AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) –You have likely seen the signs around the city encouraging you to vote for SPLOST 8. What you may not know is what exactly it is and why you would want to add on a tax – even a penny – when you are already paying property taxes. Augusta City Administrator Odie Donald joined The Means Report to explain what that penny does, who is really paying the most, and why it is so important.
Brad Means: Odie Donald just started in November. Congratulations on your new job, sir. How do you like it so far?
Odie Donald: I love it. Augusta, great community. I have an amazing group of staff members and a really dynamic commission and mayor. And so I’m excited to join the team and help move Augusta forward.
Brad Means: Well, they’re making you hit the ground running. I know you knew that when you took this job, because now we’re just days away from the big vote on SPLOST number eight. Just to give the viewers a general idea and to make sure I’m explaining it right, this is a 1% tax that can be used for improvements around our town. Be it new construction or improving what’s already there. Is that pretty accurate?
Odie Donald: Yeah, that’s very accurate. I think the only thing that I would add is that the beauty of the SPLOST is that it’s not all carried on our taxpayer’s backs. So, you know, like residential property taxes are. The bulk, or I wouldn’t say the bulk, almost half of the revenue that comes from SPLOST is actually brought in from tourists and passers by and folks who are visiting the Augusta-Richmond County area. And so that’s one of the best parts, the biggest benefit, is that you receive these improvements that you referred to, but you don’t have to pay for them all as citizens and business stakeholders of the region.
Brad Means: You know, Odie, we’ll talk about the big ticket items in just a moment. Those are the ones that grab all the headlines. But if you look through the SPLOST 8 project list, you see things like road resurfacing, you see things like new lights for ball fields. And so what’d you say that the bulk of the money or the bulk of the projects on this list are projects that just make day-to-day life better in Augusta?
Odie Donald: Yeah, I think the biggest part is quality of life and improving it. Wile we put them in different categories, you know, public safety, some things, quality of life, infrastructure, government facilities, they all really just make your life easier. And there are things that you really want to make sure you invest in in the community. You know, you want your kids playing baseball on a field that’s well lit with quality fields and great access to parking. But you also want to make sure that you have all of these new and vibrant attractions that the roads that you travel on are easily accessible and get you there without ruining your automobile with plenty of potholes and drainage issues.
Brad Means: Well, what a good point. I mean, people take a smooth ride around town for granted, but it is one of those life changing things that you notice if it’s not there. What if this tax is not there? What if on election day people choose either not to go out and vote or to vote no, does some of the improvements and the projects that you’ve already mentioned just go away?
Odie Donald: Unfortunately, they do. I mean, I think, you know, Augusta is a very unique place where many moons ago, folks decided that, they created a formula, where you don’t really raise the millage rate very often. It’s actually tied to revenue projections of how much money that the County brings in. Because of that, you know, SPLOST is really your main resource to deliver much needed capital projects. And so it takes a while to get them all done. Most SPLOSTs last from five to six years, but having a gap in that SPLOST could really be detrimental to our ability to deliver high level services.
Brad Means: All right, so let’s talk about some of the bigger things on it. You see, $25 million is needed to get things started on the new James Brown Arena that many people hope will be located downtown one day. My question is just, oh my goodness, do you think we’ll have concerts again one day? It’s kind of exciting to think about moving into that period.
Odie Donald: Yeah. I’ll tell you, you know, the pandemic has definitely been something that has changed the way we look at life and how we operate, but I think it’s also made us appreciate some of the things that we’ve taken for granted, including the arts, concerts and things of that nature. The James Brown Arena is a very, I’d just say a big deal, for the Augusta-Richmond County community, really for our entire region. Even our partners in Burke County and those in Columbia, they would likely utilize and come into our city to be able to, you know, witness concerts and other activities. So it’s not just a game changer, but I really think it’s the cornerstone of the future of downtown. And so I’m really excited about that project, honored to be a part of informing the community about it after our commission has really gotten behind it and supported the project. Again, I think it was a very big deal, allows Augusta to compete with others, not only in our region, but really across the nation. And I think that at times gets lost locally is that Augusta is a national destination spot, proven every year by The Masters and other activities that we have and the JBA will really help us take that to the next level.
