Mayor Miller speaks on feasibility of mall project, trash, blight, $35 million in new funding, staffing, city auditorium and pool season

Send your questions to [email protected] for the Center for Collaborative Journalism’s monthly ‘Ask Mayor Miller’ segment


Marquiez Cornelius

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Lester Miller answers questions from the Center for Collaborative Journalism’s Ask Mayor Miller segment in March.

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Lester Miller responded to questions from the Center for Collaborative Journalism during the March 16, 2022 taping of Ask Mayor Miller.

Macon Mall amphitheater

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:00:00] Mayor Miller, thank you so much for meeting with us for this March edition of Ask Mayor Miller. First up about the Macon Mall. The county commissioners approved up to $44 million in taxable revenue bonds through the UDA for that Macon Mall project an amphitheater. But that’s a $4 million increase from the cap that was set in November. So with the global economic uncertainty with the pandemic and now with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, does that give you pause in pursuing this project? And you can you explain why there’s that raise in the cap?

Mayor Miller [00:0:32] It’s not really a raise. I think that was something maybe the community picked up as because we just wanted to give ourselves some room or a cushion. First of all, we’ve always said it’s a $40 million project, that’s a net amount, just like when you go buy a house. There’s other charges that go on top of that. So we don’t know what those charges are typically until you get close to the time to do the bond. This happens every single bond. It’s nothing specific to this particular project. When you did the last three or four bonds in Macon, you always start out with the figure that you want. But we want to make sure we net 40 million, which means we have enough for the amphitheater and all the improvements we have for the mall. So when we walk away at the end of day, want to make sure we have 40 million to work with. To do so, you have to have other things rolling, like capitalized interest, so that the additional monies that we have because we’re not sure the exact interest rate goes to market. That number should not be 44 million, should be below that, but it gives it a cushion to work with depending on the interest rate of that time. Also it has nothing to do with the amount of the project because we’re pretty certain about what we’re going to spend on the project itself, but it gives us that security to make sure we have a good interest rate. At the same time, we didn’t want to keep coming back in case it was a little bit more or a little more to come back to commission. So we said up to forty four million dollars to make sure we had enough room. That’s after talking to our financial advisers, our consultants on the bonds to make sure that we had enough room to do that. We just strictly just ask them to do up to forty four mean. I don’t think it’s going to change. It certainly hasn’t changed the project, the project is what it is. No costs have went up. A global pandemic has nothing to do with it other than the fact that we’re trying to get the best interest rate possible. So we basically increase that to forty four million and give ourselves a little cushion. We wanted to be very conservative on our numbers and we think that 44 will more than cover and I think we’ll actually not even accept that full amount.

Concern about mall project’s feasibility?

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:02:18] In terms of feasibility, though. I mean, do you have any concerns with, you know, gas prices are way up and you hope to bring in so many people from out of the Macon-Bibb County area to make that amphitheater a success? So is there any caution with that? Has there been a feasibility study done?

