political loyalties lie.

Ed Enoch is the attorney who represents The Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority. Austin Rhodes hinted that  his relationship with the Coliseum Authority deserves closer scrutiny, but gave no specifics.

Enoch also represented Woodlawn Methodist church in their contentious battle with members of the Summerville Neighborhood Association over opening a daycare in one of their church buildings. Current District 3 Commissioner Joe Bowles was a vocal opponent of the  daycare, as he lived across the street from it. Ultimately, the courts sided with Woodlawn Church and Enoch and the daycare opened. So far Bowles has not made an endorsement in the race.

It will be interesting to see where people line up. We already know who Clay Boardman is backing and it's a good bet that Mayor Copenhaver will also be backing Mary Fair Davis. That leaves many people concerned about her candidacy and whether she would just be a rubber stamp for Deke's agenda, such as a downtown ballpark. So far Davis has not made her positions known on issues such as the ballpark and neither has Enoch. As soon as we learn their positions on key issues we will bring you the news here.

Both candidates will be able to raise big money to run strong campaigns. Mary Fair Davis has Boardman bucks backing her and likely the Mayor's campaign donor list at her disposal. But Enoch will also find a large base of support from being the campaign chairman for Sen. Hardie Davis Jr and a large donor list of his own to pick from. And Enoch may find some unlikely allies who are more interested in thwarting Deke's agenda (code for ballpark) then in actually supporting him directly. This is shaping up to be an exciting race after all. Stay tuned.***

Related Stories:
Dekebot Being Charged Up to Replace Bowles


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Dr. Craig Spinks: Some Real Heroes Who Are Really Improving The Schools


Thursday, Jan. 26th, 2012
Augusta, GA
Dr. Craig Spinks

Parent involvement is a key to student success in schools. Everybody has heard that statement and most would agree with it. But what does "parent involvement mean? Does parent involvement mean only signing a report card, sending a snack to one's child's class but otherwise staying out of the way? No, parental involvement has to extend beyond signing a report card, sending brownies to school for the class Christmas party but otherwise staying home. There must be an "IN" in parent involvement. And that "IN" is parental presence in his/her child's schoolhouse during the instructional day- not just presence at school during Thanksgiving programs, football games and school carnivals.
Who in the RCSS is promoting real parental Involvement in schools? Three names come immediately to mind: Dr. Frank Roberson, Ms. Monique Braswell  and Dr. Wayne Frazier.

Dr. Frank Roberson's name and smiling face are both well-known around Richmond County. Early on, he made known his intention to reach out to the community and enlist the support of parents, family members and other taxpayers in efforts to improve schoolling for all students enrolled in Richmond County public schools.Unfortunately, Dr. Roberson's efforts have been postponed as he recovers from brain surgery performed early last year to repair a cerebro-vascular problem.

But two folks have continued to work toward Dr. Roberson's goal as we await his return to full-time work. Whereas the name and face of Frank Roberson might be familiar to most RCSS parents, the name and face of Monique Braswell might not yet be familiar to them. But that soon will change. Ms. Braswell is well on her way to popular familiarity because of her success in recruiting over 10K RCSS parents and other stakeholders to join the local PTAs. And she's been president of the Richmond County Council of PTAs for less than a year. Ms. Braswell's not a "pay-your-dues-and-go-away" PTA leader. 

She has reached out to parents in RC to let them know that their presence at PTA meetings is just the first step in the parent Involvement process. To promote her goal of greater parent Involvement, Ms. Braswell arranged the visit of the incoming national PTA president, Col. Otha Thornton of Atlanta. Thornton visited Augusta as the speaker at the January meeting of the Windsor Springs Elementary PTA. Col. Thornton is an alumnus of WSES. He attended elementary school there in the 1970s. Col. Thornton stressed the idea that parents' "standing back" won't get their children a good education. "Standing up" and "getting Involved" in their children's respective public schools are required. By the way, Mr. Terry Morgan, president of the WSES PTA, is a sterling example of such a parent.

