Mayor explains plans to combat violence, resolve trash issues and pension problems

Have a question for Macon-Bibb Mayor Lester Miller? Email [email protected]

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Grant Blankenship, GPB

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Lester Miller answers your questions each month through the Center for Collaborative Journalism.

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Lester Miller put victims first in developing the Macon Violence Prevention by holding a private forum with families affected by violence. Miller explains his plans to combat crime, fix issues in the Human Resources department and make sure all the county’s trash and recycling is picked up.

Miller answers the public’s questions in the June edition of #AskMayorMiller with the Center for Collaborative Journalism. Email your questions to [email protected]

CCJ LIZ FABIAN: [00:00] Mr. Mayor, thank you again for joining us for this month’s edition of Ask Mayor Miller. As you know, we solicit questions through the Center for Collaborative Journalism from citizens and from our partners to just keep up to date with what’s going on here in the county. You recently unveiled your Macon Violence Prevention program to curtail violent crime. What suggestions have you gleaned so far and what do you think can really make a difference? And when can we expect some of these community meetings?

MAYOR LESTER MILLER [00:33] Well, to answer the last question first, we have a meeting, a private meeting with any victim’s families of violence. We call that for six o’clock on Tuesday (June 22) at Stuart Chapel. We’ve got an all call that’s went out to any mother, father, brother and uncle who’s been affected by violence and lost a family member by violence. We think it’s important to bring them as a one group as part of this section for several reasons. Number one, maybe they can share their story with others to help. I think it’s more inspirational coming from a victim. Parents, when you say please don’t do this or, you know, do this or this could be your child. So I think that would be helpful to have them invited for that reason. It also provides a support group for them, because right now there’s not one for all the people that have been affected here in Macon-Bibb County. There’s not a organized group that can come together to not only just grieve or continue to get some closure, but help others. It’s important to me to know when I’m speaking with that mother, what is some things you’d think could have been done differently, maybe some programs that were available, some resources that were available that may have prevented the untimely death of your child?I think what better person to ask than someone in the family members. At a later time we’ll be reaching out to others that may have been convicted or their family members to say, get that perspective. But right now we’re going to be a victim focused on this particular issue. That’s going to be the first meeting we have. We’ve already spoken with all nine of our commissioners. We’re organizing dates and times now for their community forums to talk specifically about crime on this issue. So each of them is going to host an event in their district and we’re going to gather all that data. So those are some of the things we’ve done so far. We’ve already launched the website. The social media page has about five hundred people following it already. We’re very encouraged about that. But what I will say is since that day of the event, we’ve had many of our partners reach out and say, hey, I think we should do this. You know what you said that day in the hot sun made a lot of sense. And it got me to thinking about this program we could do for our of our accountability courts. You know, for instance, our accountability courts have mental health courts, a veteran court, your  drug treatment. They said, you know, our success rate would be a lot more if our participants for this mental health court had a home to live in and not a jail, that we could put three or four. So a probation officer could go by to one home with four residents there and see ’em at one time instead of going to four parts of Macon-Bibb County. So they could do, uh, get their medications, their drug tests. Make it more efficient for them in a centralized area.So that’s something that could come under our program. And it also kind of goes back to what I said earlier about my Justice Works program. We have a lot of people over there in the jail now. Once they get there, they may have a check that’s coming in. Once they get there, they lose that check after 60, 90 days and it takes a while to get started again. Check from whatever kind of disability check they may have. But some of these actually work. And if we had them outside there working, we could still keep up with them and monitor them. They’re not violent criminals, but they can work. And if we can provide some type of a housing or some type of a structured setting for them outside of the jail, we could save money every day. And we want to get them out of the jail, back back to work and back supporting their families. So there have been a lot of great conversations. We’ve had people come. The faith based community is still coming on board now. We’ve been talking to various foundations about, you know, funding the grants, but it also has opened up a great door to some potential moneys as well. We’ve received new information on grants that are available for several millions of dollars that perhaps we can use this to to combine with the money that we have to stretch our money out a lot further to help more people. So we’re very encouraged about the MVP. It’s apparent that everybody wants to be a part of it. And it looks like everybody’s pulling in the same direction. And they just needed a convener to come in to put everybody under one umbrella so we can kind of stay focused, not necessarily stay in our lanes, but do what we do best. I think that’s what we’re going to see is people who do certain things really, really good. That’s what they need to be doing.  And we don’t need to do everything. Because we start spreading ourself, well, thin. But I think we have all the right parties at the table. They are actively engaged, the D.A. is doing a good job. She’s going to bring some things underneath our MVP program. The sheriff has got some programs that we’re incorporating. Both the federal and state officials are doing wonderful. Our mental health experts, some of our communities resources are coming through different areas and they want to play a part of it as well. So I see a rallying cry. You know, we’ve had a couple of deaths since this happened. One the day of the event and another one here recently. But it just tells me that we’re in the right direction. What people may not understand while we’re on this topic is Macon-Bibb County is about where we were last year in some of the violent crimes. But when you look at comparative cities to Macon-Bibb County and counties that look like us, they’re way up. I mean, Atlanta is up 60 percent. Columbus, Augusta, all those. Look at Warner Robins, look at their crime rate. Although their crime rate may be small in numbers compared to Macon-Bibb County, their percentage is high. The shootings, the robberies, the burglaries that they’ve had, some of the deaths they’ve had. So percentage wise, a lot of these are up. And Bibb County is kind of maintaining which you don’t want to brag about having high numbers, but we’re maintaining what we were last year. That means we’re doing some things right and other counties continue to have these issues. Now, summer is usually a bad time and we’ve started off with a death, and that’s unfortunate. So we have to just keep on what we’re doing, I think in long term, we’re going to be we’re going to be in good shape.

