Story by Chris Graham
Waynesboro City Council members have come across in recent weeks as being at odds among themselves and with city manager Doug Walker over issues involving the debt load that the city can take on and the city government’s handling of a recent political controversy regarding a proposed West End fire substation.
As a Friday-morning vote looms on Walker’s reappointment, at least his job appears to be safe.
“I’m very comfortable with the direction that the city is going in,” mayor Tom Reynolds told The Augusta Free Press.
“Doug Walker has my total support,” vice mayor Nancy Dowdy told the AFP.
“I’m pleased with all of our charter employees, Doug Walker included,” Councilman Tim Williams told the AFP.
Williams attributed the appearance of discord between the city council and city management to the “growing pains” that the public body is experiencing with his addition and the recent appointment of Frank Lucente to fill the unexpired term of former council member Chuck Ricketts.
Williams is finishing up his first year on city council. Lucente has been on the job for two months.
“In Doug’s defense, he’s had to make some adjustments to his way of doing things because of the changes on council,” Williams said. “I’m still relatively new, and Frank Lucente is new, so there’s a new dynamic on council. Doug’s adjusting to that new dynamic.”
The “dynamic” that Williams referred to also includes a political element. Williams, Lucente and Councilman Reo Hatfield are dyed-in-the-wool fiscal conservatives who have been pushing Walker on issues involving taxes and spending and the increasing debt load that the city is taking on with multimillion-dollar renovations in the works at Kate Collins Middle School.
“It’s not discontent. What it is is that because we know have some serious businesspeople on city council, we’re able to work toward getting the city government to operate more as a business-minded organization,” Hatfield told the AFP.
“There are a lot of things we can do, and are doing, to get away from the business-as-usual approach that we’ve had here for so long. And we’re taking the steps to see those things through,” Hatfield said.
“I think we need to take a look at some things that we can do to correct the way we do things. I think we can do that in the next couple of work sessions and then move forward,” Lucente told the AFP.
It was Lucente who suggested recently that the city should look to alternative means to taking on debt to finance projects like the West End fire station and a new city health-department building – with one alternative being a tax increase.
“The gist of my thoughts on this is, if people want a fire station, then let’s come up with a way to pay for it. I’m not Ronald Reagan or George Bush. I’m not going to cut taxes and then borrow money to do something. That doesn’t make any sense,” Lucente said.
Reynolds raised issue with that suggestion – and the implication that “conservative people don’t borrow money.”
“My response to that is to have us ask at the next city-council meeting for a show of hands of how many people had to borrow money to buy their house. The point is that of the people who raise their hands, my guess is that at least half of them, if not more, consider themselves to be conservative,” Reynolds said.
“Conservatives do sometimes have to borrow money. The difference between a conservative and a liberal is that a conservative will only borrow the amount of money that they feel comfortable paying back. They don’t look to borrow however much the bank will allow them to,” Reynolds said.
“I’ve also heard the argument that if we want to build something, then we need to raise the tax rate to provide the money to do so. So if we’re looking at a million-dollar health center, that’s 10 cents on the tax rate. That’s shooting ourselves in the foot. All the work that we’ve done to grow the economic base would fall by the wayside,” Reynolds said.
Hatfield, for his part, sees the issue as being not one of not having enough money to commit to capital improvements, but having too many hands out asking for the money that the city does have to spend.
“The pressure that we’re seeing comes in part because all of the sudden, we have all this new money coming in from our growth in the West End, and everybody’s coming out of the woodwork wanting their projects that have been on the table for years and years done,” Hatfield said.
“We have to approach this with a conservative mindset. We can’t just go out and do everything that everybody wants us to do because we have new money coming in,” Hatfield said.
“We’re seeing things moving along. People talked about downtown revitalization for 20 years, and now it’s going to be done in 20 weeks. People talked about bringing business to Waynesboro, and it’s here. Business is booming. People were tired of talking about what we could do or should do. They wanted to see something done. And we’re getting things done,” Hatfield said.
The bottom line, to Hatfield, is that “the council is taking the lead, as it should.”
“We all just want what’s best for the city,” Lucente said. “Some of us just have a different way of looking at things.”
“The best way to deal with these issues is to do so up front and in the open and answer the questions that are raised so that we can work to getting on the same page,” Reynolds said.
“My question isn’t about anything that Doug Walker’s done. We as a council need to step up and be accountable and responsible for our own actions,” Dowdy said.