Augusta may be able to avoid using “slum”

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The Augusta Commission is doing everything it can to avoid officially naming a portion of the downtown area a “slum,” but still legally establishing an Urban Redevelopment Area that would allow the city to borrow $26.5 million in tax-exempt bonds to renovate the Municipal Building on Greene Street.
The end result might be a simple game of semantics, according to Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver.
A few weeks ago, City Administrator Fred Russell introduced a proposal that would define a 594-acre area in the downtown district as an Urban Redevelopment Area under the Department of Community Affairs.
This designation would allow the city to receive the tax-exempt bonds and save approximately $2 million in the renovation of the Municipal Building.
But the Augusta Commission quickly learned the proposal was too good to be true.
In order to receive the tax-exempt bonds, the city would have to accept a proposed “slum” designation according to the Urban Redevelopment Law, which was initially adopted by the Georgia General Assembly in 1955.
For weeks, many downtown residents and business owners slammed the commission for even considering the “slum” designation.
Several commissioners told Russell they thought the commission was ill-prepared to handle the public outcry over the city’s proposed designation.
But Russell insisted that it was ultimately up to the commission to decide whether or not they wanted to create the Urban Redevelopment Area.
“I’m doing what I was told to do,” Russell said, explaining this plan could save the city up to $3 million over the cost of the loan if the commission simply agrees to designate the area around the Municipal Building a “slum.”
“So you check a block on a form,” Russell said. “It’s a horrible word. Nobody ever said it wasn’t. It’s pathetic. It’s 1950-something legislation. And, yes, we need to call it something better than a slum. Call it an enhancement zone or whatever. But that’s not what the law says. The law says to call it a slum.”
With the establishment of this Urban Redevelopment Area, Russell said the city could potentially see 400 jobs created in the downtown area.
Russell also said it was his understanding that the commission could create an Urban Redevelopment Area that consisted of only one block around the Municipal Building.
“From what I understand, that’s an option, too,” Russell said. “That’s all I do is make recommendations. I have a pretty good history and I think we’ve done a pretty good job with those recommendations. But at the end of the day, for the last 12 years, I’ve been told to save money, save money, save money. And my recommendation would be to do it this way.”
Augusta Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle said that while it is ultimately the commission’s decision to accept or reject a proposal, it is the city administrator’s job to make a good recommendation.
“And 90 percent of the time this body accepts that recommendation hoping that you’ll be fiscally responsible,” Guilfoyle said.
“And I have a history of doing that,” Russell quickly responded.
But, clearly, this proposal has some serious flaws because, not only would the city have to designate an area a “slum,” but the plan relies on Special Purpose Sales Tax funding that hasn’t been approved yet, Guilfoyle said.
“We are in a position now where we have to bond for money that we don’t have, but we are hoping to get in the next SPLOST,” Guilfoyle said. “That’s where I have a problem. We are spending beyond our needs. “
Russell disagreed, saying that there were other funding sources available if the SPLOST does not pass.
“But we have a pretty good history of SPLOST,” Russell said. “Our citizens know that sometimes it is better to spend a little money upfront than to wait. So, we’ve been able to put together SPLOST projects that the citizens have supported somewhat overwhelming.
“But we weren’t looking at money we didn’t have. We have other funding sources to cover that debt, if necessary.”
Jim Plunkett, the city’s special bond counsel, said Augusta could possibly get around actually using the word “slum” in its designation. Instead, the city could simply list the section number in the legislation referring to a “slum” and indicate that the designation exists within the proposed area.
Mayor Deke Copenhaver said he felt that was the best approach in resolving some of the concerns regarding the “slum” designation.
“I know it is semantics,” Copenhaver said. “But that way we are not using that term in what we pass locally. It is our choice.”
Now that they have more information about the Urban Redevelopment Area, the commissioners agreed to continue to review and discuss the proposal.