Politics & Government

Macon-Bibb moves toward big blight bonds

Macon-Bibb County commissioners endorsed major bond issues Tuesday, with much of the new money planned to fight urban blight.

The commission’s Operations & Finance Committee voted 5-0 for a resolution asking the Urban Development Authority and Industrial Authority to issue $28.3 million in bonds. Half of that amount is for refinancing older bonds at better rates.

Of the rest, $10 million is for a large-scale attack on abandoned or run-down property, as suggested by Commissioner Virgil Watkins.

Another $2 million was earmarked for more work in the Beall’s Hill neighborhood, and a final $2 million would be used to buy up and clear houses on Wise Avenue to make room for athletic fields for Macon Charter Academy.

But those last two allocations drew opposition from Commissioners Bert Bivins and Elaine Lucas.

“Our job is not to facilitate things for schools,” said Bivins, who does not serve on the committee. He said he was in complete support of blight removal but thinks spending so much for the school’s benefit doesn’t serve what the general public wants. Millions more for blight removal may be included in the next special purpose local option sales tax, and Bivins said disillusioned voters may not approve that if the current bonds pay for projects such as Wise Avenue.

Lucas said Beall’s Hill already gets substantial funding from other sources, while other neighborhoods have seen little or no action.

Mayor Robert Reichert said one reason Beall’s Hill has received so much funding from other organizations is because of the city’s continued commitment. Targeting one area at a time for major redevelopment is more effective than “spot development” scattered citywide, he said.

After a long debate, commissioners removed specific mention of athletic fields from the Wise Avenue portion. The bonds should close by mid-May, attorney Virgil Adams said.

A later resolution sponsored by Watkins, to use $87,000 from the blight bonds to hire a project manager and pay for a comprehensive survey of empty and run-down buildings, was withdrawn by Watkins himself. But committee members voted to endorse the general concept, in expectation that a blight task force already in existence will work to fill those needs.

The bond issue, and other items approved in committee Tuesday, will be back for final votes at the full commission meeting April 21.

RETIREMENT INCENTIVES

Commissioners moved to their main meeting chamber to discuss retirement incentives before an audience of about two dozen, including several department heads.

With a tight annual budget looming, the administration hopes to encourage 200 employees -- out of 360 who are eligible -- to retire soon, in hopes of saving some of the $10 million needed to balance the budget.

If 200 people agree to retire, that could bring $5 million to $9 million in savings, said Julie Moore, assistant to the county manager for budget and planning.

A draft resolution proposes offering incentives for a short period, with employees having to decide on retirement by July 31, and actually leaving their jobs on or before Sept. 30. The resolution passed the Committee of the Whole 9-0.

“We have emphasized that this is an option,” County Manager Dale Walker said. “This is not anything that we are requiring people to do.”

Changes to the pension plan must have two rounds of full commission approval. Those could come April 21 and May 5.

Moore said the incentives vary depending on which of three pension plans current employees fall under, but the intent is to offer roughly equivalent deals to all.

“The biggest thing is that we did offer a two-year bridge,” she said. That would allow some within a year or two of retirement, either by age or years of service, to take it now, Moore said.

Other incentives are temporarily offering a higher calculation for monthly pension benefits, and offering health insurance subsidies of $100 to $200 per month until the retirees are eligible for Medicare, she said.

The added benefits would be permanent for those who choose to take them, but they would only be available for those who retire in the designated period.

BOARD OF ELECTIONS

Mayor Robert Reichert’s selection of Mike Kaplan as the fifth member of the Bibb County Board of Elections passed the Committee of the Whole 8-1, opposed only by Bivins. Lucas, who voted for Kaplan, accused the board of being willing to infringe on voters’ rights, and moved unsuccessfully to table the nomination.

Assistant County Attorney Reggie McClendon said the elections board has two members from each major party, and those four then submit a list of names to Macon-Bibb government to choose the fifth. Reichert, saying the eight or nine names submitted were too many for commissioners to debate, recommended Kaplan from the list.

