Macon council panel rejects beautification project

A Macon City Council committee voted down a resolution Tuesday that would have partnered the city with Mercer University to maintain and beautify the interchange at Interstate 75 and Mercer University Drive.

The council’s Public Works And Engineering Committee ultimately decided against authorizing Macon Mayor Robert Reichert to execute a memorandum of understanding with Mercer to use money from a grant that would have paid for gardening material that would have improved the area at the interchange.

The vote failed 2-3, with Councilmen Tom Ellington and Ed DeFore voting for it, and Councilmen Lonnie Miley, James Timley and Rick Hutto voting against it.

Reichert was interested in the partnership because the state Department of Transportation has cut back on its roadside maintenance services along state roads during the past year due to budget cuts. Since the state only cuts the grass once or twice a year, the areas around the interchanges can become overgrown by grass and weeds.

Timley voted against the resolution, saying that maintaining the rights-of-way ultimately is the responsibility of the state. For the city to do so would set a bad precedent, he argued.

“Why are we taking on the state’s responsibility?” Timley asked. “We pay a state tax and a local tax. ... We should not be getting into the DOT’s responsibilities. I don’t understand what the mayor’s mindset is.”

It’s not the first time the resolution has been in front of the committee.

Keith Moffett, Reichert’s director of internal affairs, said some of the committee’s previous concerns had been addressed in the contract Moffett presented to the committee.

For one thing, the city had a clause in the contract that would allow the city to get out of the contract with the DOT with a 30-day notice. The grant would have provided $50,000 in cash to purchase planting materials. The city would only have been responsible for the initial mowing and planting.

The memorandum with Mercer would have called for the university to maintain the interchange. Moffett said Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful also had expressed an interest in the project.

Councilwoman Elaine Lucas asked why the money was only for that particular interchange. She said she might support such a resolution if it covered other major interchanges in the city.

Moffett said the current grant is only for the Mercer University Drive interchange, which met the grant’s qualifications.

After the meeting, Councilwomen Lauren Benedict and Nancy White expressed their frustration at the committee’s failure to pass the resolution on to full council.

“We’re turning down free money,” Benedict said. “There’s no sense as to why we would turn it down.”

White said she thinks such a partnership with Mercer could lead to other public-private partnerships for other interchanges.

Timley said he worried that the city could be legally liable in case of an injury or an accident while city crews were working on an interchange.

“The liability it puts on the city really bothers me,” he said. “Our local delegation needs to step up to the plate. (The DOT) shouldn’t be creating expenses for us. This is a slippery slope.”

Moffett said he’s talked to other members of the council and thinks there’s enough support to put it back on the floor when the full council meets Sept. 7.

“I’m going to discuss it with the mayor and (Chief Administrative Officer Thomas Thomas),” he said. “I think council may vote to override (the committee vote).”

Also Tuesday, council members conducted a work session to learn more about the proposed Urban Mainstreets program the city is trying to initiate.

Reichert also briefed council members on a proposed plan that would make the assistant director of the Economic and Community Development Department also the executive director of the Urban Development Authority.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.