An $800,000 sales tax infusion will relocate the remaining 14 households in Augusta’s Hyde Park to new residences, after a vote that followed a lengthy closed-door session of the Augusta Commission on Tuesday.
Though he once called for an audit of Hyde Park spending, which provides relocated homeowners with new homes and is accompanied by hefty legal bills and other spending, Commissioner Marion Williams defended the 7-2 vote Tuesday.
“We can’t stop now; we’ve got too much invested,” he said.
The funds, to be repaid with special purpose local option sales tax 7 collections, bring to nearly $8 million the amount the city has authorized since 2011 to relocate 86 homeowners and 28 renting households and purchase 234 unoccupied parcels.
The buyout is for the stated purpose of building a regional detention pond, though many residents of the historically black neighborhood and others believe it to have been contaminated by nearby industries.
Despite the home sales and purchases being public record, the city’s legal staff has argued the relocation project must be discussed behind closed doors to prevent price-gouging by property owners in the blighted area.
Combined with about $200,000 left in Hyde Park accounts, the $800,000 won’t complete the buyout process but will get all of the remaining residents into new homes or rentals, City Administrator Janice Allen Jackson said.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said he supported the action to move on with project, which was included in the sales tax package.
Commissioners Mary Davis and Sean Frantom, who along with Williams and Commissioner Bill Fennoy are up for re-election May 24, opposed the move. Fennoy was absent for the vote.
The commission took seven votes after spending more than 90 minutes behind closed doors, something they will have more time for after voting Tuesday to allow an extra hour twice a month for “executive sessions.”
Though the commission had previously refused to increase his budget, it authorized a $25,000 transfer to Mayor Hardie Davis’ budget for converting a temporary staffer to a part-time employee.
“This action is to allow for hiring a part-time person using existing budget dollars,” said the mayor, who overspent his 2015 budget by approximately that amount.
The commission put the brakes on some members’ travel by voting 6-3-1 to divide travel and training evenly among the 10 commissioners.
The mayor and Commissioner Bill Lockett, both frequent travelers, protested the move, while Fennoy argued to increase the travel budget to allow each member two state conferences and one national conference per year.
Davis called media coverage of the travel dispute “poppycock” reserved for Augusta-Richmond County and not neighboring governments. He rebuffed Commissioner Sammie Sias’ motion to approve the item, saying he hadn’t authorized Sias, who was speaking, to make the motion.
Lockett said the limit will prevent him from attending Georgia Municipal Association meetings where he holds a leadership role, and that the commission’s travel budget is “just a tidbit” of the city’s general fund.
Lockett, Fennoy and Williams voted no, while Mayor Pro Tem Grady Smith abstained.
The commission also approved spending $12,000 for land adjoining Jamestown Park, which is managed by Sias. Williams, a critic of Sias, said the purchase was political payback for a Sias ally.
“It’s supposed to be for the park, but there is nothing going on in the park now,” Williams said.
The commission also accepted a $50,000 insurance settlement from Augusta Staffing, the city’s primary staffing service, to help cover $85,375 in losses from a former temp who used a blank, signed timesheet to pay herself despite doing no work for an Augusta Utilities contractor.
Terrilynn Brown, who was sentenced to 10 years of probation, has paid $4,500 in restitution and will continue to make $700 monthly restitution payments, according to General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie.
The commission also voted to name Augusta Fire Department Deputy Chief of Operations Sterling Jones as interim 911 director and to hire Michael Loeser as the new city human resources director, at a salary of $100,000.
Loeser, who has served as human resources director for Richmond, Va., public schools and as labor relations manager for Northrop Grumman Corp., replaces Tanika Bryant, who resigned last year.