A sterling example of a principal committed to getting parents involved is Wayne Frazier. Now the principal of Glenn Hills High School, Dr. Frazier personifies parent involvement. And his efforts to get parents into his school didn't just begin with his assumption of the principalship at GHHS. It began several years before. I first noted Dr. Frazier's name when I read in a local print medium his invitation for any and all taxpayers to visit his school. His school at the time was the Richmond County Alternative School. My initial response was inconsistent: first, I liked a principal whose school was open to public view; and, second, was this guy nuts? Who in his right mind would want parents and other folk in an alternative school. By the time that I tracked Dr. Frazier down he had been transferred in mid-year to Tubman Middle School, a school which had never made AYP. There I found that Frazier "walked the walk" when it came to welcoming parents and other taxpayers to TMS. Even though I had never met the man before, he welcomed Marine MGySgt(ret.) Greg Davis and myself to Tubman on our initial visit there in 2008. Frazier did so on several subsequent, unplanned, unannounced visits over the year-and-a-half that Frazier led TMS. By the way, TMS made AYP both years when Frazier was principal.

For his exemplary efforts, Frazier barely missed being transferred to the directorship of the RCSS Transportation Department. Fortunately for the kids at GHHS, his efforts at persuading his superiors that he was a "school man" and not a "bus man" were successful. Thereupon, he was transferred from Tubman Middle in the Summer of 2009 to Glenn Hills, a high school besieged by safety, academic and disciplinary problems. To this day, Dr. Frazier works tirelessly to improve his school and its kids by getting the community, in general, and the parents of his students, in particular, into Glenn Hills High classrooms during the regular day. Of course, he continues to encourage parents to attend ballgames and PTA meetings. But Frazier stresses that the most important function of GHHS is to graduate young people who have the academic skills to succeed in adult leadership roles. As an indicator of GHHS' progress toward Dr. Frazier's goal, GHHS' passing rate on the Georgia High School Graduation Test(GHSGT) was the highest among 41 GA high schools which had received special funding for school-improvement projects.

What are RCSS parents and other Georgia citizens doing to help Dr. Frazier,  Ms. Braswell, Dr. Roberson,  and other  folk like them in their efforts to make diplomas from the RCBOE and other GA boards of education things of which their kids and other GA HS graduates can be proud?
Hey, I'm talking to you.

Dr. Craig Spinks 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Guest Column: Banned From The Chronicle



Guest Column
Commentary
By Tom Casey

A short history of myself, I never really got politically active until I married my wife. Prior to that my activity was limited to voting, complaining about the lousy selection of candidates to choose from every election cycle, and watching the ‘talking heads’ on CNBC, CNN, FNN and MSNBC.

However, after decades of being a sideline observer of Augusta/Richmond County politics, I started to wonder a lot about all the behind door deals I had heard my uncles and older male cousins talk about that seemingly always drove Augusta politics and the Augusta ‘good old boy’ network.

Through Facebook I was invited to join a group of local Augustan’s called A.C.A.V.E. and later Augusta Today.  Through these various groups I started to learn more about how Augusta’s elected and appointed officials were really not serving the public good but instead supporting their own special interests.  From this initiation I started to read the bulleted news items in the Augusta Chronicle especially the comments section.  I was introduced to a list of nom de pens: Broad Street Narrow Mind, Conservative Man, Corgimom, Corporal Gripweed, Countyman, Dekebot Brett, GeezeLouise, Insider Information, Riverman, Slapshot2 and Willow Bailey.  I didn’t forget to include my own; my user name while posting in the Augusta Chronicle was TomCasey.  Yes it is actually my real name.

I started posting on issues that offended my sense and sensibilities as an uppity uptight liberal and my education and moral beliefs (yes surprisingly for a liberal I have a strict code of moral beliefs founded on what my family taught me as well as the Roman Catholic Church).  Immediately, I was warned by my friends within A.C.A.V.E and Augusta Today there are always consequences to one's actions.   Besides the Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say On TV (Seven Dirty Words (Discretion Advised)), there were other rules to crafting a post for the Augusta Chronicle:

(1)    You can’t upset an Augusta Chronicle poster that is an unofficial spokesperson for Mayor Copenhaver ((c)ountyman), or they will lodge a complaint about your comment
(2)  You can’t upset an Augusta Chronicle poster that is an unofficial spokesperson for the Core Four Commissioners (Matt Aitken, Joe Bowles, Jerry Brigham and Joe Jackson) or they will lodge a complaint about your comment
(3)    You can’t upset an Augusta Chronicle poster that is an unofficial spokesperson for a local project or white elephant or they will lodge a complaint about your comment. 
(4)  You can never even allude to Augusta Today, A.C.A.V.E, or City Stink in even the most subtle way that does not even mention them directly by name. That seems to be their #1 pet peeve at The Chronicle.

You get the message.