CCJ LIZ FABIAN: [00:06:17] And there’s been some more turnover in the human resources department here. And an investigation is currently underway to determine if retirees were shorted in benefits due to miscalculations in the past before you took office. Pension boards have recently voted to privatize the administration of benefits and actuarial services. So can you share your observations about what’s going on with the H.R. department here and what your plans are in the future?

MAYOR LESTER MILLER [06:45] Well, I’m not gonna say a lot about personnel, but what I will say is that, you know, throughout my couple of years campaigning in the last several months  before I was elected and then when I came in, the human resources department was a issue that I paid close attention to. I initially sent a letter to the HR director, indicated to them that I was going to place them on probation even before arriving. And there’s no secret to that, Dr Moffett sent the letter out to several positions, letting them know that we were going to be watching them very closely because we had received substantial complaints in that area. After I got elected and sworn in, I began to dig deeper into the H.R. department. There were some challenges there because we had one person there with all the knowledge for a long period of time. And Mr. Hubbard, when he left, he left another gentleman who unfortunately passed away. And then we of course, we have a city and a county. So it’s challenging for everyone. Some people knew more about the county part of the business. Some knew what by the city part of the business. But we continued to have problems. And I placed the person on probation and simply watched for another 60, 90 days and things didn’t get better to my liking. H.R. director serves at the pleasure of the mayor and it’s nothing personal against the person. But we have to do a good job and we have numerous complaints from our police and fire and other retirees. And and the accessibility to that office was not what I want to do. The returning phone calls, the emails, just a general contact. And, you know, the soft skills that you would expect from someone in that position didn’t meet what I think my reputation should carry. And we want to hold everybody responsible and accountable. So we have made some changes. So there we have posted that position and we’re going to look for the best and most qualified person we can do. We’re not going to rush that position, but we’re going to, you know, do a wide, cast a wide net. Look for the right person.And hopefully in the next 60, 90 days, we’ll have someone who may come in for time. We have an interim right now. I think is doing a good job, but we really want to put a lot of attention into that position because it’s very important. As you mentioned, we’ve had some challenges in the past because there’s been a bunch of different pension plans, what a lot of multi components. And then you have a consolidation. You expect to have some issues, nothing we can’t handle. We’re going to do what’s right and do what’s right by our retirees.And if it means they get more money, then certainly we will be happy to do that. If it means our calculations are overpaid. And unfortunately, when you challenge those things, you have to follow the numbers and it could result into some downward decreases. So I think that to be real careful with that, when you open up that can of worms. But the main thing is we want to treat people properly and give them their due and we want to go through the process and respect the process that we have going on now. And I think it is a good process. We have two very bright, three bright pension board groups and many representative, of course, on the county commission as well, so I’m usually up to speed on that of what’s going on and I think they’re doing a good job and I think we’ll be resolving that issue pretty soon.

CCJ LIZ FABIAN: [09:57] Now, of course, there’s still issues with garbage and recycling pick up. Can you give us an update on where things stand with the Waste Management company that has been struggling to keep the routes filled?

