Despite the setback, City Administrator Fred Russell said the negotiated contract with Augusta Riverfront LLC will return to the Augusta Commission for a vote at its next regular meeting Feb. 7.
Most of the discussion Monday didn’t center on the terms of the agreement, which governs management of two city-owned parking facilities associated with the Augusta Marriott at the Convention Center and the adjoining Trade, Exhibit and Event Center, which is under construction.
“They’re too busy trying to muddy the water than talk about things we need to talk about,” said Commissioner Jerry Brigham, the chairman of the Finance Committee, who at one point told fellow commissioners he had “had enough.”
Rather than discuss the contract, commissioners instead questioned Jim Plunkett, the city’s special counsel for the TEE Center, its parking deck and other related deals, about whether he had known there was a lien on the land under the TEE Center parking deck, to which the city owns only air rights.
Plunkett offered Commissioner Alvin Mason the analogy of someone purchasing a house while leaving details related to its title history to a closing attorney.
“You bought your house. Did you know whether or not there was a debt on the property when you bought it? That’s what the lawyer resolves for you,” Plunkett said. “You don’t know that the underlying subdivision debt has been paid off, has the mortgage on the house been paid off? That’s the lawyer’s responsibility.”
Plunkett said the land under the deck was part of the collateral for a bank loan taken out by 933 Broad St. LLC, which owns the land. The bank delayed releasing the city from liability because it wanted the deck built first, but will grant the release of air rights very soon.
“Certain things have to be done for that release, and they’re in the process of being done,” Plunkett said. “The legal team has that under control.”
The answer didn’t appear to satisfy Mason, who accused Plunkett of working both for the city and the landowner. The owner, 933 Broad, shares management with the parent company of The Augusta Chronicle.
“Maybe it’s the lawyer I’m uncomfortable with,” Mason said.
Responding to additional questions from Commissioners Bill Lockett and Wayne Guilfoyle, Plunkett said that even if the bank foreclosed on the land beneath the deck, the city retains all air and easement rights.
Asked by Commissioner J.R. Hatney how long he had been aware of the lien, Plunkett said that he had known since he began title work on the land and that there “was a mechanism in place” to address it.
“That’s the lawyer’s job,” he said.
In the agreement presented Monday by Russell, Marriott and TEE Center operator Augusta Riverfront LLC pays the city $25,000 annually to use the Marriott parking deck, which the city owns, while the city pays Augusta Riverfront LLC $50,000 to run the new TEE parking deck, with net profits from the TEE deck, if any, to be divided between the city and Augusta Riverfront.
Lockett’s motion to delay action on the agreement until the results of a forensic audit come back failed, 2-2, with him and Mason voting in favor.
Brigham’s motion to send the item forward without a recommendation also failed, 2-2, but he and Russell said the vote won’t stop the item from appearing before the full commission.
The city and Augusta Riverfront have been operating under a month-to-month agreement concerning the parking decks for the past several months.
If the commission rejects the proposal, the month-to-month arrangement would continue.