Council "henchmen" blocked grant vote, says Paris as she seeks to revive plan

Macon City Council President Miriam Paris is looking for ways to revive the city’s chance to participate in a joint $1.5 million grant application with Bibb County after the council came one vote short of approving the partnership this week.

City and county officials were planning to ask the state for the money to start a revolving loan fund that would be used to finance housing developments for years to come. But five council members — James Timley, Mike Cranford and Ed DeFore of Ward II, along with Elaine Lucas and Lonnie Miley — voted against the proposal Tuesday, primarily because they did not agree with the project that was presented as a potential candidate for the first loan.

With three council members absent, only seven were left to vote in favor of the application. Eight votes are needed to pass any legislation.

Paris labeled the opposition bloc a group of “henchmen,” particularly those from the second ward who objected to the fact that there was no mention of using the money to aid Village Green, a blighted, crime-ridden neighborhood in their community.

“Ward II decided to take the city hostage since (Macon’s Economic and Community Development Department) had not brought them a gift,” Paris said. “I think it’s a very poor display of city leadership, and I don’t think it would be right to let them do that.”

Paris said she is waiting to hear back from city attorneys to determine the exact procedure for reversing the vote. She would have to call a special council meeting before the end of the month, when the grant application is due. And, assuming nobody switches sides, she would have to make sure that all seven who voted in favor of the resolution are present along with council members who were out of town this week.

What prompted the insurrection in the first place was the resolution’s inclusion of The Landmark Group, the developer hoping to be the first to access financing from the fund so that it can turn the blighted Atlantic Cotton Mills behind the Kroger on Pio Nono Avenue into loft apartments.

Grant writers planned to strengthen their application by citing the near-shovel-ready project as an example of what a revolving loan fund would be used to benefit.

The revolving loan fund is designed to issue loans to any number of housing projects on a continuous basis well into the future. The projects must meet various federal standards to receive money. As repayments are made to the fund, that money is made available for other projects to borrow.

Paris was particularly upset that dissenting council members seemed to miss the point that the revolving loan is “not just a one-shot deal,” and that even if it were used to first benefit Atlantic Cotton Mills, it could help other projects in other wards, too.

“Any other project within the city that is eligible for that type of funding could be helped as well,” she said.

The $1.5 million grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is accessible to the city and county because Bibb was declared a federal disaster area following last year’s Mother’s Day tornado.

The grant is intended to provide funds for long-term disaster recovery and to “support the repair, rehabilitation and reconstruction of affordable rental housing stock,” according to the state Department of Community Affairs, which is distributing the money. Its purpose is separate from that of short-term recovery funding made available after the tornado by state and federal emergency management agencies.

Andrew Blascovich, Mayor Robert Reichert’s director of external affairs, said the mayor has been in touch with Paris about salvaging the resolution and was taking direction from her on how to proceed.

“The mayor wants to see it come to a vote, but he doesn’t want to (call a meeting) if he doesn’t think it will pass,” Blascovich said.

Even without the city, Bibb County is continuing to pursue the grant, said Kari Kitchens, Bibb’s grants administrator. But with no partnership, only half as much money would be available.

Kitchens said county officials and the Middle Georgia Regional Commission, which will actually apply for and administer the grant on the county’s behalf, will have to reassess how the fund would be set up.

“We think it’s a strong application,” she said. “We hope it will be funded.”

To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.