MAYOR LESTER MILLER [10:12] Sure. I think they’ve they made some improvements. They’re not where I want them to be. I would expect a further update in the next, within the next week on what our plans are to make sure we get back on track as soon as possible. We do have a contract with them. We’re going to hold them to that contract. We recognize there’s a pandemic. But I can tell you there’s no other company that could do the job right now. The county certainly couldn’t do the job. We don’t have the trucks or the staff. No company that we have spoken with could do this job in this environment. And they’re having the same struggles. I continue to speak to my fellow mayors in other parts of Georgia, and they continue to have the same issues and same problems, although it’s a different company. You know, it will be interesting to see when people get back to work whether this issue resolves itself. And I think it will for a large part of it. But we you know, Waste Management hired several drivers.With the five thousand dollar enticement there, I would expect they would hire some, but they also lost some drivers to other companies who are offering more money. So it’s one of those things where people are chasing a dollar now and we just have to see what happens. But things are picking back up. We’re getting less calls, which is a good thing. You may get a lot of people making a lot of noise, but we’re getting less calls and we’re trying to address those as we can. We did do the six recycling centers that we have. We did offer an alternate place downtown to bring a garbage if you needed to be because the landfill is closing. You know, aside, the fact that we have a independent garbage that’s just doing everything, the landfill will close. So there’s no other alternative in Macon-Bibb County. The trash has to be taken out to Twiggs County or to, to Houston County. So we’re doing the best with what we got. The calls have slowed down. We used to get calls of people missing trash for a couple of weeks. Now we’re getting calls that my trash is supposed to be picked up on Tuesday and now it was picked up on Friday. And what we remind them is we apologize. We know what’s going on. Please be patient.There is no contractual relationship between that person at a home and Waste Management. Nothing says that they’re, by law had to pick up your trash on Tuesday of that week because that’s the day you were assigned. Those were done on zones that can be changed at any time. And all they truly guarantee is that you’re picking up their trash, your trash once a week and four times a month, although people pay by the quarter. You know, that’s the other situation where the quarter payments instead of the yearly or monthly payments is. Twenty five percent of the people do not pay on time. But yet Bibb County pays that money on time to Waste Management. We pay for services to them that they may be providing to you and you’re not paying us for. I think a lot of people don’t don’t know that. We’ve had people who called here to complain. We pull them up on the tax commissioner website and they haven’t paid their bill. So it goes both ways. It’s one of the things we recognize we are a pandemic. But at the same time, when twenty five percent of people don’t pay their bills and we continue to provide when they pay late and we continue to provide the service, we didn’t cut their trash off. So what I’ll say is getting better is not where we want it to be. But I do expect to be able to address the public within the very near future on a positive development on picking up trash. ***A week following the interview, Miller announced the temporary hiring of a second company to supplement trash pickup for at least 6 months. The mayor, members of his administration and some commissioners have agreed to work a shift on a truck to help speed collections.

CCJ LIZ FABIAN: [13:35] And if my memory serves me correctly, that contract is up for renewal every July so that if you were going to take some sort of, you know, make a change or something, if they’re not satisfactory, we’d be waiting until next year perhaps,

MAYOR LESTER MILLER [13:49] They amended that contract. And I think it’s a six year contract and we have to give 60 days notice upon non renewal of that. But right now, I mean, if you choose to not renew who’s going to pick up the trash? What I also tell people to do is go to Monroe County. How much trash service do they have? Zero. Jones County, Twiggs County. For the most part, most of these counties surrounding us do not pick up household trash. When the person calls and tells me I can’t take my trash to the garbage. Why you want me take my trash to the garbage? I don’t have a car. If you lived in Monroe County, you’d be driving to the, you know, to the dump or to the convenience center or whatever they may have. Recycling is another thing. You know, unfortunately, they had to pause that recycling and people have been complaining about that. We try to do that to be a good steward of the environment. It cost you two dollars a month to recycle. That’s what you paying for recycling out of your money. It costs more than that to to send a three hundred thousand dollar truck through these neighborhoods to pick up your recycling. And you lose money on recycling. There’s no cash on it with the amount that we get and the place that it goes to, it is a loss leader. We do it for a good cause and prior to the last several years, used to have to drop that off anyway. It wasn’t picked up at your house for this price. So when people say, oh, I want all my money back, I paid for this quarter. Well, you’ve only missed one recycle, which is a two-week period of time and it’s two dollars. And that’s not really going to make a difference, giving you two dollars back or knowing who we give the two dollars to.It would  be a big impact and loss for Macon-Bibb County. But you wouldn’t get much of a benefit for it if I gave you two dollars. Matter of fact, some people would get insulted if I gave them two dollars. Because I’m going to turn around and have to deduct two hundred thousand from our, from our, um, our account.But you’re not really going to recognize that benefit. And I wouldn’t have any way to know whose recycling got picked up and not. Because it’s a third party who does that. And you know, you may say it didn’t get picked up. They may say it get picked up.There’s really no clear answer than that. So I really do think that we’ve overtalked the issue that’s getting better. It’s just part of the pandemic and it’s something we have to deal with. And, you know, we’re going to make sure that we deal with it accordingly.

CCJ LIZ FABIAN: [15:53] Now, where are we when it comes to the convenient centers? Number 1 is still under construction, correct

MAYOR LESTER MILLER [16:00] We, uh, the RFP for that convenience center has already been released in the last couple of days.The site is cleaned and we’re waiting on the company to, they have 30 days to provide a bid. I’ve asked that they complete that within 90 days after accpeting of the bid. That’s a real nice one. It’s going to have probably 18 separate places to put your debris, your recycling as well as your C&D for free. We’ve asked for plans for a number of locations, two and three right now.That’ll be right behind that. So we definitely will have three on by the first of next year and then we’ll hopefully have another two shortly thereafter.

