Speech to Rotarians endorses Promise Neighborhood, SPLOST work
The final 11 months of separate existence for Macon and Bibb County are filled with ambitious plans, Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart and Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said Wednesday during their annual addresses to the combined Macon, Uptown and Downtown Rotary Clubs.
But several recent controversies distracted attention from their message, delivered at the Edgar H. Wilson Convention Center.
In a question-and-answer session, Hart was asked about his involvement in the Macon Promise Neighborhood plan, particularly the Bibb County school boards lease of the former Ballard-Hudson Middle School.
Hart replied that hes not directly involved in the Ballard-Hudson deal, but he is with the overall Promise Neighborhood plan. He supports that as a model for improving depressed areas of the community, and the controversial Ballard-Hudson deal is only one facet of the plan, Hart said.
Attention has focused on the school systems agreement to a 10-year, $5.7 million lease of half the building, a building the school system sold for $220,000 in 2009.
Then Reichert stepped up to defend the program. Ballard-Hudson is integral to the program as a partnership center for more than 30 nonprofit agencies to give services to entire families, not just troubled students, he said. Working himself up to a red-faced shout, Reichert denied that theres anything wrong with the Promise Neighborhood as a whole.
We are collateral damage for the dysfunction at the Board of Education. Thats whats happened, he bellowed.
Reichert said the real value of the lease for the school system isnt the building itself, but the enormous volunteer commitment those nonprofit agencies bring.
The Promise Neighborhood seeks to break the cycle of inter-generational poverty in Tindall Heights and Unionville, two of Macons most blighted areas, he said.
The Telegraph has reported that Superintendent Romain Dallemand and then-school board President Tommy Barnes made commitments of millions of dollars more to the Promise Neighborhood program than the school board actually authorized.
Hart and Reichert spoke to several hundred people from the combined Rotary clubs, plus numerous city and county officials and staff, and representatives of other community groups. They noted that while a consolidated Macon-Bibb County government will be elected this year and will take over in January 2014, the area must be governed effectively until then.
In 2013, we still have to function as a county, Hart said.
Charles Richardson, editorial page editor of The Telegraph, moderated the question session and personally asked Hart and Reichert which one of them plans to run for countywide mayor. In response, they smilingly read a prepared statement -- in unison.
While neither of us has plans to announce at this time, they said, both Hart and Reichert are mulling how they can serve the community in coming years. Meanwhile, their primary focus is on the demands of their current positions.
Touting SPLOST accomplishments
A particular goal is showing taxpayers that proceeds of the special purpose local option sales tax, which voters approved in November 2011, are being used as promised, Hart said.
Monthly collections on the 1-percent tax, which will exist for six years, have been running above $2 million in collections per month, Hart said. In January it finally reached $3 million, but thats still $1 million short of earlier projections, he said. Still, officials believe the SPLOST -- initially estimated to bring in $190 million -- will generate enough to pay for all the projected work, Hart said.
One high-profile project is a new animal control complex, not just a shelter but a 10-acre campus with a dog park and walking trails, Hart said. The land on Fulton Mill Road was originally bought for a state hospital that was never built, he said. The animal shelter, for which the SPLOST contributed $3 million, should be occupied in mid-2014, Hart said.
Two new fire stations are being built, and a third -- though not built with SPLOST money -- is being considered for east Macon, Hart said. Fifteen cars and two trucks have been bought for the Bibb County Sheriffs Office, he said.
A new Juvenile Justice Center should be open in late 2014, incorporating intervention programs to help stem the graduation of youthful offenders to the big court, Hart said.
The Bibb County SPLOST put $6 million into a total $20 million package with other governments to buy land around Robins Air Force Base, hoping to stave off any reductions or closure at the huge local economic driver, Hart said.
And $3 million from the SPLOST went for incentives to draw Tractor Supply Co. to Macon, he said. That firm is building a distribution center which will hire more than 300 people.
The county is still trying to work through plans for its promised recreation projects, $39 million worth, Hart said. But on the fast track are repairs -- especially new roofs -- at existing recreation centers to make sure those buildings dont deteriorate altogether, he said.
Reicherts main presentation recapped his state of the city address, delivered in four parts during January: a clean audit and stronger finances; economic development efforts such as Second Street revitalization and the planned Sardis Church-Sgoda Road connector; SPLOST projects such as Hart had referred to; and his Jan. 31 strategic-plan speech at City Hall which was interrupted by protesters.
That plan consists of continuing day-to-day government operations while preparing for consolidation and pursuing the already named projects. But Reicherts message of optimism and ambition was lost in the chaos and confusion of the protest, he said.
Facing questions about Kroger shooting
About two dozen protesters interrupted the Jan. 31 City Hall speech, shouting demands for quick information about the six-week-old fatal shooting of Sammie Davis Jr. by a Macon police officer outside the Kroger store on Pio Nono Avenue.
Before a friendlier crowd Wednesday, Reichert repeated his words from a week ago: Justice will be done, but we will not be rushed to judgment.
Results from forensic tests arent expected from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation until mid-February, and from those District Attorney David Cooke will decide if the shooting involved any criminal conduct, Reichert said. If that decision is negative, the police department will still do an internal review to see if any departmental standards were broken, he said.
We will emerge stronger and better from this incident, Reichert said, using that to segue into a call for greater compassion and mutual assistance.
He said Macon should aspire to become the sort of beloved community envisioned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
This is where we must go, Reichert said, moving beyond desegregation to inclusion and mutual respect -- not just because its morally right, but because its vital for economic and social success as a community.