With the task of consolidating the city and county government behind them, some Macon-Bibb County officials are hoping to throw greater force into combating blight.
Two resolutions on the subject are coming before commissioners Tuesday for discussion at the Economic & Community Development Committee. If they clear the committee, they could be up for a final vote by the full commission Aug. 19.
Abandoned houses and overgrown lots have been a problem for years, and while the former city of Macon tried to deal with them, it didn’t make much headway, said Commissioner Virgil Watkins, co-sponsor of the resolutions and a former Macon councilman.
“Our goal has been to tear down at least 100 houses a year for at least the last four years, maybe five,” he said. “When you look at that, that is just a drop in the bucket for our overall problem.”
One resolution, sponsored by Watkins, Commissioner Bert Bivins and Mayor Robert Reichert, calls for a comprehensive study of blight in Macon-Bibb County. The second, sponsored by Bivins and Watkins -- though Watkins said Reichert offered “verbal support” -- asks the government to consider a bond issue to pay for tackling blight.
There are “easily 5,000” within the former city limits that need to be torn down, Watkins said, based on what code inspectors have told him. A tenth of those have been cleared by the courts for demolition, but current methods for handling the problem will never catch up, he said.
“At one point this city was more than 120,000 people. Now there are 90,000 people living here,” Watkins said, referring to the former city limits. The total population of Macon-Bibb County is about 156,000, according to the 2010 census.
Reichert has discussed with Bivins and Watkins the idea of taking a broader look at blight, Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore said. Simply tearing down empty houses, as time-consuming and expensive as that can be, is “almost the easier component” of dealing with population decline and property deterioration, he said. The empty lots need to be maintained, and some way must be found to get them back into use, even if that means transferring land to new owners, Floore said.
“We’ve got to do something more than just tear the house down,” he said. On some empty lots, neighbors want to start community gardens -- but the government can’t give them permission to do so, if the land is still legally owned by someone else, even if the owner is unknown and can’t be found, Floore said.
“Is there a way to take ownership and convey that property?” he said.
The first resolution says a study needs to determine the full extent of blight, identify reasons for excess blight, identify areas likely to fall prey in the future, find “solutions and tools” to deal with current and future blight and estimate the cost of “significantly reducing” it. The study should look at ways to pay for fighting blight, including the possibility of special purpose local option sales tax money, bond financing and a “blight tax,” it says.
The second resolution specifies that officials should investigate the idea of issuing bonds to pay for demolition, the cleaning of vacant lots, infrastructure improvements and general civic beautification in the current Macon-Bibb redevelopment plan area. That covers most of the former city limits, especially the older parts of town.
Watkins said he would ask for a $5 million to $10 million bond issue to get started. That would “drastically improve what we’re doing,” since local allocations for demolition have run from $200,000 to a high of $530,000 in the past few years, he said.
What he’d really like to see, though, is putting demolition, cleanup and general beautification as the top priorities for the next SPLOST, which could come up for a vote in 2017, Watkins said. He’d be willing to support putting $80 million to $90 million into that, he said. The current SPLOST is expected to raise about $190 million over six years.
Whatever the policy considerations, the first and biggest stumbling block for fighting blight is always money, Watkins said.
“Money won’t be an issue anymore, if we get this passed,” he said.
County Manager Dale Walker said using a SPLOST to help combat blight would be more feasible than bond issues.
The problem with bond issues, Walker said, is that they have to be paid back -- and there would be no dedicated revenue stream to repay bonds that aren’t backed by a SPLOST or something like it, he said. A $10 million bond issue would take about $400,000 out of the government’s general fund budget in repaying principal and interest, Walker said, noting the lengthy debates it took to get this year’s budget balanced.
“It makes more sense to put it in SPLOST, and put it in a big package and do it all at once,” he said.
The focus for the past couple of years has been simply to tear down houses as quickly as possible, to cut down on safety hazards, Floore said. This year, he and Walker said, the government’s emphasis already is changing to looking for concentrations of blight that can be dealt with all at once. The study will help spot those, they said.
Clearing a block or so at a time makes it much easier to get those properties redeveloped than tearing down “a house here, a house there,” Walker said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.