Ask Mayor Miller

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Lester Miller sat down with the Center for Collaborative Journalism, CCJ, on August 12 to answer the public’s questions.

COVID-19 restrictions?

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:00:41] Thank you, Mayor Miller, for joining our Center for Collaborative Journalism ASK Mayor Miller segment this month. Everybody’s minds seem to be back on covid-19. And so we have concerns about the rise of cases that are plaguing our hospitals. So are you considering any type of mask or vaccine mandate or other restrictions to public gatherings as we move forward?

Mayor Miller [00:01:05] I think right now we’re depending on our local and our state and our federal officials to give us some advice on those things. We have a weekly meeting and then we have daily meetings on on the update on COVID, the hospital availability. Macon-Bibb County, what we’re trying to do is to encourage people to get vaccinated. We’re not looking at any mandates right now. Specifically, I’m not looking any mandates right now. We do believe that there are some restaurants and some other private buildings that’s going to be placing mandates out there. But unlike the schools, the schools, you have a different environment. You have people who can’t get vaccinated in a lot of the schools. You have them in a confined department that you can monitor coming in and out each day. Unlike all of Macon-Bibb County. I can’t put a wall around Macon-Bibb County and try to enforce any mask mandate. I think the issue becomes the enforcement part. As far as buildings, we may look at some restrictions later on on buildings. But right now we’re really trying to work on incentive programs and education. And hopefully this FDA approval, you know, happens in the next few weeks. So people get more comfortable with having the vaccination. So I don’t look at any mandates right now, although we won’t rule those out. We look at the possibility of trying to educate people and encourage them to get the vaccination.

Public safety priorities

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:02:21] People are also concerned about public safety, which has been a major focus in your administration. Since we had the shooting recently, the double homicide on Cherry Street, just a few days before there was a meeting of downtown business owners who were concerned about the level of staffing with the sheriff’s office. And when we posted our story on that, you said those, those issues have been addressed. So could you update us on what is going on with sheriff’s patrols, particularly in the downtown and your efforts to curb violence throughout the whole community?

Mayor Miller [00:02:55] I think we’ve seen an increased police presence. I know we have, since that incident happened. We’ve also had one less bar that’s open right now selling alcoholic beverages. So that’s been addressed in that way, we’ve been working closely with Captain Michael Bittick in that area, who handles that on staffing concerns. So I think in that respect, it’s working out. We’ve also are going to start the enforcement of the new alcohol ordinances that we have, in particular those dealing with security cameras, the number of cameras, the quality of cameras where they’re located at, as well as whether or not you have armed security guards or not, and having to be registered and have to have police officers there. Our hope is to encourage locations that can hire police to have actually police officers there working. But certainly we will know that there’s good cameras and I think there’s good visibility there to get a whole picture of what we’re doing. We’re also been talking to, you know, on the back side, many technology improvements that we’re looking at making and not just in downtown Macon, but all across Macon-Bibb County that make us safer. And they’ll give new resources and tools to the sheriff’s department. So we’ve addressed them in multiple areas. We also have on Tuesday, we have a proposal coming out for resolution, for payment of our public safety, which we believe is going to not only keep the guy, recruit the guys that we’re trying to recruit now, but also retain the ones that are there. We’ve done a pretty good job recently of hiring new deputies based on the new pay increases that we have. But we continue to lag behind in retaining our good deputies that we have. And the longevity piece, we believe we’re going to at least take a large bite out of that if not solve it this next week or over the next couple of weeks with our new pay plan that we have coming out for our public safety. So I think all those ways is a way to increase boots on the ground. We’re also going to work with our downtown business partners and look for a nightlife ordinance plan that we can agree with and we’re getting input from them. So I do think that most of the bar owners now get more actively engaged. They realize there are some issues that they need to address in  house and they’re more open to do that, including the possibility of, if someone’s been banned from a particular bar or nightclub in downtown Macon, that they have technology that will link everybody together so they can ban them from all the places. So you kind of weed out the bad apples. So we’re looking forward to, you know, carrying this process through, I think is going to you know, it’s also going to depend on the COVID. You know, people have been in their homes for a long period of time and all of a sudden they’re out. So the numbers have dramatically increased on the number of people on the streets of Macon-Bibb County and at these places, we’ll continue to monitor that and see if it continues to increase or if it decreases because of the possible variant that we have.

Input on Macon Violence Prevention

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:05:30] And of course, you’ve also been having listening sessions across the district. Have you been able to glean anything from those meetings, anything that surprised you? About the issues of violence and possible solutions?

