A stalled parking garage management deal that triggered a call for an outside forensic audit moved forward Tuesday, with assurance that the landowner will donate the land beneath the new parking deck free of liens to the Augusta Land Bank Authority.
A motion by Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles to enter into the management agreement – for a shorter, five-year term, so long as the land is transferred – passed 6-3-1.
Augusta Commission members Corey Johnson, Alvin Mason and Bill Lockett opposed the motion, with Mason and Lockett stating they learned of the potential donation only Tuesday night. Commissioner J.R. Hatney abstained after asking for written assurance that the donation was approved by the bank holding the lien.
Bowles said that under his motion, the city can’t enter into the agreement unless the land is transferred and the lien released.
Questions surrounding the new parking deck go back years but came to a head in recent weeks, when commissioners learned that a promised donation of land on which the deck was to be built hadn’t occurred and that the land not donated also has a bank lien on it.
The questions prompted six commissioners to vote in December to seek a forensic audit of the deal assembled by City Administrator Fred Russell and by city special counsel Jim Plunkett with Augusta Riverfront LLC, the firm that will manage the Trade, Exhibit and Event Center (which will be known as the Augusta Convention Center) and parking decks, and landowner 933 Broad LLC.
Both Augusta Riverfront and 933 Broad have ties to management of Morris Communications, which owns The Augusta Chronicle.
Community questions persisted Tuesday, with former mayoral candidate Lori Davis and Lincolnton, Ga., businessman Al Gray speaking out against the commission continuing with the deal. Davis asked the commission to fire Russell and Plunkett, who she said “hammered out” the “deceptive deals.”
Building on air rights allowed the city to issue tax-exempt revenue bonds for construction while allowing 933 Broad to retain a floor of spaces for its use, Plunkett has said.
Donating the real estate to another government entity, however, was an acceptable solution that allows 933 Broad to keep the spaces and the city bonds to keep their tax-exempt status, Bowles said after the meeting.
He said that Commissioner Jerry Brigham came up with the solution earlier that day and that it passed muster with bond counsel.
“The reason for the air rights was all in order to provide the parking that was promised (to 933 Broad) and to be able to issue the tax-exempt bonds which saved basically $2 million to the taxpayers,” Bowles said.
Paul Simon, the president of 933 Broad, said he has had a letter from the bank holding the lien agreeing to release it when the deal is final since as far back as July 2010. He said he expected no problems in transferring the real estate to the land bank.
“This way, another third party will own the land, and we’ll have perpetual rights to park on the ground floor,” Simon said.
The solution “makes it more complex for the lawyers,” Plunkett said after the meeting, “but it makes it easier for everyone else.”