Government Watchdogs Help Save Richmond County Taxpayers $6 million
Originally posted by CityStink
November 13, 2012
By Al Gray
The author, Al M. Gray is President of Cost Recovery Works, Inc., a provider of Cost Avoidance and Cost Recovery for America’s leading companies, businesses and governments desiring Superior Returns.
It began calmly enough for this correspondent in August 2011. Another chapter in life had been closed with the disposition of all commercial property in Evans, which was our family’s investment of a lifetime. That adventure of maximizing returns from that investment had required leveraging up multidisciplinary contract and regulatory review skills to a new level in combating hostile forces inside of Columbia County government. The comfort of total retirement beckoned until zero-interest-rate-policies of the Federal Reserve attacked all safe income streams. Thoughts crept in about leveraging up the entire old repertoire of skills on a grander scale, but how?
Along came Deke Copenhaver’s ill-fated attempt to get a downtown stadium for a group headed by former Baltimore baseball great Cal Ripken, Jr. The whole deal looked suspect all the way from the woods of Lincoln County and a tiny band of opponents rose up to combat the project. This just happened to coincide with a preliminary secretive review of Augusta’s major contracts for the water treatment plant, sales tax project oversight, and the TEE Center construction. The activists had a meeting that I drove down to attend. We quickly found and developed common bonds.
Our first success came a year ago this month, with our opposition to the Laney Walker Bethlehem Overlay District (LWBOLD). We successfully got the Augusta Commission’s motion to approve scaled back to the correct, much more compact Foundry Node, rather than the huge overall LWBOLD. This early project coincided with the creation of the CityStink.net blog (the name being a parody of Sylvia Cooper’s City Ink column in The Augusta Chronicle) and a social media group called Augusta Today, a parody of the name Augusta Tomorrow — the latter being a group of elite self-appointed downtown power-brokers who are responsible for many of the ill-conceived taxpayer funded boondoggles over the past 30 years in Augusta.
A large element of success was a core group comprised of Augusta political ‘gadflies’ at whom the Augusta Chronicle was prone to scoff, researchers, and amateur media types. This group collaborated in a number of issues including overlay zoning, Magnolia Trace, the parking deck controversy in which we broke the story about the undisclosed liens, Laney Walker housing, TSPLOST, the 12thDistrict Congressional election, various Augusta contracts, the DDA, the clock and finally the TEE Center.
Former Mayoral candidate Lori Davis emerged quickly to take the lead in arranging for Georgia Open Records Act Requests and turning the results into hard-hitting reports that were promptly delivered. Kurt Huttar and Tom West are fantastic data hounds and analysts whose work would make all manner of Augusta players wet their pants if the research were released. Dee Mathis was an early core group member who took Laney Walker to heart with a rousing defense of property rights. Andy Cheek is an experienced Augusta political hand from his days on the Augusta Commission. Brad Owens is a now successful security contractor, in addition to his familiarity with the minefield of Augusta politics. All have made their presence known in Augusta.
Potential and real savings for Augusta were identified along the way including a possible $300,000 or so on Laney Walker housing, an apparent $167,000 overcharge on a major contract, perhaps $750,000 over the life of parking deck contracts, and now more than $6 million on the TEE Center Contracts, according to Commissioner Corey Johnson and various news reports in the aftermath of last Thursday’s vote to approve considerably-amended Tee Center agreements after Augusta Today founder Brad Owens and this writer met with city and manager attorneys, and three Augusta Commissioners. Johnson put the savings as high as $500,000 a year and our analysis confirms that the savings could easily exceed $400,000 a year between the contract changes and the safeguards to come in the Annual Plan process.
Media reports can be found at Georgia Public Broadcasting’s site which had this to say: “The revised deal cuts the operating losses in half from about $900,000 originally, and it gives Augusta officials the option of renegotiating with the management company after five years.” George Eskola, of WJBF NewsChannel 6 offered the headline “Proposed TEE Center Contract Change Could Save Augusta $500,000” His report appears below.
Augusta has never seen anything quite like this grass-roots citizens movement made possible by the use of digital media.. The response has been overwhelming. Our media vehicles of social media groups and CityStink.net have gained a following among the legal, accounting, public policy, and business communities.
The achievements are not bad, not bad at all, for an operation held together by not much more than duct tape, baling wire, and twine.
Augusta Administrator Fred Russell has characterized Augusta Today as a group that is permanently discontented with the TEE Center contracts, saying “We have listened to everything they have said to do and done it, and now they’re not happy.” Seven of ten commissioners listened better, delaying approval, and securing $400,000 to $500,000 in annual savings.
Augusta Today is happy today, Fred.
In closing, the phrase from District One Commissioner Matt Aitken “It is time to move Augusta forward” suits best. Let’s do that, keeping in mind that approaching problems from all angles makes for the best path forward, one less filled with mistakes. Deke’s and Fred’s way are no longer the only options on the table, when Augusta can save money doing otherwise.
On a more personal note in closing this first annual report card, leveraging up what worked so well before in the corporate and real estate into the glaring lights of Public Policy has been very satisfying. Thanks to each and all who have offered kind words of praise and support. Thanks even more to the Augusta Today group for their commitment for positive change in government and saving the people’s money.
Who knows where this might end. Maybe what starts in Augusta won’t end in Augusta.***