REDEVELOPMENT PLANS

Commissioners gave approval to the first step in two big potential redevelopment plans. One is seeking proposals for a feasibility study on seeking a minor-league baseball team, including where the best location for a stadium might be. The only spot proposed so far is the Bibb Mill Centre site, across Coliseum Drive from the Macon Marriott City Center, but Reichert said the study would consider any location. The resolution to seek a study passed the Economic & Community Development 4-1, opposed by Commissioner Al Tillman.

The other plan, from Watkins, seeks a redevelopment study for Pio Nono Avenue. That’s still one of the busiest streets in Macon, but is becoming rundown and hasn’t been improved in years, Watkins said. It passed unanimously.

PAVING WORK

Commissioners in the Operations & Finance Committee voted 5-0 to give Womack Paving a $1.4 million contract to resurface 24 streets. The ones chosen are streets commissioners previously voted to repair, County Engineer David Fortson said.

TOBESOFKEE BOATS

Georgia Power Sports LLC, a local firm, got tentative approval to lease part of Sandy Beach at Lake Tobesofkee for personal watercraft and paddleboat rentals. The Operations & Finance Committee voted 5-0 for a five-year contract at $4,200 per year. The site is near the Lost Island Water Park, which is expected to open in late May.

COURTHOUSE WORK

Warren Associates Inc. got unanimous approval in the Operations & Finance Committee to remodel the fourth and fifth floors of the Bibb County Courthouse. The 2011 special purpose local option sales tax includes $3.6 million for courthouse work, but some of that already has been spent. Warren would get 2 percent of the money allocated for work it manages, plus up to $47,500.Courthouse offices will continue to be reshuffled as work proceeds, architect Bob Brown said.

RUNNERS’ TRIANGLE

In March, commissioners were on the verge of approving a request by the Macon Tracks running club to turn a city-owned triangular dirt lot on Rivoli Drive into a paved and landscaped parking area, but they sent it back to committee when neighbors complained. Tuesday, after hearing from both runners and residents, the Economic & Community Development Committee voted unanimously to table the item, in hopes that the opposing sides will talk further and compromise.

The running club has used the lot for parking, mostly on Sundays, for many years, Macon Tracks board member Sam Martinez said. Approval also is needed from the owners of a gas line and adjacent railroad, neither of which has been obtained so far, he said.

Neighbor Ron Williams said surrounding residents were never asked their opinion before the proposal came before commissioners. He said the neighborhood has “longstanding opposition” to Macon Tracks’ use of its streets.

PEDESTRIAN FATALITIES

A proposal from Lucas to create a review board which will examine any pedestrian fatalities, looking for ways to prevent them or street improvements needed, at first unanimously passed the Public Safety Committee with no discussion. But then Lucas asked committee members to rescind their action so the board could be enlarged from seven members to nine. That done, it was unanimously approved again. Board members will serve five-year terms, and can be reappointed.

OPERATION HOPE

A national group that offers financial education and related services plans to start work in Macon within 60 days, said Jay Bailey. He is president and CEO for the Southeast region of Operation Hope, which works in 400 U.S. cities and 52 countries, he said.

“Everything that we do is about economic empowerment,” Bailey said. But its focus is on “financial dignity,” building up the individual before dealing with financial specifics, he said.

Young people who go into illicit businesses such as drug dealing are only seeking success, and show many skills used by legitimate businesspeople, Bailey said.

“Who gives them the opportunity is what will make the difference,” he said.

INVESTMENT REVIEW

Commissioners were scheduled to debate the performance of Investment Portfolio Consultants, a Florida firm chosen last year to manage public pension fund investments. The commission currently serves as the board for the active pension plan.

But other debates ran long -- committee meetings stretched more than six hours Tuesday -- so the meeting on IPC was postponed. It’s rescheduled for 4 p.m. next Tuesday, prior to the regular commission meeting.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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