Management of the city’s new downtown parking garage remains undecided, with Augusta Commission members on Monday sending City Administrator Fred Russell back to renegotiate a deal he previously said was the best he could do.
Emerging after nearly an hour behind closed doors with General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie and special counsel Jim Plunkett, who has handled most legal details associated with the new Trade, Exhibit and Event Center, the commission’s Finance Committee voted 4-0 to have Russell “come back with a new proposal.”
Russell’s first proposal, in which Augusta pays TEE Center operator Augusta Riverfront LLC an annual management fee of $25,000 to operate the nearby deck, while reserving its ground floor spaces during business hours for landowner 933 Broad Investment Co. LLC, raised questions with several commissioners that persisted Monday.
“It appears that we are giving away the taxpayers’ money,” Commissioner Bill Lockett said.
Lockett said after Monday’s vote he remained particularly troubled by the fact that he made a Aug. 9, 2010, motion to acquire land he thought was for the deck.
“General counsel did not properly explain what he was anticipating the commission voting on,” he said.
After a called legal meeting Aug. 9, 2010, the commission approved 9-0 a motion read by MacKenzie to buy the former WAGT-TV property for $205,000, purchase for $119,500 and swap property at the corner of 13th and Reynolds streets for a tract at Ninth and Reynolds streets and pay $32,000 to end a lease with the operator of Reggie’s Hot Dog Stand.
Typically when the commission authorizes a purchase of real estate, Augusta’s mayor signs off on a resolution describing and authorizing the purchase, but no resolution could be located Monday by City Clerk Lena Bonner or Plunkett, who said he’d search for one among reams of documents associated with the TEE development.
The day’s swap and purchases ultimately contributed only 0.07 acre to city-owned real estate beneath the now-completed deck. Most commissioners were surprised to learn when the management agreement was first presented in September that the city only owns the deck’s upper floors.
While they’d been told by Russell the land under the deck would be donated, the arrangement was developed as a way to ensure no more than 10 percent of the publicly financed construction project went to private use, according to Plunkett.
Russell said Monday he takes the blame for whatever misunderstandings or errors occurred, that he’d go back to work on the deal, and that the deck’s “top floors are going to be ours in perpetuity,” while its ground floor would remain the property of 933 Broad Investment Co.
Paul Simon, the president of Augusta Riverfront and 933 Broad Investment, who attended Monday committee meetings, said he was surprised by the decision to revisit the proposal. “We’ll just have to look and see what they come back with,” he said.
Commissioner Matt Aitken said the motion passed because a majority of the commission felt like the current proposal benefits only the TEE Center and “wasn’t inclusive” to downtown events such as the ESi Ironman 70.3 Augusta and Arts in the Heart of Augusta Festival.
Aitken said he hoped the new agreement more closely resembled the proposal by Ampco System Parking, the bidder selected when the city put management of the deck out for bid.
Commissioner Corey Johnson said the first proposal wasn’t in the city’s best interest. “Anything is negotiable,” he said. “I know we can get a better deal.”
Commissioner Jerry Brigham said he wasn’t sure. “I don’t know if it’s going to be any better the second time around,” he said.