News Column

The Augusta Chronicle, Ga., Sylvia Cooper column

June 22, 2014

By Sylvia Cooper, The Augusta Chronicle, Ga.

June 22--Augusta's Urban Rede­vel­opment Agency authorized a $2.5 million loan to keep efforts in the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem area going, ensuring the fine example of wealth distribution will continue uninterrupted until the city can go back to the well for more bond money next year.

The URA board was obviously impressed with what they saw during a tour of the new homes on Pine, Flor­ence and 11th streets Thursday, complimenting the design and quality construction.

After a presentation by Housing and Com­mu­nity Development Director Chester Wheeler, there were plenty of questions from board members Bob Young, the former Augusta mayor; downtown activist Brad Owens; Broad Street businesswoman Bonnie Ruben; and Libertarian party official Amanda Bryant before the board approved the loan.

They could hardly do anything else. To cut off money for the extensive revitalization project until sometime next year would be a big negative for the city and the current homeowners who've taken advantage of what appear to be the biggest real estate bargains in town, according to financial information distributed at the meeting.

Where else could you buy a house with a total project cost of $164,005 that was appraised at $128,000 and sold for $124,750 with a down payment subsidy of $35,000? The subsidy goes as a second mortgage held by the city that doesn't have to be repaid until the property is sold.

Another example is a house on 11th Street with a total project cost of $167,086 that was appraised at $126,000 and sold for $120,500 with down payment subsidy of $32,100 and $4,301 in closing costs.

Also on 11th Street is a house that cost $205,606.95 and sold for $173,950. One on Pine Street cost $196,683 and sold for $173,950.

In all, 24 houses have been built and 22 sold with 14 of the sales being subsidized. About $10.8 million in public money has been spent on lots, demolition, engineering, architectural services, construction and consultants.

The project is cash- strapped because of up-front costs that outran the $750,000 a year from a $1-a-night hotel-motel tax that will continue after most people reading this are as dead as doornails.

TRANSPARENCY AT LAST: If you're concerned about possible waste, fraud and abuse in the redevelopment project, you can relax -- unless you think the whole thing is waste, fraud and abuse -- because Young, Ruben, Owens and Bryant won't miss a trick.

Young, a former U.S. Hou­sing and Urban De­vel­­op­ment assistant deputy secretary for field policy and management in Wash­ing­ton, knows where to look and which questions to ask.

For example, during Thurs­­day's meeting with Whee­ler, his staff and consultants, Young, after reviewing project financial information, asked where the program income was listed. It wasn't.

Later during lunch, a consultant who hadn't known Young had worked at HUD said he thought the question was unusual because most people didn't ask about program income.

"You have to know where to look for program income," Young said. "But the cardinal rule for anybody trying to get to the bottom of something is 'Follow the money.' Not that there's anything sinister about the project, but there are high expectations. I guess it's up to us to see they're met."

THEY DO NOT SUFFER FOOLS GLADLY: If Ruben weren't a brilliant businesswoman and accountant, she couldn't have kept two businesses going on Broad Street for years after others failed or pulled up stakes and moved to the malls.

Ruben said the revitalization is long overdue and "a giant step in the right direction to bring young families back to the city center."

"It was a nostalgic tour especially meaningful to me because so many of our customers from the past lived in the neighborhood," she said. "I recognized many of the addresses from layaway customers back in the '50s and '60s when my job as a kid at the store was to go to retrieve layaway items from the storage rooms!"

Owens sure shook things up when he was on the Rich­­mond County Animal Con­trol board and the Down­town Development Au­thor­ity, so you can expect no less from him as a URA member.

Bryant is the chairwoman of the anti-taxation group CSRA Libertarians, and was student body president of Geor­gia Regents Uni­versity's Sum­merville campus before graduating, so that ought to tell you something.

WHERE'S ISAAC, AND WHERE'S DONNIE FOR THAT MATTER? A fifth URA board member, Isaac McKinney, hasn't attended any of the new board's meetings because the information on the talent bank form the city had on hand was incorrect.

After Thursday's meeting, he showed up at Ru­ben's hotel, the Ramada Plaza, and said he hadn't heard anything about his appointment since Augusta Com­mission member Don­nie Smith mentioned it to him about six months ago.

ANOTHER WEEKEND AT THE BEACH FOR INTENSE INSTRUCTION IN GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS: In other news, Augusta commissioners are in Savannah for another conference.

This time it's the Georgia Mu­nicipal Association's annual conference, which began Friday and ends Tues­day. So that's another $5,000 or $6,000 down the drain unless they learn what to do about that big ol' budget deficit, which they won't.

The tireless travelers say they learn so much at these conferences that they just have to keep on going. If that's so, why do they keep acting like they know it all already?

MARBLE PALACE INTRIGUE: Appar­ently, some commissioners have had second thoughts about moving Clerk of Commission Lena Bonner's offices from cramped quarters on the second floor of the Marble Palace to the spacious suite at the other end of the hall that the attorney was supposed to move into.

So expect a move to rescind the previous vote to relocate Bonner. It could come up at Thursday's meeting, when interim city Administrator Tameka Allen updates commissioners on the renovation.

Changes to the renovation plans won't come cheap. Allen previously told commissioners that architect Virgo Gambill would charge $2,500 just to sit down and talk about changes to the clerk's office.

BUT SHE CERTAINLY PUT A GOOD FRONT (AND REAR): There's a lot of money to be made underwriting the city's $160 million utility bonds refunding, which must be the reason principles of IFS Securities Inc. circumvented the city's procurement process, got on Tuesday's com­mis­sion agenda and made a pitch for minority inclusion in the upcoming refinancing.

Angela Avery, the company owner, the vice president and an underwriter contend they can save the city $30 million on the refinancing through a negotiated process instead of the traditional competitive process, which they say excludes minority firms because of banks' large capital requirement to bid on bond projects.

Avery said the city's current financial advisor, PFM Inc.; bond counsel McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP; and disclosure counsel Murray Barnes Finister LLP are all white firms.

City Procurement Di­rec­tor Geri Sams threw cold water on IFS' bold approach with a letter to Avery on Friday stating that she'd searched all possible files for the company's contact information and couldn't find IFS as a registered business with Augusta.

"In my attempt to locate an address for your company, I also looked on the Georgia secretary of state Web page and did not find this company registered in the state at all," she stated.

Sams listed seven sites vendors could access to be included in the bid process.

"In order to assure fair and open competition, any unsolicited proposals or any information given at the June 17, 2014, commission meeting will not be considered by the Procurement Department," she stated.

___

(c)2014 The Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Ga.)

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