CCJ LIZ FABIAN: [16:40] And will the temporary recycling spots at the fire stations continue?

MAYOR LESTER MILLER [16:46] They’ll continue until we get the recycling that we have now up to full speed, until we get the convenience centers open. People are using those. We have to dump those on a very regular basis. We had at least one instance where it was filled up and in one day. So we’re monitoring those and we’re getting those dumped as quickly as we can. But people are exercising their right to do that.And we appreciate that. Like I said, we decided, well they decided they couldn’t get to all of our trash.And really the only way to get caught up is to pause the recycling a little bit. So they can move those drivers over to regular trash to get us caught up. The other thing is, on your debris,you know, the plan was that on April the 30th, Waste Management was going to take over the limbs and your debris, your yard debris. So, you know, we had no reason to predict the future in January when we started downsizing our waste department, who is responsible for picking up these debris.So we started downsizing that, using some of those labor to move over to your public works and into your parks and beautification and forming a strike team for big projects like the illegal dumps and things like that. And then, of course, then we get the shortage of Waste Management. They can’t do their, you know, they’re supposed to be getting paid $16 a household and they’re only getting $11 dollars a household. We haven’t paid them the extra money because they can’t do that job of picking up the debris yet. But at the time April 30th came around, our plan was to get out of that business and they were going to be handling that contract. So we downsize. So there’s been some delays on that. We’re still picking that up ourselves right now because we’re not paying them to do that yet. When they get back to full staff and full speed, they’ll be taking over all of that. And we feel like they’ll be able to do a good job. But we’re going to make sure we keep them in check and that they do what they’re supposed to do by right by our citizens. But we like I said, we still recognize we’re in a pandemic.

CCJ LIZ FABIAN: [18:39] We do have a couple of questions that came in from Twitter. One wants to know about the watering system at Wise Park. When is it going to be repaired? This person said they reported it over a year ago and the system hasn’t been turned on for over a year and that the field desperately needs water and to be over-seeded. Have you heard any complaints about Wise Avenue Park or…

MAYOR LESTER MILLER [19:15] I haven’t heard anything at all about that. I think that if there’s an issue there, then they need to let us know through facilities. They can contact our office and we can put them in touch with facilities. But this is the first I’ve ever heard about that.

CCJ LIZ FABIAN: [19:19] And that’s not something that would be reported through See, Click, fix?

MAYOR LESTER MILLER [19:23] No. It is not. Really they could contact our office and they would actually be connected directly with Parks & Beautification or Facilities, if it’s an issue there with something being installed. There’s probably a reason there’s probably other development that’s going on. There may be something that has some erosion issues that Macon Water Authority’s taking over the stormwater. I mean, there could be many reasons, but I’ve been here a hundred and sixty eight days now, and this is the first I’ve heard of it.

CCJ LIZ FABIAN: [19:48] And the same person mentioned that there are properties on Orange Street near Riverside Drive. And we did drive by there that have debris, couches, stuff right in the street. And they said that’s been there for months as well. Again, that’s a See, Click, Fix kind of thing. Do you know what the current response time is for picking up that kind of debris?

MAYOR LESTER MILLER [20:14] Yeah, it’s pretty quick. I mean, if if they have done that, then there would be a ticket. It would say when it came in and when it was completed and if it’s not completed. But a lot of times people may call in and say there’s trash somewhere or there’s a dump site where it could have been we picked it up and somebody got it right back there. I do know we’ve arrested four people in the last 30 days through our camera system that we have there, and we have about ten more coming out of this budget. So that is getting better. We’re getting, we’ll probably take our fortieth house down this last week. Got another forty on the horizon that will start coming down in a couple of weeks. We’ve got about ten cameras total approved between what we have and what we’ll get. And we’ve, we’ve been able to catch – I mean, pretty solid evidence. I’ve seen the tag numbers, seen the person get out of the car. I’ve seen they opened up the trash, went to the person’s house and they lived there and the car was registered in their name. So we’ve had pretty good success with that. And the more we can do that and publicize that, I think it’s going to be a deterrent when they come to court. We certainly believe it’s going to be a deterrent because they’ll be on probation, get a fine and also probably pick up trash as part of the community service. So we have moved on on the blight issue from just the  simple residential fire structures. We’re adding our age as a determining factor. So if there’s a blighted house that has been there eight or nine years, it doesn’t have to be a fire structure. We’re adding that now we’re getting close to probably 50, 60 percent of those 600 houses, getting back them back ready to start the process on those with our, with our job. But we approved the five hundred thousand dollars in the budget so the director could hire more people and he has twenty three applications for five jobs. And, you know, that says a lot.