Brad Means: You’re right, I mean, people are gonna go to concerts anyway, it’d be so much easier to go to them right here in our town. So look at the James Brown Arena, look at the $6 million on the project list for a waterpark, and tell me, you know, you talked about the JBA, your thoughts on a water park and what you would say to voters who they see those big items and they’re very leery, very hesitant to vote.
Odie Donald: Yeah, well, I will tell you, I think, I wouldn’t be leery, I’d actually be really excited. You know, Augusta is the second largest city in the state of Georgia, the best place in the country to do business voted, I think we’re up to 10 times in a row now. And the growth in our region, not just in Augusta, but in the surrounding area as well really does, you know, demand that we provide different resources and opportunities and just quality of life activities for our residents. But it also gives us an opportunity to benefit from all of those visitors who pass through, some of which aren’t spending at the levels that we might need them to to continue to transform our community. These activities will really help to change that. I think the really cool thing about both the James Brown Arena as well as the proposed waterpark is that we’ve started having those conversations with business in advance to have partners at the table to help us deliver them. You know, the water park, the city is not an expert at delivering those types of aquatic services or those quality of life services. While we do have some experience, we believe that the best thing to do was to partner with the private sector, owner operators, so we started to have those conversations, very encouraging and really may be able to expand on the 6 million that’s put inside of the project. So that’s a really big opportunity. I think the James Brown Arena, while it’s a humongous opportunity and folks are probably a little more well versed on it, I wouldn’t forget about the Fifth Street bridge investment that’s included. You know, right now we’re turning that bridge into a pedestrian bridge, which is a really good thing, but to actually add some attractions and, you know, different things that make it a destination spot really changes the face of that corridor as well and brings Augusta, you know, even forward snot only a competitor to other places, but really no matter what part of Augusta you’re in, North, South, East Augusta, you have something to do. You have access to quality activities and just a smooth quality of life.
Brad Means: Well, we’ll look forward to March 16th. That’s going to be the day that we all go to the polls and cast our ballots on SPLOST number eight. Let me ask you just in the couple of minutes we have remaining, the challenges of your job. You’re in charge of 3,000 employees give or take. and I’ve always been fascinated from this vantage point here at the TV station, the lifespan, if you will, the job life span of a city administrator. it seems to be certainly finite. You all come and go every few years. Is it, Odie, is it tough to manage the personalities of 10 commissioners and so therefore some people can hack it, some people can’t? Do you hope you can stick it out for a long time here?
Odie Donald: I do. I mean, I really do enjoy Augusta. I’ve always had my eyes on Augusta as a potential, you know, landing spot and a place where I can continue to raise and grow my family. Is it a tough job? I don’t know. I think it depends on how you look at it. For me, I’d say no. Each one of our team commissioners and our mayor represent, you know, 200,000 constituents collectively, really more than that. And so their passion and their focus is really on delivering for those citizens. You know, you have to make sure, that’s a tough job, but it’s something that, you know, is honorable, is a burden of leadership that I fully accept and look forward to. And I think if I can help these elected officials deliver for their residents, we could likely have a long relationship, but, you know, having that type of passion, determination, and vision for your citizens and being able to be a part of it and kind of help them mold that vision into results, I mean, that’s a challenge. That’s not necessarily a negative thing. That’s a great opportunity. And so that’s why I chose to come here.
Brad Means: My last question, and you might not have the answer to it, because times are so uncertain, but do you know when you all, the commission, other leaders, might be able to meet in person again?
Odie Donald: Yeah, so that’s definitely been something that the commission is passionate about. I actually had a meeting with some of my partners, my counterparts, in Fulton County, also actually in Oakland, California as well. And we’ve kind of created kind of a city manager or city administrators group. And I think we’re gonna target, the commission, has been fairly adamant that they would love to do so following The Masters. I think moving closer to May 1st is a pretty good target date, allows to make sure that everything is in place. Although meeting in person might look a little bit different than it did before the pandemic. I think that early May is around the time that we’re targeting, but again, that’s a commission decision, I only make recommendations, but I think this is one that they’d be friendly to.
Brad Means: Well, we will keep our eye on that for sure and keep our fingers crossed, really, that we all come out of this period in our lives okay. Odie Donald, I welcome you once again to Augusta, congratulations on your new job, and thanks so much for spending a few minutes with us today.
Odie Donald: Absolutely, I appreciate you having me, and enjoyed meeting you. Brad Means: Me too, me too.