Originally created 09/14/99

Committee OKs improvement funds



GO BACK AND VOTE

An Augusta Commission committee on Monday approved $49,999 for start-up costs for Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp., but final approval must come from the full commission, which appears divided.

Meanwhile, Mayor Pro Tem Lee Beard, whose vote could be the key to final approval, has challenged City Attorney Jim Wall's opinion that it is a conflict of interest for him to serve on the corporation board and vote to allocate money to it.

Augusta Neighborhood Improvement initially will help find government and private funding for groups working to provide low- and middle-income housing in Augusta's Laney-Walker district.

The agency will oversee $6 million to $8 million for the district.

At Monday's administrative services committee meeting, Commissioner J.B. Powell voiced concerns about the board and its interim executive director, former Augusta Mayor Charles A. DeVaney.

Mr. Powell quizzed Bernard Silverstein, chairman of the corporation's board, who appointed Mr. DeVaney two weeks ago with unanimous board support. Mr. DeVaney has agreed to serve through December. Then the board will hire a permanent director.

"But I'm not here to say he won't be a candidate," Mr. Silverstein said. "I can't stop him from applying."

"I understand you can't stop him from applying. That's where my concerns are at," Mr. Powell said.

"Why is that, Mr. Powell?" Mr. Silverstein asked.

"Well, to be honest with you, to put it on the table, we had a lot of problems when we first came in and consolidated" the city and Richmond County governments in 1996, Mr. Powell said. "A lot of those were left from Mayor DeVaney's administration. And I have some very deep concerns about that.

"I think the (Laney-Walker) program is a good program, and I think it will work. I just can't support it in the situation that it's in. And, hopefully, you can make some changes there and maybe I could support it at a later date. But right now I have some serious questions about the ANIC board."

Mr. Powell and Mr. Silverstein disagreed about whose money the city would be allocating.

Mr. Silverstein said he did not consider the $49,999 to be city dollars, but money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But Mr. Powell said it will cost Richmond County taxpayers when the corporation returns to Augusta Commission with a proposal to get $20 million in sales tax money.

Augusta Neighborhood Improvement soon will ask for an additional $1 million to get started, officials said.

Commissioner Stephen Shepard said the corporation was a device to leverage private money and the commission needed to see that "leveraging effect."

First Union Bank has donated office space and Bank of America has pledged $250,000, with the first $50,000 to come next month, Mayor Bob Young said.

"So the private money is coming," Mr. Young said. "The organization needs a little seed money to get started."

Commissioner Bill Kuhlke said he is concerned about the city allocating money to a self-perpetuating board. Although city commissioners would be responsible for the money, they may have no say in how it is spent, he said.

If the public has concerns about how the money is spent, voters could defeat the special-purpose sales tax next year, Mr. Kuhlke said.

The city allocates money to groups all the time and never questions the boards' roles, Mr. Young said. As examples, he cited money allocated to the CSRA Business League for Armstrong Galleria's expansion and to Miracle Making Ministries for the the Laney-Walker neighborhood's Nehemiah Project.

"Not one question about who's on the board, how they're appointed or even a request for a copy of the bylaws," Mr. Young said.

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