Well I began my posting career in the Augusta Chronicle and sure enough a reader complained about a post of mine.  A reader’s complaint got my ‘objectionable’ comment pulled as well as the whole series of my comments for the day on that subject.  I was amazed that a ‘reader’ could find my comments so objectionable that the entire stream of my commentary was wiped out.  Sounds pretty Hitlerian to me and scary to boot.  Here is the message I received from the Augusta Chronicle for their reason for deleting my comments for the day:
*“Please don't promote this site in any way on our web site. Those involved have had an organized effort to promote it here despite warnings. Please don't post about it again.

My comment - So what is ACAVE? What video?

*Your recent post has been flagged by another user as a possible violation of the Terms of Service, triggering this automatic notice.”

Well, this was considered to be my first warning no seven dirty words, no Richard Pryor routine or no recitation from the movie ‘Goodfellas’.  I was amazed.  I mentioned A.C.A.V.E because it was mentioned in local media both paper and multimedia due to protests at the Municipal Building in Augusta.
The next case was the story that CityStink.net broke about the TEE Center Parking Deck and the land not being owned by Augusta Richmond County but instead by a private LLC:
*“Don't promote city stink on our site.

My comment - A follow up article was released on internet blog...very interesting in the details it contains.

*Your recent post has been flagged by another user as a possible violation of the Terms of Service, triggering this automatic notice.”

I received another warning (my 3rd ) and after that I pretty much quit posting.  It was over the incident with my friend having her nom de pen (who has a column on City Stink called Jilly Bean) grabbed by a poster on the Augusta Chronicle that I got into more trouble over.  I stood up for her and spoke out against an imposter trying to use her nickname in an effort to discredit her by making comments that she would never say.  This led to being banned by the Augusta Chronicle and led to my last letter to the Augusta Chronicle:

“I always thought commentary should be free and open; however, I have found the Augusta Chronicle has an inconsistent way how posters are handled from comments being deleted to commenters/posters actually being banned.
I find this to be truly offensive not only as a subscriber of the electronic paper but also as my right to free speech. If alternative views to local issues and politicians are heavily edited why even bother commenting and posting...
The times are a changing and the Augusta Chronicle is obviously supporting the status quo in Augusta while only superficially attempting to present the other side of a news story.
In my case, I will be cancelling my subscription to the Augusta Chronicle.”

My activity of posting comments in the Augusta Chronicle took place from August 2011 until early January 2012.  What happened to me may not happen to you but beware this is one of the basic rights of a free country and if it is continually abused, the effect is to eliminate opposition.  So the question is do you feel secure to have Big Brother watching and controlling your media access? ***

Would you like to have your say on a local oriented issue? Then consider submitting a guest column to City Stink.  Email to CityStink@gmail.com

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Robert Cheek Plans to Challenge Southside Mafia for School Board Post


Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012
Augusta, GA
By The Outsider

For the most part, the old Southside Mafia political machine has become a relic of the past. Most of its members have either died off or been defeated at the polls. But still a few cling on to power. The Richmond County School Board is where the Southside Mafia's presence in local politics is still the most noticeable. There are two school board members who have received support from  the old Southside Mafia political machine: Jack Padgett, representing District 6  and Jimmy Atkins representing District 8. School Board districts are congruent with Augusta commission districts.

We have learned that Robert Cheek plans to challenge sitting Dist. 8 school board member Jimmy Atkins this fall. Political insiders are telling City Stink that Cheek's campaign will be an all out assault on one of the last remaining power bases of The Southside Mafia, and he will have some heavy-hitters backing him in this race.

Robert Cheek is the brother of former Augusta Commissioner (Dist 6) Andy Cheek, who defeated the Southside Mafia to get elected to the Commission in 2000. Robert Cheek had planned to run  for the Dist 8 Augusta Commission seat back in 2010. It was an open seat since Southside Mafia stalwart Jimmy Smith was term limited out. In that race the Southside Mafia had lined up behind Doug Lively. In the end, Cheek decided not to run and backed Wayne Guilfoyle, who ultimately won. That was a major defeat for the Southside Mafia, since the Dist 8 commission seat was their last stronghold on the commission.

Robert Cheek also backed Libertarian Taylor Bryant, in his bid to unseat veteran school board member Jack Padgett in the Dist 6 school board race in 2010. The Southside Mafia tried to get Bryant to drop out of the race and run against Commissioner Joe Jackson, whom they believed had turned against them. Bryant declined, saying "I don't play that game." Bryant contends he was contacted by Darren Smith (son of former Commissioner Jimmy Smith) and J.B. Powell (who was running for Agriculture Commissioner at the time), to get out of the school board race. The Southside Mafia seemed to be protecting Jack Padgett. So they turned their ire against Bryant. Joe Jackson ended up having no challenger for the commission race. You can read more about these events here: Sylvia Cooper: Good Government Panel High on Incumbents.

