Heavy rains in August exacerbated the issue for which the residents are to be moved, to create a 44-acre regional detention pond to alleviate flooding, and lifelong resident Joe-Anne Jones said she is now seeing sunlight through the roof of the family home she and her brother kept in good repair until recent, broken promises.
Informed in February that funds were available to move residents under federal relocation guidelines, Jones said she was interviewed by city staff for 15 minutes on March 14, then located a house on Dover Street where she and another Hyde Park resident could continue to be neighbors.
“It was going to be a swap,” Jones said, an even trade of her house under the federal guidelines for the Dover house, built by Augusta Housing and Community Development.
A day after she turned in her application, however, Jones learned that the entire process was on hold in an effort to justify the hiring of three personnel to assist with the relocation.
“The director of housing caused it to be at a standstill,” Jones said. “He wanted to know who was going to pay the additional workers.”
It was then that Housing and Community Development Director Chester Wheeler’s hiring of three people to work up to 60 hours a week, as well as the designation of half of another’s salary, all paid from a $4.5 million sales-tax allocation for the project, came into question.
Wheeler made the hires, estimating the cost to complete the relocations at $438,700, without seeking city approval, and the commission voted March 20 to see whether a private company could do it for less.
The three qualified bidders who responded to the city procurement office’s request for proposals could not, and all quoted prices above what Wheeler estimated.
“As a taxpayer I have a question with that, too,” said Jones, a longtime Richmond County Board of Education bus driver and data clerk. “If the average person’s interview only took about 15 minutes, how are you going to say it’s justifiable to hire someone and say they need to be out there eight hours a day, five days a week when there’s only 129 residents out here?”
Wheeler did not respond to calls seeking comment, but Engineering Director Abie Ladson said the higher costs likely stem from the need to hire personnel versed in the federal relocation guidelines. “They should be federally certified,” Ladson said.
Despite the commission’s March vote to seek competitive bids for the relocation project, at least one commissioner, Corey Johnson, questioned why new employees were necessary, although he hoped the commission would at least agree to allow Wheeler’s department to complete the job. The choice of a path forward is on Tuesday’s commission meeting agenda.
“If we can’t seem to get the support to do it, we’ll probably look at giving Chester the orders to make it work,” said Johnson, whose district includes Hyde Park, a neighborhood where his grandmother lived.
“With the amount of people who are there now – the last I heard, it was 65 to 70, including renters, it’s probably not going to take much.”
The number has dwindled partly because of the deaths of several elderly residents.
“It’s tough because you hear they’re going to wait until everybody dies to get out of there,” Johnson said.
Not everyone in Hyde Park wants to move. Several of the area’s elderly residents, encouraged by activist Woody Merry, have resisted the plan. Merry has presented an alternative proposal using donated land to improve drainage without forcing residents out. Residents agree, however, that they are tired of the unfulfilled promises that date back to the 1990s, when elevated levels of contaminants were found in Hyde Park soil.
“I think I’m going to crank CSRA Help back up, I’m so ticked,” Merry said Friday of his former government reform group.
While about $4.5 million is designated to start the project, there is not funding to complete the $18 million pond project. That concerns other commissioners.
Johnson said he hoped the next special-purpose, local-option sales tax, scheduled for voter approval in two years, could be used, in addition to funds from a new stormwater fee commissioners are to consider at an upcoming session, or a low-interest state loan for infrastructure projects.
“I think there will be some ways to find funding,” he said.
Commissioner Jerry Brigham said that it was he who suggested bidding out the relocation process.
“I thought a contractor could do it cheaper,” Brigham said. “I guess they proved me wrong.”
Brigham said his biggest concern is that insufficient funding exists to complete the buyout of residents’ properties, estimated at $8 million, and design and construction of the pond, estimated at $10.2 million.
“I don’t think we’ve got the money to do it,” Brigham said, adding that residents throughout the city are seeking government buyouts of their flooded property.
City Administrator Fred Russell said it wasn’t uncommon for a project to be started without designated funding to complete it. But even if funding is slow to arrive, the entire project “has to happen at some point,” Russell said.