Augusta Commission halts municipal building construction until space issues resolved

Augusta Commission members blasted the architect and, to a lesser extent, the project manager, in voting Tuesday to suspend construction on two floors at Augusta Municipal Building until space issues are resolved, but vowed not to spend more money on the $40 million renovation project.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the commission took no action on two unpopular garbage fee increases for property owners in the old city limits and owners of vacant lots, citing Environmental Services Director Mark Johnson’s absence.

“I don’t think the aggravation should be directed toward his assistant,” Commissioner Bill Lockett said.

Commission Clerk Lena Bonner drew attention to the building’s space issues on the partially renovated second floor last week. The former home of two courtrooms and court offices, the floor presently houses the mayor’s suite, the city law department, a spacious new commission chamber and the clerk of commission’s space, a cramped area behind the commission chamber with a single restroom for men and women.

The $40 million project included insufficient storage space for records, such as historic documents stored in an eighth floor vault, which former clerk Thomas Beckham made sure was included during construction of the building in the 1950s, Bonner said Tuesday.

When she raised the issue of record storage space with project manager Heery International, “they were very dismissive,” Bonner said. They “apparently didn’t appreciate the historical value of those records.”

Options for addressing the space and layout issues include giving the clerk the new offices of the city law department, located at the west end of the floor across from the mayor’s office.

In correspondence obtained by The Chronicle, Gen­eral Counsel Andrew Mac­Kenzie sought and obtained larger-than-standard offices for himself and Senior Coun­sel Wayne Brown “for Wayne and I to conduct our meetings and negotiations in a private and more amicable setting than can be had in a formal conference room.”

He also needed table and desk space “to view large numbers of documents, exhibits, plats and maps” and extra storage space to “keep a large number of files in our office for quick retrieval and access, convenience and security.”

A second option presented by Interim Administrator Tameka Allen was a $2,500 meeting with Heery and architectural firm Virgo Gambill to seek a solution.

“I want to know who designed this floor – who set this up?” Commissioner Marion Williams asked. “I’m really disappointed with the architect and with the work that’s been done here.”

Mayor Deke Copenhaver, whose spacious new office includes a restroom, a large reception area and his own entrance, said he hadn’t had much input on the layout. “I knew I wasn’t going to be there that long,” he said.

“I’m not going to spend another taxpayer’s dollar on this building until it gets fixed,” said Commissioner Joe Jackson. “Why do we have Heery? Where is the forethought?”

Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson proposed stopping work on the eighth and ninth floors, the intended new home of the city finance department and administrators.

“I am in construction,” Johnson said. “I don’t understand how the law department got so much space and the clerk got so little ... There’s a lot of unused space on this floor.”

Commissioner Donnie Smith said he recalled a change order sought by Virgo Gambill for additional design work on the project.

“They are the only people in this room that are responsible,” Smith said. “Gentlemen, I am just as disappointed in you today as the first day I met y’all.”

Mason offered a comparison between the single restroom in the commission space, presumably to be shared by men and women, and the law department’s two spacious restrooms.

“I don’t see where I’m going to spend any additional anything,” he said. “Subject matter experts and technical people, that’s what we pay them very handsomely for.”

Architect Steve Virgo with the firm listened to the criticism from the rear of the large commission chamber, then left the meeting.

Commissioners Wayne Guilfoyle and Bill Fennoy opposed stopping the project. “Once we stop, it’s hard to get started back,” Guilfoyle said.

As they were about to vote on suspending the project, Johnson said due to “legality issues” relayed to him by Brown, the commission ought to hold off on the vote until a called Monday meeting.

Brown said “it would seem appropriate to schedule immediate meetings” of the clerk, administrator, Heery and architects ahead of a vote to stop construction.

Johnson said demolition work on the eighth and ninth floors could continue but new construction should stop.

A motion to suspend construction but proceed with demolition “until the matter is resolved at no cost to Augusta-Richmond County” passed 7-2, with Guilfoyle and Commissioner Bill Fennoy voting no.

In another item, commissioners named Bonnie Ruben, Isaac McKinney and Amanda Bryant to three open seats on the Urban Redevelopment Agency, the entity charged with issuing bonds to fund the renovation project and a handful of other downtown construction projects. The members replace three others deemed ineligible for holding other commission board appointments.

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Judge lifts injunction that halted Augusta-Richmond County Municipal Building renovations
Renovations to begin on old Municipal Building
Commission OKs renovations at municipal building
Commission votes to expand Municipal Building renovation

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