Ultimately, Bryant's bid came up short and Padgett won another term. If Cheek were to unseat Atkins this fall, Padgett would be one of the last surviving members of the Southside Mafia left in county government in any form, and the new redistricting maps under consideration leave him extremely vulnerable to a challenge in the next election. That may be why Padgett is fighting so vigorously to halt the redistricting 3-R map.. the same one that he and all of the other redistricting ad-hoc committee members voted to approve last November.

Political insiders are telling City Stink that this will be one of the highest profile school board races in recent memory and that good money is betting on Robert Cheek. But The Southside Mafia will likely not go down without a fight, so expect this one to get real ugly. Stay tuned for more to come. ***
CS

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Nancy Albert: Levee Must Go for Riverfront Development to Come

Guest Column
Commentary
Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012

After Katrina, FEMA required studies of the levees across the country to determine if they would hold during a 100 year flood. Augusta forked over more than $600K to get the verdict on our levee. The results of that study were barely reported, but yes, it would hold, but not a catastrophic dam collapse upstream, of course. Cranston Engineering (the city's favorite) did the study. This study means nobody downtown has to buy flood insurance.

I went down to the engineering department to look at the massive number of pages in the study. The fact is that the 30 ft. levee doesn't need to be more than 10' high in downtown Augusta.

I've been an advocate of taking the downtown part of the levee down and allowing private investors to develop a vibrant waterfront for many years. Think of a fishing pier, jet ski rentals, docks, caf├ęs, restaurants, bars, B&B's, and all sorts of shops. I'm not saying take down whats already built on, like the Amphitheater.

Waterfront is where it's at. Cities across the nation are developing waterfronts and enjoying tourism, jobs, revenues and fun. Augusta would not even have an imminent domain problem: they own the land on the river from the airport to the head gates; 25 miles.

Many people have advocated getting rid of the levee after the completion of Clarks Hill Dam in the 1950's including former Augusta Mayor Lewis "Pop" Newman (1973 - 1981). There are three very major hydroelectric dams above Augusta, and the closest is only 22 miles upstream.

I'm disgusted by the fascists/socialist/communists/idiotic leaders here who think nothing should be built alongside the river but baseball stadiums, Arts Centers, Golf & Gardens or whatever government revenue-negative boondoggle they can conjure up. I'm originally from Atlanta, which is booming. I've not seen a single crane in downtown Augusta that was not taxpayer-funded since the early 90's.

The freaking Canal Authority is the reason Bass Pro didn't locate here. The Canal Authority would not let them cut a trail down to the canal and a walkway for people to try out fishing equipment. Some fossils on that authority have served more than 22 years, since the inception. They wanted to leave the area "pristine" when it is overwhelmed with invasive foreign vegetation, primarily privet. The canal is another subject, though. Tragic mismanagement of an awesome asset.

Augusta is sitting on a gold mine: a gorgeous river. I put the question once to Deke and he said it would take an act of Congress. So what? Congress passes dozens of acts a day.

Attached is a photo of the chart from the FEMA study.***

Nancy Albert
FEMA Study Chart (Click to enlarge)

Would you like to have your say on a local oriented issue? Then consider submitting a guest column to City Stink.  Email to CityStink@gmail.com

Deke Weasels Out On Redistricting


Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012
Augusta, GA

It appears as though Mayor Deke Copenhaver has backed out on a pledge to sign off on a letter of support for the redistricting 3 R map that was unanimously approved by the ad-hoc redistricting committee back in November, that later failed to win the support of the full commission when two of the redistricting committee members (Jerry Brigham and Grady Smith) changed their minds and voted against the map at the Dec. 6th commission meeting. That vote resulted in a tie, but Mayor Copenhaver was on vacation at the time so the motion failed by default

The Mayor later said that if he had been at the December 6th Commission meeting he would have broke the tie in favor of approving the redistricting 3-R map. It all seemed a little too convenient at the time and once again gave Deke an easy out. He never made his position on redistricting public until after the vote failed in the commission because he was not there to break the tie. There was some speculation that Deke's absence was orchestrated allowing him to once again dodge making a controversial tie-breaking vote.