Mayor Miller [00:02:34] Well, I don’t think there’s been, there’s nothing official as far as the feasibility study. I would say we completed a feasibility study based on all the information we have to give for the bond, the number of people we’re going to have, the type of venue we’re going to have, the number of entertainers we think the cost associated with that, the number of people, we think are going to visit our community and for the year. We already do business with Spectra and others in Macon-Bibb County so you know what our venues bring. They know that we need a facility that can house more than what we had of the Coliseum. The auditorium itself, you’re talking 2,000 to 3,500. If you get over to the Coliseum, you’re talking maybe 6,500 max, maybe 7,000. They want a venue, they need a venue that is larger than that. We turn away a lot of people that we could do up to 10,000 because we don’t have the capacity to do so. At the same time, a lot of times we will book the Coliseum with an event maybe for sports, four or five thousand capacity, and we have another entertainer that’s coming through town that could play there. Right now, we having to turn them away. That’s a substantial loss for Macon-Bibb County. This will give us the ability to add on another venue there to make sure that we’re able to maximize our capacity. We certainly, can certainly do that. I never saw a feasibility study done by a consultant that came back and said, We don’t want this to happen. It’s going to always come back and say, Yes, you can do this. This is something we want you to have. This is a reason that you need to have it. If we know we’re going to do the project and we need amphitheater in Macon-Bibb County, I don’t need to spend three or four hundred thousand dollars might to tell me that we need to have one here. If we know we have a capacity right now of sixty five hundred to seven thousand for the Coliseum and we turn away, you know, folks who want to perform for 10,000 and that tells us all we need to know. These are real life experiences that we have in our experience over the last several years with venues and acts and events that happen in Macon-Bibb County. So certainly we’re excited about the project. We don’t anticipate any cost because of the pandemic going on. The project itself, we expect to open up in June of 2023. We have sufficient enough time to get everything ready there on the location. We’re very adaptive to the type of materials that we’re using there to make sure they’re readily available. And a lot of this could come prefab. So we’re excited about that. I know our local contractors are going to be involved, are very excited about getting to work, you know, make some money and have a lasting legacy on Macon-Bibb County.

Auditorium renovation and new courthouse?

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:04:57] And of course, you’ve mentioned possibly even putting additional courtrooms there in the mall facility. So I know that there has been money set aside in the 2018 SPLOST, like $40 million, I think, for our courthouse annex. So does that mean since the city auditorium design is way over budget, at least the initial design, could there be some shifting around and do you think the city hall or, excuse me, city auditorium renovations will be completed by its centennial?

Mayor Miller [00:06:19] I think so. I think we’re going to begin the project in May. We’Ve already given permission to go ahead and start with the things I need to do inside the interior while there’s a lull in some of the events. They had planned on that already. We’re going to find the funding for that. We’re value-engineered it down from there, from the cost that we got before. The previous commission and administration set aside $10 million for a project like that, that’s not substantial enough. It would take probably almost double that amount. So I’m going to be very creative and very efficient with our SPLOST dollars and make sure we meet the needs there at the Auditorium. And regarding the courtrooms at the MaconMall, we already sent that out for bid and we already got prices back and we’re were awarding that contract. So that’s one of the first things along with the Board of Elections that will be built inside the mall. We expect that to happen probably beginning in June, so, if not before then. So we’re excited about that also. Dunwoody & Associates were awarded the design of the Macon-Bibb County government offices as part of the Macon Mall. They’re beginning to get with our directors to have a walk through to start designing that project so we can send that out with a request for proposal and get some prices back on the interior part of the mall, all while we’re looking at the building, the pickleball courts, that we expect, maybe 32 courts there in the old Belk Matthews and at the same time we’re going to have the amphitheater building. So we have a lot of activity going on there. Each one of them are separate, distinct. We’re certainly capable of working on multiple projects at the same time.

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:06:53] Now with back to the auditorium, though, so you mentioned trying to find, you know, up to $20 million now for that. So would that include that kind of that glass atrium that everybody was so excited about?

Mayor Miller [00:07:04] I don’t know that everyone’s excited about that. I’ve heard just many detractors as I do people who like it. Personally, I think it messes up with the esthetics of that, that historical, you know, structure that we have, this very solid foundation and I’m not sure that does it justice. I think that’s something that has been eliminated from the design based on the cost of it. Right now, we need to make sure that, you know, we get some TLC and need some paint and need some carpet, needs new HVAC system and needs some acoustical work done on the inside. I think that’s going to be some of the first parts of that. We need some updated restrooms. There are many avenues of money we could do. There’s other SPLOST projects that were requested that may no longer needed to be included in the SPLOST, and those are not that were voted on by taxpayers. Those were voted on by previous commissioners. So we do have flexibility within our own SPLOST budget to move money from one project to the other. But on the courthouse situation, we wouldn’t take dollars from the courthouse to put into the auditorium. That’s a totally different project. The courthouse was part of it. At some point in time, we may decide that we have substantially met all what’s needed for a courthouse. We could close a chapter on that, but honestly, I think we may be building a new courthouse in the very near future, whether on that location or another location, but certainly downtown.

