Politics & Government

House demolition hits Macon-Bibb goal early

Macon-Bibb County reached a landmark Thursday, tearing down the 100th and 101st abandoned houses of the fiscal year.

The yearly goal of knocking down 100 dilapidated homes was met last June just days before the end of the fiscal year. But with a full two months remaining in this fiscal year, hopes are raised to demolish 125 houses by June 30.

By then, a $10 million bond issue to fight blight should be available, perhaps allowing far greater speed.

“There’s nothing better than being ahead of schedule,” said Assistant County Manager Charles Coney, who is heading up a task force working on a comprehensive blight plan.

In July 2013, Macon City Council roughly doubled the amount of money set aside annually for house demolition, making $530,500 available. They did so in reaction to hearing that only about 50 houses were torn down the preceding year, leaving some of the previous demolition money unspent. The budget for the next fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2014, was back down to about $250,000, but after reorganizing the demolition process, the newly consolidated government hit the 100 mark just in time. That’s when Reichert said he wanted to get an additional 125 torn down by June 30, 2015. Even so, with an estimated 4,000 empty and dilapidated buildings countywide, Reichert and others have acknowledged they’ll never really catch up at 100 or even 125 houses per year.

The latest houses to be torn down -- at 555 and 581 Cynthia Ave., just off Second Street -- already were gutted. As Macon-Bibb officials assembled Thursday, a trackhoe stood ready to tear into the roof of the house at 555 Cynthia Ave. Firefighters stood by to hose down the flying dust.

“A lot of people don’t realize just how complicated this process is,” Reichert said. Prior to the demolition he called forward a dozen representatives of government departments and the Macon-Bibb County Land Bank Authority. All were involved in step-by-step efforts to first find the property owners and see whether they would clean up the sites, the ensuing legal process when an owner search failed, asbestos removal, demolition and site cleanup, Reichert said.

“What you see today is demolition, but that is not the only way we can deal with blight in our community,” Coney said. Macon-Bibb and partner agencies also are looking at “deconstructing” houses for reusable parts, and seeing if some houses can be renovated economically, he said.

One major goal of the blight task force is to make sure demolition doesn’t just result in more overgrown vacant lots, said Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore. A reuse needs to be found, even if that’s just publicly maintained green space, he said.

Work on streamlining the demolition process actually started two and a half years ago, Floore said.

Consolidation caused some delay in last year’s demolitions, since Public Works Department crews had to spend a lot of time moving office furniture instead of tackling blight, he said. Since then not only have city crews been freed up, but the government is working with more private contractors, Floore said.

The current pace of work is a continuation of that streamlining, as Macon-Bibb now seeks more collaboration with other agencies, Coney said. Many community groups are working on particular areas in their own way, and the government needs to communicate better with them, working out an overall strategy, he said.

Detailed and specific information on “concentration points” of blight and an overall look at neighborhoods with an eye to rebuilding cohesive communities are going to determine where and how the blight bonds are spent, Coney said.

“I think it will give us a data-driven model versus perception-driven,” he said.

A resolution to create the blight task force moved through the city-county commission in tandem with the bond proposal last fall. The bonds actually will include $2 million for further work in Beall’s Hill, $2 million to clear the way for athletic fields on Wise Avenue -- adjacent to the planned Macon Charter Academy -- and $10 million for general blight work throughout the community. County Manager Dale Walker has said it would take about $400,000 a year to cover payments on a $10 million bond issue.

The cost of tearing down a house averages $12,000 to $15,000, according to an estimate from Economic & Community Development Director Wanzina Jackson.

In August, Reichert estimated it might take $20 million to $30 million to thoroughly tackle blight here. One possibility mentioned for further funding is including blight in the next special purpose local option sales tax plan. But first, the current blight funds must be used wisely, producing a visible improvement, said Commissioner Virgil Watkins, who proposed the $10 million for the blight bonds.

“At this point we haven’t figured out how far $10 million will take us,” he said.

The bond money probably will be available at the end of May, so there is time to plan before then, Watkins said.

“First thing we’ve got to do is get a true scope of the problem,” he said. That means a detailed survey of exactly how many buildings are vacant, how many lots are overgrown, which structures can be fixed and which must be torn down, Watkins said.

Officials are looking now at various ways to gather that data, from using code enforcement staff to seeking community volunteers, Watkins said.

When a blight survey is done, then the project will need a full-time manager, he said. For now the effort is relying heavily on Coney, but he has other duties as an assistant county manager, Watkins said. Someone needs to oversee community engagement as well as deal with contractors, he said.

Eighteen firms have shown interest in helping to demolish houses under city contract, Watkins said. In its major blight-fighting effort, Detroit is tearing down 200 or more buildings per week, he said. That pace won’t be matched here, but if numerous contractors and Public Works are all on the task, a rate of 20 to 30 per week isn’t inconceivable, Watkins said.

But that, of course, will depend on how quickly dilapidated properties get through the legal process. A total of 300 per year should be quite possible, triple the pace of previous years, he said.

Even if $10 million was available tomorrow, not many houses would come down immediately, Floore said.

Reaching 125 houses this year depends on how quickly the legal and environmental process goes, he said. Houses tend to come up for demolition in groups. The two demolished Thursday and the six ready for the dump cleared the last legal hurdle two weeks ago, then had a required 10-day wait for environmental clearance, Floore said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.