After weeks of discussion about where the city should move its fire administration offices, Augusta commissioners decided this week to sign a three-year lease with the Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp., agreeing to rent about 8,500 square feet of office space from a Laney-Walker commercial building when construction is complete.
In the same motion, commissioners agreed to waive thousands of dollars in penalties that have been accruing against the corporation since September, when its office building in the 900 block of Laney-Walker Boulevard was originally scheduled for completion.
ANIC didn't break ground until early last month, and the city's contract provided for $9,300 in penalties for each month that the project was behind schedule.
"The commission made their decision, and we support what's best for Augusta," said Robert Cooks, the corporation's executive director.
He said he didn't know commissioners were going to waive the penalties but said he had no plans to argue with the decision.
With a projected autumn completion date, the waived fees will save ANIC an estimated $112,000. Meanwhile, the city is not only forfeiting the penalty but is also paying $20,000 a month for 8,000 square feet at the Riverfront Center off Reynolds Street for the fire administration offices.
"That area (Laney-Walker) has been waiting for a long time, and fire administration is going to add security down there," Commissioner Marion Williams said. "People are going to say this is a viable part of the city now."
Since last month, Commissioner Bobby Hankerson had been working to get the city to back out of the fire department's one-year lease with the neighborhood development group in favor of building a permanent administration facility and community center on Highland Avenue, in his south Augusta district.
The ANIC building's construction is about a year behind schedule, and fire officials have said that by using about $1.5 million in recaptured sales tax dollars, they could build a permanent facility within roughly the same time frame, avoiding costly lease payments and the expense of moving the fire offices twice.
ANIC contends that the city could not complete the work that quickly.
"I thought it would be a cost savings if we moved directly into the building on Highland," Mr. Hankerson said Tuesday. "People are stirred up about it, but by no means was it done to stop what is going on on Laney-Walker."
Residents of Laney-Walker have said the fire department would bring prestige to the economically deprived business district. Several Laney-Walker neighborhood activists, wearing white neighborhood association T-shirts, attended Tuesday's meeting in a show of support.
Last year, Augusta commissioners signed a contract with ANIC for a $127,500 lease of the Laney-Walker building - $67,500 a year for fire administration space and $60,000 for the city's Department of Housing and Neighborhood Development. The fire administration's lease was for one year, and the housing department was locked into a three-year commitment.
Now the fire administration lease has been kicked up to three years, and instead of planning for a separate building, the fire offices might be considered as part of other ongoing building plans, such as a new judicial complex or a proposed city administration building.
Commissioners said that in lieu of building a fire administration building and community center at Highland Park, they would make a community center for the neighborhood a "top priority" in the next sales tax issue, scheduled to come up in 2006.
Commissioner Lee Beard said that promise made Tuesday's vote "a win-win" for everyone involved.
But Mr. Hankerson said his proposal seemed more win-win, in that it provided a park to his constituents and saved the city money.
"To me, it just made business sense to do that," he said.
Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.