Augusta Commission members debated the merits of declaring the central business district a “slum” to borrow money to renovate the Municipal Building, but ultimately a committee approved the measure 3-1 Monday.
“Part of that package was to be bonds based off SPLOST 7,” said Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, who opposed the measure. “I don’t believe in borrowing money we don’t have.”
The commission voted 7-1 in March to renovate the Municipal Building by borrowing $26.5 million backed in part by future sales tax collections but didn’t discuss other details of the bond issue.
Attached to Monday’s finance committee agenda was the city’s plan to designate 594 downtown acres as a “slum” under a Georgia law to allow a special Urban Redevelopment Agency to issue tax-exempt bonds for the project.
Jim Plunkett, the special city counsel for bond projects, said he’d worked on the deal for months, though most commissioners said they knew nothing of its details until reading The Augusta Chronicle on Friday or their lengthy agenda packets late Thursday.
“Why is it that I had to find out from print media that this was in the works?” asked Commissioner Bill Lockett, who is not a member of the finance committee approving the measure. “This is something we should have probably talked about in a work session.”
City Administrator Fred Russell said it was “unfortunate that the word has to be used” but that the designation ultimately allows the agency to issue tax-exempt bonds, which will save the city about $1 million over the life of the loan.
“I’m somewhat rewarded by the fact that so many have taken offense,” he said.
Plunkett said the large district was designated to coincide with the existing Tax Allocation District, getting the designation “over and done with at one time.”
“It’s something that everybody has to just accept,” he said.
Commissioner Marion Williams said he had “no idea” a slum designation was required to remodel the Municipal Building.
“If we use that and it’s not a slum area, are we within the guidelines of the law?” he asked.
Plunkett said it was “the discretion of the board” to determine whether downtown “meets the definition of a slum under the statute.”
Commissioner Alvin Mason said he wasn’t concerned about the word.
“I’m all for looking into those options,” he said. “I’m not scared or worried about the word ‘slum.’ ”
Commissioner Bill Fennoy, also not a member of the finance committee, argued that “words do matter. What you call a slum does matter … Business owners, property owners on Broad Street are very concerned about their businesses being designated as a slum.”
Broad Street businessman Mike Walraven read the state’s criteria for the official “slum” designation. It cites dilapidated buildings, crime, health hazards, poorly configured street layouts and noise pollution. He cited a state guide’s recommendation that the designation be “handled sensitively” so not to become “the subject of extensive debate.”
Walraven also asked for examples of the designation’s effectiveness in the Harrisburg community, which was given a similar “slum” designation several years ago.
Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson said the word was distracting commissioners.
“We get caught up in what people think,” he said, offering that they call him a “bum” to get $2 million.
In another matter, the new Augusta Convention Center is performing better than expected, according to Paul Simon, of Augusta Riverfront LLC, which operates the convention center and hotel complex on the edge of the proposed district. The company shares management with Morris Communications Co., owner of The Chronicle.
In the first seven months of the year, the center is $191,694 under budget, Simon said. The center has been used for 20 conventions attended by 16,025 people whose total estimated visitor spending is $2.7 million, he said.