Mayor Miller [00:05:43] Well, I think we’ve learned a lot from all across probably the 12 forums that we’ve had and we have a couple more scheduled, including one with youth that will be private as well as Mallory Jones has one. And I think there’s another youth forum that’s coming up in another area. Pretty consistent. We’re getting some common themes around everyone that we need more parental involvement. We need more things for children to do. We need a higher police presence, maybe more technology for cameras and things like that, accountability for parents as well as the children. There’s been some other thoughts out there we have to flesh out. We do have a strategic planning session with the Carl Vinson Institute that we’re going to roll out in September around the 28th, where we’re formalize all these plans and then we’ll begin to finalize the regulations on how we’re going to put money into these neighborhoods for the solutions they have brought to the table –  things like midnight, you know, basketball, maybe the PALS program, some security cameras in certain areas that have crime, shot stoppers, shot spotters is a particular technology we’re looking at to show us where any shots are fired and what type of equipment was used. And we can even go find the shell casings and run those through our system to see if they’ve been used in any other crime. So I think we have a multi approach on this between the sheriff-led and the community-led. And our mental health has been very active. And what we heard a lot is we need to make sure that people need to get mental health treatment in certain areas, in particular those that that need the additional conflict resolution. We believe we can get to the kids early enough and do the conflict resolution and make sure we instill that in them. They’ll turn to other ways to vent their frustrations as opposed to reaching out for a gun. So they’ve been very helpful across the community. The civilian group we had come in here from the military, done an excellent job at gathering data for us. And we’re going to put all that together on a plane in September to help move that MVP program we’re on.

Removal of Confederate monuments

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:07:33] We also have a submitted question about the status of the removal of the Confederate monuments from downtown Macon. Can you give us an update on that?

Mayor Miller [00:07:43] There’s really not any update on that at this point in time. I do know that it’s going through its legal process. And once the attorneys let us know that it’s gone through that, whatever process that it goes through, then we can give them more of an update. I know there’s a private group of individuals who raise money and they want both statutes being moved. The county certainly is not in a position to use our own funds to move any particular statues or not. And that’s probably a stumbling block. But I think once the final resolution of the case happens, we’ll have a better update. If it if it does involve the statutes being moved to another location, it would be done with private-raised money and not county money.

Trash collection and recycling

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:08:18] OK, there’s also been a couple of months since you’ve hired additional companies to assist and bridge the gap with Waste Management and staffing issues concerning collection of garbage and yard waste and such. Is that working? And do you anticipate any changes with the Waste Management contract going forward? And what can you share about what you learned about riding the garbage truck?

Mayor Miller [00:08:44] Well, I think that I think it’s working right now. It is not where we want it to be. This is a, they’re both third party companies. We’re using Ryland Environmental and Waste Management. Right now, we’re getting a lot less complaints than before. You know, they’re probably down by 80 percent from where they were before. Still getting complaints and when it’s your yard trash that doesn’t get picked up or your household debris that doesn’t get picked up. It’s real important to you and you’re at 100 percent dissatisfied. But over the course of the last couple of weeks since we got Ryland started in one particular area and Waste Management has gotten more fully staffed. Right now, we’re facing a situation where we do have the staffing there, but they’re still inexperienced. So they may skip a road or a driveway or a couple of houses because of just a lack of knowledge of the area and how this thing works. Their schedule may be off somewhat, but at least they’re going back and picking them up the next day or two. There’s going to be some rare instances where they miss your yard because they don’t know that you’re down at Cul-De-Sac or couldn’t get through there because a car is blocking it or low hanging lines and they missed you. In the next week they may come back or they may miss you then. Few and far between, but we still do get the complaints and we’re addressing those. But when you have 50,000 households in Macon-Bibb County, even if you have a one percent, you know, displeasure, it is still a large number of people. So you’re going to always have that. We had it before, every company we ever used, even with the county. So it is getting better. The yard debris, we hired two separate companies. They picked up a lot of tonnage. I mean, the fees are very, very high based on the tonnage they had, which means we had a lot out there. And since  Waste Management wasn’t able to complete their contract back in April like we thought they could because of the um,  the worker shortage. It got way behind. We are getting caught up, but we’re still a couple weeks behind on that. Some places are completely caught up. But it just means that some people, some areas of community have more debris. They do more yard work and have larger trees and things of that nature, so it’s a process. I do expect that will be completely caught up by September. And I think that’s going to be dependent of course on this new COVID outbreak or variant or whatever you want to call it. If we start seeing a decrease in labor again, it could be a fallback, not unique to any particular company, not unique to making Bibb County. We recently had a GMA convention last week and I’ve had an opportunity to meet with numerous mayors all across the state of Georgia. They are facing the same, or if not worse, challenges that we are, and they use different companies. So it’s not unique to one company. It’s just the nature of the beast when you have less people available to hire or your people that had the CDL license are getting more incentives to leave one company to the other. You’re going to have some turnover. You can have some inexperience in there. And that’s one of the reasons that we’re looking at, you know, going to a a minimum wage of about $15 an hour for our lowest paid employees.