But after hearing news that the Mayor would have supported the redistricting map if he had been at the Dec. 6 meeting, which would have resulted in its approval, Commissioner Alvin Mason asked for a do-over vote at the Dec. 20th commission meeting when Deke would be present to cast a tie-breaking vote in favor of the  map. But not surprisingly the Mayor was denied the opportunity to  break a tie this time when commissioners Jerry Brigham and Grady Smith played the abstention card, defeating the motion yet again by default. But this outcome would not satisfy Alvin Mason. He asked for the Mayor to sign a letter of support for the redistricting map that would then be forwarded to the Georgia General Assembly and to The US Justice Department. The Mayor agreed to  do this. 

But in the end it appears that was only talk. Now Commissioner Jerry Brigham and School Board member Jack Padgett are trying to defeat the redistricting map that they previously voted to approve in the ad-hoc committee.

They have turned to Jesse Stone and Barbara Sims of the local delegation to halt progress of the map in the legislature and to draw up a new one that would retain the 5-5 racial balance on the commission and school board.

Now the mayor seems to have flip-flopped on signing the letter of support. According to  Sylvia Cooper's Jan. 22 City Ink Column, Commissioner Mason asked for a point of privilege at last Tuesday's commission meeting, asking the Mayor to make good on his promise to sign the letter of support for the redistricting map.

 Mayor Copenhaver then responded with "I’m just sort of watching it play out. “I said I would consider that, but obviously, the commission does not have to approve the maps. The situation is changing on a regular basis. I would like to see the delegation get their act together.” 

It was a typical Deke non-answer. The entire point of the letter was to show the delegation that he supported the map and that would in turn help its passage in the legislature. It was an opportunity for Deke to demonstrate leadership and once again he retreated.

Then Commissioner Mason responded by saying: You are elected by the entire city. The community kind of wanted to see where you stood on this particular issue. It was our hope the letter would be drafted.”

All of this should be of no big surprise to Commissioner Mason. It simply reinforces what many people previously thought; that Deke was merely acting out a role of political theater on the redistricting map and his promise to support it was hollow from the beginning. It's not the first time Deke has weaseled out of making a controversial decision and showing some real leadership. 

Now redistricting is in limbo and still no one is sure what the district maps will look like for local elections this fall. It's particularly troublesome for potential candidates who may not end up even living in the districts they intend to run in. Some leadership from the Mayor could have helped settle this issue. At first, it seemed as though the Mayor was willing to step up to the plate and bring everyone together on the compromise redistricting map. That appears to have been wishful thinking. ***

Related articles:


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Monday, January 23, 2012

Taylor Bryant: It's Time for a Local Economic Development Revolution


Billions of Dollars in Direct Economic Impact Packaged and Ready to Roll

Economic Development: Time for a Revolution
Monday, Jan. 23, 2012
Augusta, GA

The study of economic theory and practice has been a hobby of mine for quite some time now. I have studied the works of Frederic Bastiat, John Maynard Keynes, Murray Rothbard, and F.A. Hayek to name a few, and I will be the first to admit I am no expert in the field by any stretch of the imagination. The study of economics is not very exciting or entertaining, which is probably the reason that most people, including some that hold the highest offices in the land, are ignorant to the causes and effects of manipulating the systems by organized government. 
Locally, our economic system had developed a hardened shell of protected income, buoyed by taxpayer funded jobs, such as Fort Gordon, Savannah River Site, certain medical positions, and the secondary education system. While this is positive, we must realize that those things can go away with a simple piece of legislation. We have no solid backup plan in that event. We can learn from Charleston, SC what happens when a military installation disappears. The largest stockpile of nuclear capable submarines pulled anchor in the early nineties, leaving the town in shambles for over a decade. My house that I lived in at the time took six years to sell. SIX YEARS ON THE MARKET.
Charleston was able to stay alive by exploiting their tourism industry and luring in large manufacturing powerhouses. North Charleston just landed one of the largest economic impact features in on the East Coast, a Boeing Aircraft Assembly plant that will directly bring in 3,800+ jobs, taking people out of the unemployment line and into the workforce. There will be even more jobs when parts manufacturers build supply plants, warehouses, and logistic chains, estimated to be almost 6,000 more. This is revolutionary for that area. It is estimated that it will bring in three times the local economic impact of the BMW plant in Spartanburg, which in the last 15 years has totaled almost 9 BILLION DOLLARS! The biggest plus is that the tax dollars generated by Boeing are not being pulled from an existing taxable entity within the border of the county. More on that later...
Almost a year ago I had heard that Audi of America had intentions of putting a plant somewhere in North America. The corporate brass have set extremely aggressive goals of taking BMW down a peg in market share, and was looking to build here due to a dropping dollar and a workforce that could put out the high quality cars that made Audi a force to be reckoned with. I immediately started doing intensive research on this subject and started to ask some questions of our local leaders. I sent emails, made phone calls, even spoke to Audi executives trying to find out any information on the bid process for securing this jewel of an opportunity for our area. Volkswagen had just pulled the trigger on their factory in Chattanooga, TN, and now are pumping out the newly designed Passat to dealerships all over the world. 


