Originally created 09/14/99

Land purchase approved



An Augusta Commission committee approved buying the final lot in the block adjacent to the historic Ezekiel Harris House on Broad Street with state grant money -- although they don't know what they will do with it, they said.

The purchase of the final lot from William C. Howard is contingent on Mr. Howard demolishing the buildings on all four of the lots the former city and consolidated government bought from him.

City officials notified Mr. Howard in 1996 to proceed with demolition, but the buildings still are standing, according to city records.

The lot purchases in 1992 and 1994 by Augusta city officials and in 1996 by the consolidated city-county government -- with state grant money -- were the subject of a 1997 state investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

According to a GBI memo, the investigation was triggered in 1996, when state Sen. Don Cheeks reported allegations that state Rep. Robin Williams received a kickback after maneuvering to appropriate money from the state budget into city coffers for the purchase of the property.

But the GBI found no evidence to support the allegations.

The former city was to buy four lots at $50,000 each during a four-year period from Mr. Howard and develop the block around the historic Ezekiel Harris House into a park. The total 0.8-acre tract was valued on Richmond County tax rolls at $83,900 in 1992.

The former city bought the first lot at the corner of Eve and Broad streets in 1992, even after learning that the soil and ground water were contaminated with tetrachloroethylene, a dry-cleaning solvent.

Levels of the chemical were four times higher than recommended by the state Environmental Protection Division. Warranty deeds call for Mr. Howard to repay the city for any cleanup costs that may be required.

At Monday's finance committee meeting, commissioners said they had no plans for the property and no money to fund any operations there.

After the meeting, Mayor Bob Young questioned "why in the world" the consolidated government needs the property.

"What are we going to do with it when we get it?" he asked. "And who's going to pay to maintain it?"

Mr. Young proposed buying the final lot and then selling the property.

"I just don't see that it's to the city's advantage to own all that property because we certainly don't have any money to put anything there, and we don't have any money to subsidize any operations," he said.

"You know, in Atlanta at the governor's office, they used to say, `Beware of a mayor bearing a deed.' And maybe the mayor should say, `Beware a state official with an appropriations bill."'

The full commission will have to approve the purchase of the property by vote at a Sept. 21 meeting.

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228 or sylviaco@augustachronicle.com.