City Hall renovations

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:11:40] We heard a little knocking there. I understand there’s some renovations going on here at City Hall. Can you tell us how you’re shifting folks around for this building?

Mayor Miller [00:11:49] Sure. Well, we have some, a lot of vacancy in this building and we’re paying rent at other places. And, for instance, code enforcement, we’re paying over a hundred-something thousand dollars for them to be located in another building we don’t own. And we believe that bringing them here in city hall would make them close to us, of course, but also we can save that money. So it’s more of a cost efficient measure to try to get everybody in city hall that we can. We’ll probably consolidate some other areas as well to save money as no, no sense of paying rent on something we already own when we can use some SPLOST dollars to make some minor improvements and the long term savings is astronomical. So we’re going to continue to do that, do that, make it more efficient. A couple of these places are in Terminal Station now. We pay rent there because it’s owned by the Transit Authority, but we look forward to moving some of those to other locations. We’ve also got the Macon-Bibb County tax assessors that will probably move those to another location because simply you have maintenance and upkeep that’s not done in some buildings that we do own, or paying rent other ways. So they’re all cost efficient measures that we’re taking to try to improve our financial situation long term.


Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:12:58] Now, of course, you have put a lot of county resources into the Brookdale Resource Center to take care of homeless issues around the community with the construction of 16 and I 75, the interchange there, we’re seeming to have an increase in the amount of folks who are panhandling at that interchange, there. Are there any complaints about that that you’re addressing or any kind of policy that you might have in place for those who are particularly walking through the lanes of traffic even?

Mayor Miller [00:13:32] Yeah, I think it’s, I don’t think the number has increased. I think they’re just more visible now because they’ve, uh, there’s been some interruption of the area they were at. I do think that they see an opportunity now to, um, because of the traffic being diverted and being stopped for a period of time to to solicit some funds. We’ve asked the state patrol and the sheriff to address that under our current ordinances we have. it is against the law to solicit funds on the side of the road without a permit, particularly right-of-ways. And I’ve been in contact with state patrol as well as the sheriff about that. Some are repeat offenders. You have the same people out there and then they move and then they come back and, you know, questions whether you want to put them in jail or not. And that may happen. Right now, I think it’s because of the construction we have going on. I do anticipate, I don’t think we’ve increased the homelessness because of it. I can tell you that. I think they’re just more visible because a lot of the places they used to go unnoticed they’re becoming a noticed now. You’re clearing out the brush, you’re turning over dirt, you’re moving areas there. So, Brookdale still’s been successful. And we didn’t put a lot of local resources in there. We did put ARP money in there and we did use grant money. We used very little local funding for that. It’s all been American rescue, our CARES Act money, almost 100 percent of it, actually. And we’re looking forward to raising money for that with United Way and other philanthropic areas there we can develop that. And we do think we’ve got a sustainable plan. It’s going to take some time to build that up, but it’s going to help us get people into housing. And that’s that’s what it’s all about, getting housing first. And then we’re going to have a program there and I think we all can be happy with it’s going to decrease the amount of people are experiencing homelessness.

American Rescue Plan funds

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:15:08] You’ve earmarked about half of the first half of what you’re expected to get from American Rescue Plan funds. So, do you have any other projects that you’re looking at at this point?