I was told that the Audi plant would be hand building engines and producing complete units on a limited basis. The plant would employ up to 2,400 people, with salaries ranging in the mid $40,000 range, which is about the same as the VW plant. Porsche, another piece of the company, has just bought land for a Corporate and Testing headquarters in Atlanta, and now it has been rumored that VW will move their Southeastern Corporate office to the Atlanta area. This is good news for the state of Georgia. 
That leaves the point of my column... we missed the boat, my friends
Augusta has a plethora of motivated workers, strong technical schools such as Augusta Tech and even Aiken Tech across the river, a surplus of real estate suitable for conversion or building, and a closeness to the Interstate and Garden City port in Savannah, along with the Brunswick port that is VW/Audi/Porsche’s port of entry. We have a low cost of living and housing is affordable. What is the leadership of this town waiting for? Why aren’t we wearing out our knuckles beating on the doors of industries like this? We need an economic revolution
We paid $10,000,000 in sales taxes to Costco to set up shop. At first glance that seems like a good idea, and was generally well received by the community, generating 200 jobs. I wonder how Sam’s Club, Target, Wal-Mart, and the small business community feel about the city of Augusta paying a large franchise to come in and strip income from existing sales tax producing tenants of this County? Is this fair to those that have worked hard? Is it morally correct to subsidize competition, and let our local government pick winners and losers in this painful economy? I will let the reader decide, I think you know where I stand. 
Bringing in heavy industry to Augusta does not damage the sales of the service or retail industry, and in fact, does quite the opposite. Take the Audi plant for example. We build an Audi A7 sedan in the boundaries of Richmond county. Let us say that it takes 1500 man hours to build this car, at the average rate of $20 an hour, counting the janitor to the Plant manager we have made $30,000 within the boundaries of our county. Now, someone is going to buy that car, and it’s safe to say it will be someone from outside the county. That means we have exported 1500 hours of labor and imported $30,000 of money, all to be taxed by the State and the City at various rates to pay for teachers, firemen, pothole filling, and TEE centers (heh). Meanwhile, the rest will be spent in the service, housing, and retail side, because people have to have clothes, hairdos, and oil changes, right? Seems fairly simple. 
2,400 Audi jobs x $40,000 average salary = $96 Million dollars of taxable income into Richmond county a year. That equals $6,720,000 in sales taxes.... in one year! It would also cut our unemployment by nearly 25% across the board, putting people back to work. Again, this is direct impact. I am not counting the extra impact from the transporting of goods, outlying parts suppliers, out of town visitors, or construction stimulus of the plant. 
Why aren’t we offering Volkswagen the old Fort Discovery for their corporate office? can you imagine over 400 highly paid executives and staff in the Downtown area for 40 hours a week? Why are we using the Tax Allocation District to bring in the small potato companies with negligible economic impact? Why are people trying to bring this to light being ignored by those that can make such a difference to so many? 
I really do not have a solid answer to that question. I know this town needs someone that can go out and at least try to get these opportunities, and it will take well more than a $100,000 conference room to make this happen. We need leaders in our government who can bring things like this to Augusta, or at least make a good effort. When I first brought this up, I was ignored and called a dreamer, and those people may be correct in their assertion. If believing in my town enough to think we can build cars when the people in our area have assembled nuclear warheads, cured cancer patients at our state of the art hospitals, and host the most prestigious golf tournament in the world make me a dreamer, then so be it. 
We are better than call centers. We are better than an empty mall on Gordon Highway. We are better than Costco. It is about time we start electing and hiring people who think we aren’t above that list to positions of power. We must rise above THEIR expectations of what WE can do. We need an Economic Revolution in Richmond County, and you can call this the first shot in that battle. ***


UPDATE: After writing this column, there is new information that Mercedes is eyeing the South East US for another manufacturing facility. Will Augusta leaders step up to the plate and aggressively court Mercedes and the high paying jobs they would bring to the area?
TB