Commissioner Jerry Brigham, who put the agreements on next week’s commission meeting agenda for approval, said after a two-hour work session on the documents Thursday, he did not think enough supporting commissioner votes were there, yet.
“I was hoping we could have gotten enough questions answered today,” Brigham said. “I don’t expect (the agreements) to be approved Tuesday.”
At the two-hour session, attorney Jim Plunkett, who is representing the city on the parking deck deals, and Paul Simon, president of Augusta Riverfront LLC, attempted to answer questions and assuage commissioner concerns about the agreements.
One of the agreements has the city paying Augusta Riverfront $25,000 a year plus expenses to run the new 650-space deck on Reynolds Street. The other has Augusta Riverfront paying the city $50,000 a year to control and operate an adjoining parking facility. Both will serve the convention center set to open next year, but only the Reynolds Street deck will be available for public parking.
“I want to be sure we were there to protect the taxpayers,” Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said after the meeting. “We also have to make sure the charges are compatible with the other (firms) who gave proposals.”
Plunkett agreed Thursday at the request of Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles to prepare a side-by-side comparison of the proposed management agreements with two bids obtained by the city last year from parking management firms.
“It seems to me that the parking deck is being run effectively,” Bowles said of the 10 months the facilities have operated on a month-to-month agreement. “I don’t see a rush to make a decision on Tuesday to get this passed.”
Simon said the parking facilities have made only $58,000 in those 10 months, but when the convention center opens, usage could increase.
He spoke to the benefits of having the convention center, which Augusta Riverfront will run under the Marriott brand. The firm has ties to management of Morris Communications Co., owner of The Augusta Chronicle.
“The center of downtown Augusta will change. It’s going to be on the corner of Ninth and Reynolds,” Simon said. “We’re excited about it and we just hope that you as a body get behind this and vote, not six but 10 in favor of it.”
Commissioner Bill Lockett said he too wants the best deal for the cash-strapped city.
“I want to make sure that the Marriott is successful, and I want to make sure that this city can get all the revenues that it can, so year after year after year, we don’t have to keep cutting, cutting, cutting,” he said.
Simon questioned the need for a forensic audit of the property transfers and other details with which Augusta Riverfront was involved. The commission voted last year to obtain a forensic audit but only this week determined where auditors should look.
“I was a CPA myself,” he said. “The documents are on the table.”
Simon also questioned online and other reports casting suspicion on the arrangements.
“You see all this stuff on these blogs; it’s just wrong,” he said.
Lori Davis, a District 1 commission candidate and regular contributor to the blog City Stink, which has probed the deals for months, was one of three commission candidates to attend the Thursday meeting. She said after the gathering that she hadn’t questioned Simon’s role in the dealmaking.
Both District 7 commission candidates – Donnie Smith and Kenny Echols – attended the meeting. Smith said afterward that cheaper means, such as a grand jury or Georgia Bureau of Investigation probe, exist to examine the dealmaking than hiring a forensic auditor.
“There’s no smoking gun,” said Smith, a Georgia State Patrol post commander. “We’d be spending money on something that might turn out to be nothing.”
He praised the meeting Thursday, however, as a good way to get the facts out in the open.
“Sometimes when there’s not a lot of evidence or a lot of communication going on, people assume things and stories grow themselves,” he said. “I think that’s the case in point here.”