Augusta Commission balks at housing director's loan request

Augusta Commission members put the brakes on a $2.5 million loan sought by the city’s Housing and Community Development director to continue an ongoing redevelopment effort in two historic black districts.

They also voted, with Mayor Deke Copen­haver breaking a 5-5 tie, to seek more proposals for the management or sale of Augusta Municipal Golf Course.

Housing and Community Development Director Chester Wheeler defended his department’s spending of $8 million on Laney-Walker redevelopment, despite its resulting in only 19 new homes over the project’s first three years. Wheeler sought the loan to cover a shortfall until the city is able to issue additional bonds based on future collections of a hotel bed tax, of which $750,000 a year is guaranteed to the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem efforts for 50 years.

Wheeler said while only a handful of houses were built and occupied, 275 lots had been obtained and 97 dilapidated properties had been demolished.

“And we are paying $45,000 a month to market all those?” Com­missioner Marion Williams asked.

“The $45,000, commissioner, is for project management,” Wheeler said. “It is rare for you to find in any city government the kind of talent in engineering and construction related that you could employ in-house and put them on a project of this magnitude. So you hire the people who do.”

Marketing, meanwhile, a significant effort to “rebrand” the blighted area, is $6,000 a month, Wheeler said.

Some $660,000 a year on consultants, Commissioner Joe Jackson said, “could be better spent.”

A vote to refer the matter to an upcoming committee meeting passed 8-2, with Commissioners Bill Fennoy and Bill Lockett opposed. Any more than a few weeks’ delay, Wheeler said, would cause “serious financial impact.”

Commissioners also approved 9-1 a meeting between City Ad­min­istrator Fred Russell, Dis­advantaged Business Enterprise Coordinator Yvonne Gentry and Ellis Albright after Albright’s fifth appearance before the board. His nonprofit organization, the CSRA Business League, wants to help minority-owned businesses win more city contracts, but at a contract price of $175,000.

Commissioners Wayne Guilfoyle, a contractor whose mother is Japanese-American, noted he’d never been offered help by the group, nor had he sought it. He and Commissioner Donnie Smith peppered Albright with questions about the proposal and its legality under the city’s court-ordered injunction against using race-based preference.

“This is not the forum to interrogate him,” Commissioner Bill Lockett said. “It’s 10 of us up here. No more of the ‘I’ stuff.”

“Eleven people up here,” Copen­haver noted.

General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie said Albright could serve as the city’s agent to work with minority-owned businesses so long as his activities did not violate the court order.

For the city-owned golf course, Fennoy said he has played the course for 35 years and it is now living up to its nickname, “The Patch.”

“I went up there last week and it was pitiful the way that course has been allowed to deteriorate,” he said.

After three failed efforts to outsource management of the course, it has been operated since last year by a skeleton city staff. Williams called Tuesday for another vote on a proposal to merge the course with adjoining First Tee of Augusta, but Davis offered a substitute motion to issue a new request for proposals to manage, lease or even buy the course.

“I feel like there are some good opportunities out in the community,” Davis said.

The course was privately run for many years, and could be again, Guilfoyle said. “The RFP needs to clearly state what we want as a body, what we want for the future of that course.”

In other business, the commission:

• Voted to receive as information Gentry’s report on her office’s recent success in obtaining race, gender and other data from companies and their subcontractors doing business with the city. Old bid documents didn’t request the data, but starting this year they do, Gentry said, and contractors are providing it. The data is needed to justify the use of racial preference.

• Voted down a motion to hire a director to oversee both Disadvantaged Business Enterprise and Equal Employment Opportunity issues, which is called for by the city’s charter.

• Heard about plans to develop a proposal to manage downtown parking from Deputy Administrator Bill Shanahan, who received a job offer Monday from York County, S.C. Shanahan said the completed proposal will be ready for committee review in three weeks.

Commission to discuss redevelopment loan request
Augusta mother to speak to commission

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