Mayor Miller prioritizes homelessness, blight, public safety in first 30 days

Mayor+Lester+Miller+announced+Macon-Bibb+County%27s+Clean+Streets+Matter+initiative+on+January+15.+

Courtesy Macon-Bibb County

Mayor Lester Miller announced Macon-Bibb County’s Clean Streets Matter initiative on January 15.

Downtown Macon merchants and business owners heard an impromptu progress report Tuesday on Mayor Lester Miller’s first 30 days in office.

Miller, who at the end of last year succeeded the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history, attended the monthly meeting of the Downtown Macon Community Association on Zoom.

The local attorney, businessman and former school board president said he “hit the ground running” to help people experiencing homelessness after two people died of hypothermia on Christmas, days before he took office.

Miller spoke of the Brookdale Warming Center that enlists government agencies, civic organizations and volunteers to help temporarily house individuals and families who have no warm or safe place to stay.

“We started out with three (people seeking shelter) and we had 110 last night,” Miller said during the Tuesday morning meeting.

Although Miller said he’s taken some heat from people who say the community shouldn’t be a sanctuary that would attract more homeless people, he told the group that you “can’t talk negative about what we’re doing there.”

He applauded the cooperation of stakeholders who are now in the second phase of the operation that includes connecting people with relatives, or providing housing or job opportunities and counseling.

“We’ve had several people united with family members outside of the state of Georgia. That’s very exciting,” he said.

Miller also noted four people have found permanent housing, two are now employed and they are working to make sure others have proper identification and important legal documents that many people take for granted.

“You can see the eyes of some of these folks, (what it means to them), once they saw a birth certificate with their name on it,” Miller said.

After eating his breakfast at Famous Mike’s on Poplar Street, Miller noted conditions have improved where the homeless had been continually congregating and sleeping under shelters in the median.

COVID-19 restrictions on occupancy have limited the amount of people who can seek shelter in buildings which has strained resources at places like the Salvation Army.

“We’re going to take care of the most vulnerable but at the same time realize this affects businesses,” he said, noting he wished he had been in office sooner to head off homeless issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

At least three downtown business owners acknowledged Miller’s leadership in the chat feature of the online meeting.

“This is a gamechanger for our city and our neighborhood,” said Dr. Nissa Jones, who owns the Pink Chief Boutique with her mother and serves on the Macon Water Authority.

Travis Jean owner Scott Mitchell wrote: “Thank you Mayor for helping our neighbors and friends that are struggling!!!”

And owner of Dot’s Forget Me Nots, Dorothy Ridley, responded: “Awesome! A leader that cares!”

Miller said that although the Brookdale Warming Center operation is set to close at the end of March, his administration is working on a long-term plan to combat homelessness.

Now that more than 150 tons of litter have been picked up off Macon-Bibb County streets, Mayor Lester Miller will also focus on removing burned-out, vacant buildings. (Courtesy Macon-Bibb County)

In the coming days, Miller will use one of the city’s 849 burned-out structures as a backdrop to announce his newest plan to tackle blight.

Miller and the county commission plan to appeal to the Macon-Bibb County state legislative delegation to allow the county access to some fire insurance benefits if the policy holder does not make repairs, abandons responsibility for the property and stops paying taxes.

A Macon-Bibb County fire investigator compiled the list of all the hundreds of buildings that have burned since 2016 and are still standing, “although barely in a lot of places,” Miller said.

“Absentee owners, they cash (an insurance) check and we get stuck removing that,” he said.

Structures that contain asbestos can cost the county up to $25,000 to remove, he said.

Vacant, dilapidated houses and illegal dumps are turning once-beautiful neighborhoods into eyesores. Miller hopes to declare some of those as “nuisance properties,” and with the help of new code enforcement director J.T. Ricketson, remove some of these havens for crime.

The Clean Streets Matter campaign Miller launched with the Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Board has cleared 56 illegal dumps in its first two weeks compared to 34 all last year, he said.

Litter complaints and other issues can be reported through the See, Click Fix tab on the county website.

More than 151 tons of debris have been removed and a half-dozen neighborhood cleanups have enlisted volunteers through Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful. At least 15 other cleanups are planned.

Blight and litter in a neighborhood can increase crime, the mayor said, but already more than 20 Bibb County sheriff’s deputies recently have been added to the force.

Miller credited the increase in manpower to the pay scale commissioned by the county last year and incentive pay. For years, Sheriff David Davis has been short between about 100 to 150 officers.

Mayor Lester Miller is the second mayor of the consolidated Macon-Bibb County government after being elected in the summer of 2020. (Liz Fabian)

OLOST revisited

In recent years, the local government has repeatedly failed to get approval for an OLOST, or other local option sales tax. Miller will try again to work with state legislators on the additional one-cent tax that is expected to raise nearly $30 million a year to roll back some property taxes.

“We all know that 70 percent of that money is from out of town, travelers or people who work in Macon but live elsewhere,” Miller said.

Personally, when he saves money on his business property taxes, Miller said he spends that money locally, which further helps the community.

Miller also noted there have been 72 resolutions passed through the commission since January. “All passed unanimously,” he said. “I’m certainly proud of our board and commissioners and how they’ve come together.”

He encourages everyone to join forces to improve the community and invites input even from naysayers.

“Feel free before you go out on social media to slam… pick up the phone and call,” Miller said. “We still might not agree but at least you’ll know where our heart and mind is. … We don’t need to air our dirty laundry in public,” Miller said.

He wants people’s voices heard and will continue to reach out for input, he said.

The mayor also hinted at a “couple of surprises” down the road, but did not elaborate.

“It’s only been 30 days,” Miller said. “I look forward to doing a presentation in 100 days.”

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Fabian at 478-301-2976 or [email protected]