How to spend $35 million in ARPA funds?

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:08:14] Now, what is the status of the American Rescue Plan Act funds? I heard someone ask you about the second tranche recently. So is more money coming? And if so, what do you plan to do with it and about how much are you expecting?

Mayor Miller [00:08:29] Well, we, we certainly got a scare last week that was part of the Omnibus Bill that was passed by the Legislature, well by Congress. The first draft had it taking all the money from the counties and cities. That means a $37 million dollar loss for Macon-Bibb County. Fortunately, they reached a bipartisan supported agreement late in the night, and they left that in there. So we do expect to get more money, and it was estimated around $35 or $36 million dollars we’re expecting to get that in April or May. The good thing is is there is no time limit. There’s a more relaxed time limit than before. Generally, they give you that and they say spend the money by this certain date. Now they’ve given us several years so it allows us to leverage those funds for multiple projects, including infrastructure. You could use it on the auditorium if you chose to. It’s  Is one of the things that would be allowed because you have are updating the ventilation, the restrooms, things that are COVID-related spacing issues. Certainly there are many uses for that. We have tried to use that money for things that are going to betterment our entire community. And a lot of the less fortunate. But we also need to use some of that on economic development, which could be using it for infrastructure at the airports to help the runway project we have. Maybe improving our terminal there and maybe doing some cargo there. Certainly, it can be used to do some other things for tourism, if we chose to do, to make renovations to Carolyn Crayton Park or other parkes that we have in the community. So there’s many users. I certainly want to use it for a revolving loan fund to fill in some of the gaps on the housing we have here in Macon. We have a substantial shortage in housing. Last year we built four hundred and twenty three new houses in Macon, which is very exciting for our community. That’s a large number, surpassing all of our surrounding counties. And those are housing where building permits were awarded. We still have a shortage, which means we have more folks and then we have housing. So we’re going to aggressively look for the ways that we eliminate blight at the same time, look for ways we can loan folks money at a low interest rate to do some large scale homes, whether that’s going to be some duplexes, some single-family homes and some rental as well. So I think you’ll see a lot of that happen this next year with the money. You know, at the interest of the commissioners want to do that, that’s what we’re going to do. At the same time, we’re going to continue to fund those projects like mental health and those things out of the money and look for other opportunities to leverage. If we have foundations that want to get money and allow Macon-Bibb County to be a match, we can double our money. I’m always looking for opportunities to work together with the public, private and foundation partnerships to leverage our funds.

Blight fight update

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:10:54] Now, we see that houses are continuing to be razed intermittently in your fight against blight. And what is the status of that at this point? And you kind of mentioned a little bit, but is there a thought being considered to provide some sort of low cost loans to people who don’t really have the money to repair their homes and they’re in disrepair but may have to leave them? And then that becomes a blighted, abandoned property? So any plans with that, either with the Land Bank or anything?

Mayor Miller [00:11:24] Well, certainly we… our budget will be coming up soon, so we’re going to make sure we give some of our partners some additional funds for that out of the budget. We’ve done about 140 demolitions since April of last year, which I think is a staggering number. Those houses, the ones that can’t be saved. Those are the ones that has asbestos in ’em, that have fire damage in them that just completely blotted with no help, no way to rehab them. So, we have to look for ways to get those out of the community because they pose a safety hazard for many things and also create a haven for crime. So we’re going to continue to do those. There’s about 600 of those total that we’re aware of now. At the same time, we’re trying to stop the bleeding on blight.  Our code enforcement has done a wonderful job. We’ve increased the funding and the personnel there to help prevent blight before it happens. At the same time, I’ve always said that this is not just about tearing things down, but building things up. So we’re looking for ways now on what we have large tracts of property, to pull all this property together so we can make an impact on the entire neighborhoods. One of the things that I want to be pitching to the commissioners in the very near future is going to be the revolving loan fund. But I don’t want to do it alone. I want to get myself with a group of people who know the business and I want to get bankers involved and foundations involved so they can match that money so we can make a bigger impact with a smaller part of our money. We want to put that money in there. We’re gonna make it available for certain census tracts and allow people to get low interest loans, but also allow investors to borrow this money, perhaps with no construction cost in the beginning. They can use our money interest-free for a period of time and then sell the home and pay us back so we can both use our money and keep our money too. So we’re very excited about that and filling those holes in the neighborhood with these houses have been torn down.

