Augusta commissioners have spent only a week in their newly remodeled chambers on the second floor of the Municipal Building, but they are already receiving a list of complaints and concerns about the surrounding offices.
Commissioners are slated to spend approximately $40 million renovating the Marble Palace on Greene Street, of which $18 million has already been funded through the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax VI package.
The additional funding is scheduled to come from a $28.5 million bond issue, authorized by the Urban Redevelopment Agency, that will eventually be funded through a voter-approved SPLOST VII package.
Of course, Richmond County voters recently rejected the $194 million SPLOST package on May 20, so the commission will have to wait until November 2015 to renew its SPLOST request to voters.
However, until that time, it appears commissioners have enough to worry about with the existing renovations to the Municipal Building.
During the commission’s engineering services committee meeting this week, Mayor Pro Tem Corey Johnson asked Forrest White, a senior associate for Heery International — the firm overseeing the renovations — about some of the growing concerns facing the building.
Specifically, as Augusta Clerk of Commission Lena Bonner and her staff were moving into their new office last week, it didn’t take long for them to realize that the county did not allocate enough space for their needs.
“It is just too congested,” Johnson told White on May 27. “In my opinion, it was really poorly… well, let me say this: I don’t know what the initial intent was for that particular space, but I can tell you now, based on what it should have been, it is nowhere near the space that should have been appropriated for her to function.”
White said he would need to know more specifics on why the space wasn’t adequate for the clerk’s needs. He stated that he had only heard there was some “concern about the size of the clerk of commission’s office.”
Bonner quickly corrected White’s description of the problem.
“That’s not the main concern,” Bonner said. “It is the totality of the office space. Not particularly the clerk’s office. We have found the space allocated to us to be totally inefficient and inadequate to serve the public. I think a little more thought process should have gone into it. Apparently, it didn’t.”
The office could be slightly expanded, White said by removing a wall that separates the clerk’s office from the deputy clerk’s space.
Bonner said she was glad to hear there were ways to possibly improve the space.
“I’m more than willing to sit down with Mr. White and discuss how we can make it more functional for the public. That’s my main concern,” Bonner said. “It’s not my office. That office belongs to the citizens of Augusta and I think they deserve a little more than what we are seeing now.”
When Bonner walked into the newly renovated space, she said she was disappointed that none of the original plans that she was shown in 2008 seemed to be followed.
“If they originally went back to what they presented to me in 2008, the designs have already been made. Why we deviated from that, I have no idea,” Bonner said. “Why this space was modified, I have no idea.”
But as city clerk, Bonner said she must have the adequate space to maintain and preserve the city’s records. However, Bonner said those needs seemed to be “dismissed.”
“The office itself is inadequate to accommodate the records that we now hold. This government is in its infancy. It is only 16 years old,” Bonner said. “When the city of Augusta gave up its charter, it was over 200 years old. Those records are valuable, they are historical and, by state law, we have to keep them.”
Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy was concerned that the city was so far along with the renovations that it would be difficult to correct such issues.
“I guess one of my biggest concerns at this stage of the game is how do we move forward so that everybody’s needs are being met?” Fennoy asked White.
While White said that he would be willing to work on any of the commissioners’ concerns, he said all of the county’s department heads were given an opportunity to provide input to the building’s design from 2008 through 2010.
“Everybody could come by and view the drawings,” White said. “They were sent to all the department heads and asked for their input. And, then, finally, when that was all said and done, a final say went to the administrator’s office for approval. So, everything we’ve done, we’ve been very open with the county.”
In response, Bonner said she was not trying to start an argument with White.
“I’m not here as an adversary to Mr. White,” Bonner said. “I’m more concerned with the facts than a fight.”
Bonner said she addressed her concerns about the limited space for records with former City Administrator Fred Russell, who was fired last year.
“He understood my issue, he told me he would take care of it and I wouldn’t have any concerns,” Bonner said. “So I assumed he would. So the fact that I didn’t attend those meetings was at the direction of the administrator, who told me that there would be no concern with that because he was going to take care of the clerk’s office, the mayor’s office and the commission chambers.”
One solution to the record storage issue could possibly be some air-conditioned space on the Municipal Building’s seventh floor, White said.
As soon as White finished speaking, Bonner couldn’t help but shake her head.
“Mr. Chairman…” Bonner began, but stopped. She was clearly disappointed in the suggestion that would force her staff to go up five floors to retrieve historic records.
Augusta Commissioner Mary Davis said she also had some concerns about the city administrator’s office being located on the ninth floor, while the mayor, commission and clerk’s offices were on the second floor.
Commissioners agreed that White should meet with interim City Administrator Tameka Allen to come up with suggestions on how to correct these space issues.
In other news, commissioners also heard from White regarding some of the concerns Paul Simon, president of Augusta Riverfront LLC, had regarding the Augusta Convention Center.
A few weeks ago, Simon told commissioners that the 38,000-square-foot convention center on Reynolds Street had a “punch list” of items that needed to be addressed.
Simon said he was not at the commission meeting to complain about the private construction management firm Heery International or contractor R.W. Allen, but there were some real issues facing the center.
For one, there are isolated leaks in the building, Simon said.
“We have some leaks that we are trying to identify where they are at,” White said.
While Simon said he was pleased that White agreed to meet with representatives from the Augusta Riverfront LLC each week until the issues are resolved, he wanted to make sure the improvements were quickly made to the building.
“We are satisfied with the attitude of moving forward and trying to get the issues resolved,” Simon said. “But the roof is leaking, so we have got to get it done.”
Commissioners requested an update on the issues facing the convention center within 45 days and insisted those problems should be resolved by the end of that deadline.