Mayor Miller [00:15:23] Well, I think that I mean, about a quarter of our entire moneys that we have, we’ve earmarked that because we wanted to reach those most important areas. Number one, we looked at matching opportunities. So you’ll see a lot of that housing and food because we had matching possibilities. We made one million dollars on the food, kind of a food bank or food insecurity. We get three million dollar grant on top of that. We did at one point six million dollars for housing. And we get another one point six million match on top of that through the Knight Foundation. And then we did blight. So we’re looking at the food insecurity, the blight, the, um, those experiencing homelessness, which also ties into to any kind of crime that we may have in Macon-Bibb County. So we’re tackling those issues. We also wanted to make sure that we, that we had some easy wins. You know, they specifically delegated the money for certain things that we knew we could reach that threshold pretty quickly. And we want to make sure we fill out the paperwork and we jump through those hoops to make sure we’re doing this correctly. And they were specifically mentioned. What we didn’t want to do is to overreact and start spending money on things that were questionable and have the government come back and try to offset our funds or take funds away from us. But at the same time, we’re looking for matching opportunities. We did an incentive program for the vaccination out of the AARP money, which, you know, is probably going to be somewhere three or four or five hundred thousand dollars, but it’s going to save us about five million dollars in our general fund, which will enable us to compensate our public safety and help improve our situation on crime. So it’s not just getting the vaccination and paying someone to do the right thing. It’s about saving some money as well. We spent over two million dollars just in out-of-pocket expenses based on unvaccination last year because there was no vaccination. And we want to prevent that by having people vaccinated and encourage them to do the right thing and also keep the government open. If we have a lot of people missing because they’re not vaccination, and they get vaccinated and they get covid, then we have to shut down recreation centers. We have to go shut down services, but we still have to pay these people. So it’s a cost savings measure as well, but we do have some other plans for that. We’ve got some part of our MVP is going to require some funds to be expended from that. We’re waiting on the infrastructure bill to either pass or get all the information about that before we make any kind of infrastructure money out of that. Certainly the county has lost money through the museums and stuff. We made all everybody a whole, as far as tourism, because that’s a basis of economic for us. But we’re going to continue to look for ways that can match or amplify the moneys that we get from there. At the same time, we want to do what’s right by the regulations that we have. So I would look for the next couple of months, that we’ll start looking at ways to spend the other money. But quite honestly, Bibb County has suffered ourselves as a government substantial losses because of the pandemic, and we must pay ourselves back as well. So I would look for an opportunity that we’ll be bringing back before the commission to determine what those losses are and to take that money and put it back in our general fund to make up for the losses that we have. And then that money becomes unrestricted, meaning we can use it for multiple purposes, like funding a pay scale. It will also give us an opportunity to meet some needs that perhaps you couldn’t do with the with the AARP money that we can do out of general fund, you know, because we want to give some of that money to these foundations to allow them to fund these grants for four different communities. We’re looking at doing for the violence for the MVP program.

GDOT, GMA and Middle Georgia region

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:18:49] Anything else you’d like to add this month?

Mayor Miller [00:18:52] Wow. We got some, we were getting closer to some more economic development news in the very near future, you know, maybe starting to take bites out of large places that we had that were empty before. Repurposing some large places. Probably the next time we talk, we may be in a position to finally talk about that. I’m looking for some great things to happen in other parts of Macon-Bibb County, whether it’s Houston Avenue, Bloomfield area, very excited about that. We continue to make progress when speaking with GDOT. I had I had a conversation with GDOT. I actually went and met the commissioner in person in Atlanta with his group and we discussed the Forest Hill project, the Bass Road project and a couple of other things to move those timelines up and what we need to do to get the right of ways taken care of. Certainly excited about that. I was personally pleased as last week at GMA, I was selected as a board member, which typically doesn’t happen for a new mayor. So I was elected as a board member at large. And I was asked to present our initiative to the hub cities, which are all the big counties and cities, in Macon – I’m sorry, in Georgia. And they wanted to know about how we use our ARP program. They were very enthusiastic about how we led the way and did that. They were also asking about our Brookdale center, the clean streets matters that we had and just just several initiatives that we had. Our MVP program, they wanted to know more about that. So we were able to present that to them and we’re able to give them the PowerPoint that we did all these programs on. They were also very encouraged about how we set up our transition team. We got a lot of questions about how we chose those people, the fact that they were from a large variety of people in MAcon, diverse backgrounds and people that supported me and did not support me in my campaign. So they believe that all the good things that we’ve had come up in the last year, seven months or so, from the foundation are starting out with a diverse group of people in our transition team. So we presented five or six initiatives, got a lot of questions from people who have been mayors a lot more than I have. Even from our neighboring counties of Houston County on how they can use some of the models that we have on to amplify our money because they get little pockets of money and they’re still broken up between Perry and Houston and Warner Robins. And they want to make a big impact with the amount of money they get. But it’s a lot smaller than Bibb County. And one advantage, we had been a consolidated government. We were able to pull that money together to do big things. They don’t work together, I think, as well as we do between the different entities there. And it becomes a challenge for them. But they were all asking me, what would you recommend for us to do? And I gave them a couple of things that I thought would be helpful for them that we have used here in Macon-Bibb County. So we’re starting to work better with our neighbors in surrounding counties and take a more regional approach. And I’m looking for some great things to happen in the next several months and certainly the first term.

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