Trash collection issues

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:13:01] And what would an Ask Mayor Miller be without a question about trash?

Mayor Miller [00:13:06] Okay.

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:13:07] We still are hearing some reports of missed trash pickup in some old bins lingering and people waiting on the delivery of new carts. Is there any kind of timeline set aside to get this all straightened out? I know Ryland Environmental is is shifting and moving and trying to take care of these. But have there been any talks about when you think that might all be smooth sailing?

Mayor Miller [00:13:19] Well, I think, I think there’s been a 300 percent decrease in the amount of calls we get. We certainly don’t hear as much as we used to. We don’t hear very many missed pickups at all. You may have a few people who are real loud about it, but most people understand this has been a transition. The green trash can removal, we had to get involved. Unfortunately, the company that promised to have these out by a certain period of  time didn’t meet the deadline, in our opinion. And they didn’t meet the second deadline that they gave themselves. And still, here we are now. We’ve removed over40,000 ourselves, our own initiative. We went out there, we hired a third party company. We put our guys, our men and women on there, picking up those cans and we’ve removed 40,000. We only estimate about 50,000 out there. So I’m not sure what they did, but certainly we’ve done that the uh, the bulk of the work. So that’s one issue we have there. At the same time while our guys had to go out and give up their jobs they were doing, like getting out the new blue recycle cans, which we wanted them to do. We had to pull them out of those jobs. For the most part, to have them picking up these green cans to get them off the street because a lot of folks still had the old blue can they could still use so it didn’t interrupt their recycling too much. What I am very excited about this convenience center that we have downtown, that we opened up finally, last Friday. It’s going to be open 8:30 to 4 every day Monday through Sunday. And it not only gives you a chance to drop off your, your white goods, like your washing machines and your dryers and your refrigerators. It gives you a place to take some tires up to four per household per day. Your cardboard, your recycling, your oils, your yard debris, your mattresses, those things we see on the side of the road. Your batteries at the downtown location. That’s going to help us with the illegal dumping. It’s going to give people an alternative place to take recycling if they want to, you know, do a lot of recycling on there. But really, I think for the most part, the trash issues are resolved. There are some lingering issues that we have on the green trash trash cans and making sure everyone gets their blue trash can. Ryland has done a phenomenal job. Like I said, we went from thousands of calls per week probably to 50, and that’s great. And when you look at a business that does 50,000 households per week and you get 50, that’s a very small percentage and you’re always going to have that. That’s never going away. It’s the business. But for a certain a small percentage there, I think that’s, that’s very good. I look for a day where I don’t get any messages per week or any calls to to do trash on a regular basis. But right now, I think we’ve done yeoman’s work in that transition.

Does county face staffing shortages?

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:15:56] And of course, that whole thing started with Waste Management when they were having staffing issues. So do you see those kind of staffing issues here in Macon-Bibb County? Are your departments all staffed? I understand some veteran officers are still leaving the sheriff’s office, even though you have thousands of dollars of incentives for them to stay. So where are y’all situated with staffing?

