Politics & Government

For now, even split of Macon-Bibb blight money prevailing

If current sentiment among Macon-Bibb commissioners holds on how to allot blight relief, each commission district would get $1 million for blight-related projects.

Six commissioners say they favor the nine districts getting $1 million apiece for blight projects. That would provide the two-thirds majority needed to approve the measure.

Another proposal, which Mayor Robert Reichert supports, would use $10 million on four projects around the Second Street Corridor.

Commissioners Bert Bivins, Al Tillman, Scotty Shepherd and Elaine Lucas say they are unwavering in their stance that $1 million for each district is the best approach. Commissioners Virgil Watkins and Ed DeFore also support that plan.

Proponents of splitting the money that way say it would allow those who know their districts best -- residents and the commissioner who serves them -- to come up with plans for improvement.

Reichert, along with a blight task force, have said it would be better to spend money where agencies are willing to partner -- and that are more ripe for reinvestment.

The mayor’s latest pitch is using $10 million in Coliseum Heights, Pleasant Hill North, Montpelier Heights and South Second Street.

The earliest vote on the proposals could come July 21 after two meetings on how to spend the money are held Tuesday.

“The mayor took us all by surprise when he said he was going to use all of that $10 million on areas around the Second street Corridor,” Shepherd said. “We’ve authorized millions to go into those areas. We need to spread it around.”

Commissioner Gary Bechtel warned that officials should spend more time before deciding how and where the money should be used.

“The problem we have didn’t get here overnight, and we’re not solving them overnight,” he said. “Just because we have money burning a hole in our pocket doesn’t mean we have to make decisions that might not be the best.”

Macon-Bibb spokesman Chris Floore said at this point a mayoral veto isn’t being considered if commissioners vote to give each district $1 million.

He said a blight task force put together by the administration was told during trips to Detroit and Flint, Michigan, that spreading money too thinly was the biggest mistake to avoid.

“It’s why the task force spent weeks with local partners to develop a plan that would include mapping blight in neighborhoods, combining our resources and efforts with those of our partners and strengthening the core of our city,” Floore wrote in an email.

Commissioner Mallory Jones says he’s leaning toward spending the bulk of the money on a few projects, while Commissioner Larry Schlesinger said he’s open to hearing more about each idea.

Jones said he’s undecided on how to divide the money among which projects.

“I’m thinking if we had $1 million in each district, that’s a huge responsibility for a commissioner to decide what needs to be done,” he said. “I’m leaning toward let’s have three or four projects that are decided by the commission.”

Watkins wrote a letter July 5 urging a pragmatic approach to combating blight. He also criticized the administration’s suggestion of where to use the funds.

“Don’t misunderstand me. I believe all of the projects and current efforts in each of these areas are noteworthy and support each of them, but I’m looking for a different approach to solving our communitywide blight problem,” said Watkins, who supports using data to help determine the locations for projects.

In May, the county began using a computer-based system designed to map blighted properties and give officials a framework to address the problem. The system would ultimately rate each property in the county.

Lucas said she’s using polls and surveys from District 2 residents to develop ideas for the improvements they’d like to see. There would also be meetings in which residents could speak about the issues. She expects that much of the information she gets from them would match data from the system.

“This is an opportunity to make a decision that the constituents want,” Lucas said.

Any blight project would require a plan to maintain the improvements that would involve residents in the neighborhood and organizations, she said.

“The $1 million will only go so far,” she said. “Parks and Recreation, Economic and Community Development will have to include money for maintenance on the projects.”

The county has other projects where large investments in neighborhoods are paying off, Floore said.

“We will still have the chance to showcase that kind of success as we use $2 million of the funds in Pleasant Hill, which will be in conjunction with our current work to expand Jefferson Long Park, the Department of Transportation’s $10 million mitigation effort, and the construction of the newest charter school,” he said. “We also will be able to use $2 million in funds to partner with organizations to continue the revitalization of the Beall’s Hill neighborhood.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Stanley Dunlap, call 744-4623.

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