Plans to relocate 107 families and buy out landowners in Augusta’s Hyde Park neighborhood hit a roadblock Tuesday when a vote to hire three employees to help with the process failed.
The new employees, who were hired by Housing and Community Development Director Chester Wheeler before he sought Augusta Commission approval, were to be paid using sales tax money designated for the Hyde Park project and were allotted up to 20 hours of weekly overtime for up to five years.
The debate over whether to approve them grew heated at Tuesday’s commission meeting, with District 2 Commissioner Corey Johnson, who twice had made the buyout a campaign promise, questioning why the commission was even voting on hiring staffers paid using sales tax money and doubting that the task could be outsourced for less.
“This happened way before me, and it’s going to continue way after me,” Johnson said of the neighborhood’s dismal reputation as being contaminated by nearby industry and of the city’s efforts to make better use of it as a large drainage pond.
The commission had voted in October to reprogram about $4.5 million in sales tax revenue to relocate residents under federal guidelines, a plan that allotted only about $10,000 per family to replace the equivalent of a two- or three-bedroom house. No additional funding source has been identified, although some city officials expect to add it to the next sales tax referendum in 2014.
Tuesday's commission item “shouldn’t even be here on the agenda, in my opinion,” Johnson said.
City Administrator Fred Russell said he had sought commission approval to create three positions “out of an abundance of caution.”
Several commissioners had called for Russell’s job when he awarded 44 raises without their approval last year, and several continue to question whether he should have hiring and firing authority.
Although special purpose local option sales tax revenue normally is used for capital projects, the city has at least 30 employees paid using the sales tax money to work on specific construction projects, according to a database compiled by The Augusta Chronicle.
Some of the workers have been on the city payroll for more than 20 years.
Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who opposed hiring the employees, said the tasks easily could have been outsourced.
“We outsource every major right-of-way project in this county,” he said. “Why are we guaranteeing three people 20 hours a week overtime for three years whether or not they need it?”
Voicing his support, Mayor Deke Copenhaver said Wheeler had a “proven track record” with redevelopment initiatives in the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods.
The effort will become the new home of some of the relocated Hyde Park residents, according to Wheeler.
Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles abstained from voting because his family owns property in the area. Bowles questioned why, as landowners, his family had “never received one notification” about the buyout, relocation or drainage plans.
Although numerous neighborhood meetings have been held, Wheeler said his office was starting off with notifying 44 area families of the relocation’s first phase.
Commissioners Joe Jackson and Wayne Guilfoyle joined Brigham in voting against the measure, which needed six votes to pass but had only five. Commissioner Grady Smith was absent Tuesday.
Russell said that the vote will slow the relocation but that he will return with “another pitch” for getting the job done.
Residents were told at a recent community meeting not to move until they were contacted for a city interview.
The only Hyde Park residents who attended Tuesday’s meeting were opposed to moving out. Homeowner Nora Roberts said she was glad the vote failed.