Mayor Miller [00:16:18] Well, I mean, it changes from job to job. There’s plenty of departments that are fully staffed. There’s some that’s always challenging. Your waste is always challenging, your, your police. Your fire is getting up there where it’s not going to be a challenge anymore. We’re really increasing those numbers there and getting fully staffed there. The sheriff’s department is going to be a challenge forever. I mean, it’s just a national. It’s not nothing to do with Macon. We saw the least amount people we’ve ever seen leave the department. So I went back, looked at the list here recently. We only had five to seven leave this year that were tenured officers. You’re going to have one or two that thought they wanted to be a police officer or a sheriff’s deputy, and they’d been there six months and are gone. Wasn’t for them, you know. But certainly it is hard work. You risk the chance of not going home to your family each and every night and the pay, no matter what you pay. You paid a hundred thousand it’s not going to be enough the risk your life. For most people it’s gotta be a calling. It’s got to be a brother or sisterhood. It’s got to be something you want to do to serve the community. But but I am encouraged that to at least some point we have stopped the turnover on our veteran officers, more so than others. Still, recruiting is a challenge. No matter what you pay, the person next door is going to raise their salary. But you’re all chasing the same people. It’s a dwindling, dwindling market. What we hope to do and accomplish is to do better of making people accountable for their actions, making people be personally responsible, getting parents more involved, our community more engaged, our MVP program. The more successful we can do on that, the more preventative measures we can take for that, the less we’re going to have to have for officers and we can get back to community policing where everybody knows the officer in their neighborhood. And I’m excited about some things I see on the horizon now. We’re starting to turn the corner already. I said give me 12 to 18 to 24, 24 months when we started this program last June. We are already starting to see things that are positive. The community won’t see it because they’re going to continue to see things on the news that makes them upset, and some things are very discouraging when they happen. But for the most part, numbers lag. And once the numbers come out, eventually you’ll see that our crime is going down, not as fast as we all want them to do, not to be complete eliminated like we all want them to be. But but I’m seeing some encouraging signs and we have a lot more work to do. I’ll continue to work with the sheriff’s department. I’ll continue to work to try to recruit the very best and retain the officers. But I am limited to what I can do as mayor. The commission is limited to what they can do. But we will always step up to the plate to provide the sheriff and the fire department all the resources they need to work with, get them the best equipment, give them the money we can financially to make sure that it makes it easier for them.

ShotSpotter is now up and running

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:18:50] I’m not sure if it’s an exaggeration or if it’s accurate, but I heard from from a deputy overheard speaking about ShotSpotter and that there have already been like thousands, I mean a thousand reports of gunfire, and that one even actually led to the discovery of a, of a victim. Do you have an update on ShotSpotter at this point or is it up and fully running?

Mayor Miller [00:19:12] It’s definitely up.

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:19:13] Is it true what I’ve heard, or?

Mayor Miller [00:19:18] I’d hate to have to knock on wood. It hasn’t been the thousands, but it certainly has showed some early signs of progress. I think it probably led to getting to a scene faster and having a few less deaths this year already. That’s very promising. It’s also led to some better response time for the more violent crimes because we actually knew they were shots and not something else. It’s going to be something that is going to be,  you have to look for a period of time. It’s not something you’re going to know in 90 days, 120 days, not even a year. It’s going to take a couple of years to go through the whole process once it goes through the system, because these things have to go to a system and it takes multiple parties working together, even on the ShotSpotter, there’s been some situations already where now they know where the shots have been fired, they’ve been fired at a regular location. But it’s more target practice in this kind of gun shooting as opposed to any crime. As a matter of fact, we’ve had the first weeked, we had several shots, they were fired in the same location. There were cans and bottles around there. Nobody’s ever been put in harm’s way. But if you were in the neighborhood, you might think something, some gang shooting was going on. That gives people a peace of mind. But like I said, I think it’s already saved at least two lives. Also, shootings we have we got there and very prompt mannter. They were able to get to the doctor, to the hospital very quickly and save their lives.

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:20:35] So it’s up and running 100 percent.

Mayor Miller [00:20:38] Up and running and learning. The one good benefit we had is we had sufficient enough time to onboard the sheriff’s department. They’ve done a wonderful job of getting on board education, learning how to operate it. Still, it’s going to be an ongoing training for new officers. Anytime you get something new like that, you know, you say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. We have some very good deputies that’ve been trained for a long time. Sometimes they’re like me. They’re a little uneasy about new technology and how it’s going to replace me, but it’s going to make their job better, more efficient. And it’s going to help provide a opportunity because we are short staffed, to get better coverage for security purposes and not waste resources. I’m very encouraged about it. Only time will tell, but I think we would do a disservice to our community had we not attempted to do this and give the technology that the sheriff asked for to him to see if he can make a difference.

