When Augusta’s Housing and Community Development Director Chester Wheeler asked the Augusta Commission to approve a $2.5 million loan to keep the Laney Walker/Bethlehem revitalization project going last month, folks started asking questions – the main one being, “Where did the $8 million in bond money that was supposed to last until 2015 go?”
Wheeler said he’d built 18 houses, bought 275 lots and demolished 97 dilapidated properties, which raised a lot of other questions, especially from Commissioner Alvin Mason who asked for evidence of the 10-to-1 match of private to public investment dollars cited on the Laney Walker/Bethlehem Web site.
Turns out, the 10-to-1 match is “a long-term aspirational goal,” which might have been dreamed up by the PR firm Wheeler’s paying $6,000 a month to promote the project. Mason didn’t buy the aspirational thing and replied to Wheeler’s written response by stating the 10-to-1 match was not identified as an “aspirational goal” on the Web site but as a fact.
“If he has spent $8 million so far, the private match to date should be $80 million,” Mason said. “If it’s more like 7-to-1 as he stated; then the private money should be $56 million to date. His accounting shows $11 million, and actually only $6 million when you break out the Housing Authority which is public, not private money. So five years and $8 million into the project it appears we have less than a 1-to-1 match.”
When you really stop to think about it, that claim of a 10-to-1 match was quite an exaggeration. The public sector will pay $37.5 million in hotel-motel taxes at the rate of $750,000 a year for 50 years although there’s a contradiction to that in the intergovernmental agreement between the city and the Urban Renewal Agency. It states that all activities related to the program will end in 30 years.
WHAT DID HE KNOW AND WHEN DID HE KNOW IT? The 10-to-1 match business and the sudden diminution of urgency for the $2.5 million loan raised a lot of other questions which Wheeler answered during a commission committee meeting last week. The main thing they wanted to know was why they were told last month the loan was essential to keep the project going, but that has since changed. Wheeler said he’d learned later he would receive $770,000 from the sale of city property at the end of October.
Early in the meeting, Mason proposed that Administrator Fred Russell assemble a team of experts on urban redevelopment from other cities to review the overall project. And before the commission committee voted to approve that proposal, Wheeler asked them to do it soon.
A CRYSTAL BALL REPORT ON LANEY WALKER/BETHLEHEM REVITALIZATION: Submitted Sept. 29, 2013 by City Ink:
“Honorable Mayor Deke Copenhaver and commissioners, we the Review Panel of Urban Development Experts with impressive titles after our names, have reviewed the Laney Walker/Bethlehem revitalization project over a two-day period, reviewed financial records, interviewed Administrator Fred Russell, Director Chester Wheeler, contractors, numerous consultants and we have unanimously concluded that Mr. Wheeler has done a splendid job with the funds he’s had to work with which brings me to our unanimous recommendation: He needs more funds.
“Thirty-seven-and-a-half million dollars is not a drop in the bucket when it comes to a project like this. He needs $37.5 billion. With that he can transform the entire Laney Walker area and move on to revitalize downtown Augusta which, as you know since you did it, could be designated a slum.
“The potential of what Mr. Wheeler can do is limited only by the number of letters in the alphabet to which you can attach the word “SPLOST.” Start with R-SPLOST for revitalization then move on to S-SPLOST for Streetscapes. You’ve already got a T-SPLOST. So skip that and go on to U-SPLOST for urban, and so on. After you’ve passed a Z-SPLOST – and I know you can do it by subtle threats of raising property taxes – you can start all over again with an A-SPLOST.
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IT’S GOOD TO BE CHIEF JUDGE: Various officers of the court presented their 2014 budget requests to city commissioners last week. Among them was William D. Jennings III, the chief judge of Richmond County Civil and Magistrate Court, who never fails to entertain.
“As chief judge of civil court, I am the chief judge of a court that few people know about,” he said. “Being an unknown court, it’s not even listed on the wall in the entrance hall of the Judicial Center as I recall. It’s one of those things that happens. It exists nonetheless. But nonetheless it does a lot of work.
“As far as my numbers, it might be illustrative and very small compared to some of the numbers you’ve seen. Two telephone lines, $390. Letterheads and envelopes, $200, but actually I go downstairs to the clerk’s office and steal her envelopes.”
“Judge, you just admitted to a crime,” said Commissioner Donnie Smith.
“But since my court issues the warrants, I think I’m OK,” Jennings replied, continuing to read his budget request. “Five hundred forty-six dollars to cover the state Bar dues; $1,200 for mandatory education. This is another crime. Cost of $100 for pens and paper clips. Usually, I go downstairs and take the clerk’s pens and paper clips. Miscellaneous, $200. Again I usually go downstairs and … ”
When Jennings finished his presentation, Russell said he’d taken donations and presented him some office supplies.
CHASING BIRDS ON RAINBOW BRIDGE: When commissioners voted to continue an agreement between the city and the University of Georgia Research Foundation Inc. Savannah River Ecology Laboratory for research and data collection of bird activity around the constructed wetlands, I was reminded of the Border Collie the Bush Field Airport committee bought in 2000 to keep the birds off airport runways. They paid $15,000 for her, named her Mayday and appointed Tina Rhodes as wildlife agent to work with her. I was curious about what happened to Mayday, so I tracked Rhodes down at the airport where she now works as a receptionist. She said Mayday died in October, three years ago, at the age of 14. She’d had a benign growth removed and then developed arthritis and became hard of hearing.
“I brought her out here until the end,” Rhodes said. “She couldn’t work anymore because she couldn’t hear my whistle.”
Then Mayday stopped eating, and one morning she didn’t want to get up.
HE’S WINNING BECAUSE HE’S LOSING: Congratulations to former Augusta Commissioner Jerry Brigham who is now only two-thirds the man he used to be. He lost 80 pounds the past year on a low carbohydrate diet and then he lost another 56 pounds during a surgical procedure.
Jerry is recuperating at home and plans to continue being a big loser in a good way.