Augusta Commission discusses 'slum' designation options

Commission continues to debate label for business district

A Tuesday work session did little to convince four Augusta commissioners of the merits of designating the entire downtown Central Business District as a “slum” to issue tax-exempt bonds to renovate the Augusta Municipal Building.

City Administrator Fred Russell, who first revealed the slum plan on a committee agenda, to general public and commissioner chagrin, defended the timing of his announcement during a Tuesday work session as a mere “starting point” for discussion. Russell offered few specifics, however, about the designation’s positive benefits, aside from lower interest rates.

“There could have been some better discussion with the decision-makers on a word that’s so polarizing,” Commissioner Alvin Mason said. “That’s where a lot of the angst comes in.”

Since the plans were revealed, downtown property and business owners have questioned how the designation benefits them, and why it doesn’t make available any other resources to help downtown, said Commissioner Bill Fennoy, who represents the area.

“We discussed the remodeling,” Commissioner Bill Lockett said. “Was there ever any discussion of also including 500 acres plus? When you decided to make this detour, why wasn’t the governing body brought back in?”

Russell hinted of a development in the works that could bring 400 jobs downtown, but offered no details.

Attorney Jim Plunkett, special city counsel on bond projects and the author of the documents designating downtown as a slum under Georgia’s Redevelopment Law, suggested it would be easier for the government to fund future government building projects, such as a law enforcement substation or a theater, if it designates the entire area now, without having to “go through a similar debate.”

Under the law, a government can designate a certain area as a slum to invoke powers that correlate with an Urban Redevelopment Plan. But the plan, included with the designation, was “just a vague plan,” Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said.

Mayor Deke Copenhaver, who was upset when the slum plan made headlines before its presentation to the commission, conceded Tuesday that “the civic engagement piece was missing” from the development of the proposal.

Columbia County, which similarly
designated an area around West Town Shopping Center to obtain job tax credits for new businesses, avoided using the word and put together a proposal with help from a large stakeholder committee.

City financial consultant Dianne McNabb, of Public Financial Management, detailed to commission members how much money was available from a former sales tax referendum and how much needed to be bonded out: $26.5 million, to complete a full renovation of the municipal building, after commissioners voted early this year to revise plans to do the building in phases instead.

McNabb said designating the single block around the municipal building would be “fine” for issuing the bonds. Guilfoyle and Lockett said after the meeting that’s what they prefer to happen at this point.

McNabb said the next cheapest option for borrowing the money would be to obtain certificates of participation from Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

Interest rates on the ACCG notes are higher by as much as one percentage point, however, she said.

Plunkett said that while Columbia County had danced around the word, “lawyers are a little careful” when the designation pertains to a $26.5 million bond issue.

Lockett said a history of distrust began when Plunkett and Russell presented documents pertaining to Augusta Convention Center that contained surprises.

The documents revealed a lien on land on which the city built a parking deck that commissioners were told would be donated to the city, but wasn’t, again for tax reasons.

“We expect you all to bring us information that’s been vetted,” he said.

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