Problems with pension calculations?

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:21:28] A couple of years ago, obviously before you were in office, the internal auditor thought she saw like a wrong multiplier being used to calculate pensions. And there’s been, I know there’s been scanning of documents and kind of like an investigation, an audit by an outside company. And I was in the pension meeting recently and they went into executive session to discuss it. But retirees are asking us. Can you give us an update on that situation where it stands in terms of you all trying to determine if there’s an issue there or how to handle it?

Mayor Miller [00:22:07] I don’t think there’s any particular issue that we have right now regarding regarding the pensions. I’m not aware of any, any kind of serious incidents that we have. There has been some inconsistencies, I think, in the past with that and the auditors always pick up those types of things that we want to thoroughly investigate those. Certainly no life changing experiences that I’m aware of, no large numbers that I’m aware of. I think you have to be careful when you get into that because perhaps somebody may have made a decision if they were told something one way or another way. But you have to be careful because if it comes out that that decision not in your best interest, there may be money you lose as opposed to money you gain. I think it’s a very nominal amount, if any. But it’s something we want to make sure we dot every “I,” cross every “T.” That’s why we’ve we cleaned up the process in particular, like the fire department where we are having the third shifts and make sure we’re not having overtime issues. That’s why recently we had a case that was decided on Bibb County’s part about the deputies and overtime that were not entitled to the overtime and of course, threw that out. So you always have to take those things serious. It’s nothing that has risen to a level that gets my involvement into it right now. Nothing I think there’s any serious violations. Always if there’s an incident where someone was miscalcluated, we’re going to make sure they’re compensated and made whole. But there has not been any glaring recommendations or anything come out that I’m aware of.

Status of county pools and splash pads?

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:23:18] Okay. And you know, the weather’s getting warmer. Cherry blossom’s here. What’s the plans for the county pools and the splash pads? You know, they’ve been operating kind of sporadically over the last couple of years, what with staffing issues and vandalism. So what are your plans for summertime?

Mayor Miller [00:23:34] Well, I think we’re trying to get back to life as much as usual. So I think that the pools are open and the maintenance has been properly done and they’re back up to code and are going to be open. I know that the water park at Tobesofkee is going to be open, our splash pads will be open. We have a couple of repairs to make, some minor repairs of some of the pools in the county. We want to make them open as well. Staffing is always an issue, but we’re going to try to cover that. Robert Walker does a good job at our recreation department. So we’re looking forward to having a fun, full year this year post-COVID, if we can say that, for all of our children and give them something to do. We’ve got some, you know, some new things on the horizon as well.

Economic development on horizon

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:24:11] Anything else you want to add?

Mayor Miller [00:24:13] Oh my goodness.

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:24:15] Here’s your chance to tout something.

Mayor Miller [00:24:17] Yeah, or if I tease something, it may get back to me later on. So I don’t know. I’d just say that we have a lot of economic development possibilities in the near future that I’ll be excited to make announcements on in the upcoming future. We’re very excited about some announcement for the Ocmulgee National Park and the surrounding areas, and we certainly have two or three more initiatives in Macon-Bibb County where we’re going to bring hundreds of millions of dollars in for new developments in our community that we’re very excited about. Hotel 45 was a big impact, big splash. Every time I go by that location, I see many different tags from all across the United States, so that’s already making an impact. I talked to several people who came down from Atlanta for a logistics summit, who had a very pleasant experience of the Hotel 45, and they said this is something, I’ve been coming to Macon for the last 15, 20 years, that Macon has  already needed and you’re feeling that void. I think we’ll see two or three more of those types of hotels in the near future, very nearby.

Liz Fabian, CCJ [00:25:11] Thank you, Mr. Mayor.

Mayor Miller [00:25:12] Thank you.