Designating downtown Augusta a “slum” will expand the reach of a board overseeing a redevelopment effort that needs a $2.5 million loan to continue, in two matters going before the Augusta Commission on Tuesday.
The decision to use the designation – for the stated purpose of issuing $26.5 million in bonds to renovate the Municipal Building – has upset commissioners, who didn’t learn details until it appeared on last week’s committee meeting agenda. Columbia County avoided using the term in 2011 when it created a similar redevelopment district to lure businesses to Martinez.
“When that was committed by the commission, we were assured that we wouldn’t have any problem getting financing,” Commissioner Bill Fennoy said. “Now all the sudden, we’ve got strings attached. Those strings should have been presented back in March when they talked about doing a complete renovation of the municipal building.”
Last week, the finance committee voted 3-1 to approve the designation, which City Administrator Fred Russell and special bond counsel Jim Plunkett said was the cheapest option for issuing the bonds. It will be serviced in part by next year’s special purpose local option sales tax, which voters have yet to approve. The agenda item goes back before the commission Tuesday.
Included in the same agenda item Tuesday are appointments to an Urban Redevelopment Agency the city created years ago to oversee another bond issue, funded by a hotel bed fee, to redevelop the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods. That board would also oversee the downtown redevelopment district.
Board member Erick Montgomery, who is resigning, said he was unaware the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem projects needed a $2.5 million “bridge loan” to continue efforts at the time Housing and Community Development Director Chester Wheeler requested it last month.
The loan, accompanied by a set of responses to commissioner questions about the need for it, also goes before the commission Tuesday.
The city is paying Asset Property Disposition, a project management firm, $45,000 a month and Melaver McIntosh, a marketing and strategy firm, $6,000 a month to redevelop and rebrand the historically black neighborhoods, but commissioners have questioned why the city spent $8 million in three years but only built a handful of houses. Documents provided by Wheeler show the project envisions constructing 400 residential units over 50 years, the length of time it receives $750,000 annually in bed taxes.
Fennoy said commissioners have been instructed to bring nominations for the redevelopment board to the meeting Tuesday.
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle, who opposed the designation last week because its funding source wasn’t guaranteed, wanted to know who benefits from calling Augusta a slum.
“We’re trying to shove something down in 11 days that took Columbia County 11 months,” he said.
City Finance Director Donna Williams said consultant Dianne McNabb will present financing alternatives to the designation Tuesday. Williams said that should voters reject the next round of the sales tax, the city could cover debt service on the bonds using capital outlay funds but that it would deplete the source almost entirely.
Commissioner Marion Williams said he wasn’t as concerned about the “slum” designation as he was the commission’s lack of information about it.
“Nobody shared it with us,” he said. “Nobody shared it with me. It should have been discussed.”
Commissioner Grady Smith said he wished the state would remove the derogatory terms from the law but could deal with it.
“I don’t get bent out of shape about stuff like that. As long as you don’t insult my mother or my family,” he said.
Instead, Smith said he hoped real change was on the horizon downtown and that someone would take the lead.
“If we had a lot more personal pride in our inner city and downtown we could do a lot of self-cleanup ourselves,” he said. “I’m tired of the excuses.”
Other items going for commission approval Tuesday include:
• Approving a rezoning application by the Nixon Trust and James Johnson for a 69-acre site at I-20 and Bobby Jones Expressway for an apartment and retail complex. William Johnson, who lives in the nearby Foxhall subdivision, said he and other neighbors remain concerned about inadequate sewer capacity after recent spills have sent raw sewage into Cranes’s Creek and Rae’s Creek. Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier said Monday that the 18-inch line servicing the complex is sufficient and that the spills were caused by maintenance issues the department is attempting to address.
• A decision to post a Request for Proposals to replace First Vehicle Services, which has maintained the city fleet and equipment for a decade, after commissioners raised issues about unnecessary repairs.