How will Macon spend $70 million in COVID-19 relief? Mayor extends homeless center, talks blight, election reform, economic development

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Macon-Bibb County Mayor Lester Miller sat down with the Center for Collaborative Journalism to answer the public’s questions. The March 18, 2021, edition of Ask Mayor Miller covers COVID-19 recovery funds, blight remediation, homeless center expectations, countywide cleanup plans, pandemic policy, election reform and pending economic development announcements.

In this paraphrased synopsis of this month’s conversation in Miller’s office, you can use time codes to hone in on specific issues discussed in the video. Submit your questions for our April session at [email protected]

$70 million in COVID-19 relief

CCJ: How much will Macon-Bibb County receive in COVID-19 relief funds and how do you plan to spend it?

Miller: (0:45) Because we’re a consolidated government we should receive both the city and county portion for a total of about $70 million. We’re still waiting on the regulations from the government to determine  how we have to spend that money and in what time frame.

CCJ: What will the procedure be once you have those parameters in place?

Miller: (1:15) We will make a proposal to the commission on some things we’d like to see. We should be getting the first half in about 30 to 60 days and have a year to spend it. The second half we’ll get a year from now and have until 2024 to spend it. “One of the first things we have to do is make the county whole again because we have some losses.” Shore up reserves because of losses suffered. Address tourism. Many of our museums, Arts Alliance, Douglass Theatre were forced to close and people weren’t traveling. We need to look at losses from hotel-motel tax and make them whole again, including the Cherry Blossom Festival.                                                                                                   Homelessness is another area we want to address and come up with a longterm solution. Certainly more people have been affected by COVID, lost homes, were evicted. One of the buckets (of funding) they have is for homelessness. Blight project takes a lot of money. We need to have more affordable housing here in Macon. Also infrastructure should be part of the guidelines. We’re working with the Macon Water Authority to use some of that money. There are restrictions there but we want to help the community as a whole get through the pandemic.

Pandemic restrictions in place

CCJ: Now that we’re getting vaccinations, what is the current local order concerning COVID-19 restrictions?

Miller: (3:40) We’re still above the level necessary to wear a mask. We’re still under the governor’s executive order which expires April 7. It allows us not to be complacent. Yes, we have the vaccine but more people need to get the shot and there are other strains out there. Still need to be smart but I’m excited about having the Cherry Blossom Festival. It’s outdoors and temperatures are being taken. We need to be smart about it and go back to some sense of normalcy. I do know the numbers are dropping and maybe by summer will be back about 75 percent normal.

Tackling blight countywide

CCJ: Any update on your blight project?

Miller: ( 4:47) We continue to move forward and are meeting with several partners, about 20. A few weeks ago, we started with residential structure fires. We had 57 homes and sent out letters. A couple of them wanted to do their own work. We only have 37 left. Twenty people responded. A couple of them took down their own house and saved us substantial money. Several wanted to transfer the property to the county – free and clear. A bunch contacted the code inspector and will rebuild. We haven’t spent any money yet except for the testing of asbestos and lead paint. We’re moving onto the next level of 158 homes this time. Working with our commission to determine which ones meet the nuisance requirements and we’ll roll out the process and put them on notice. And we’re steadily working on the other 600 that got dropped and fell through the cracks in the prior administration when code enforcement didn’t do the best job. We also have subsequent tax sales. We’re successful in getting houses into the hands of people who want to make investments. We took in $200,000 in the last sale. This is all going together with a policy we created. All funds from the subsequent tax sales, blight tax and code enforcement fees are going into one fund so that we can have a perpetual fund for projects. We’re working smarter toward blight. We’re notified on a daily basis of more properties and are putting them on the list. We continue to focus on the most needy areas.

CCJ: How are you tackling blight geographically? We had some concerns about Emery Highway, Jeffersonville and Millerfield roads.

Miller: (8:00) We started with the data. We have a lot of blight in east Macon and that’s on the blight list, not the residential fire list. We have them separate but are working on them together. With the 37 houses we have now, once we determine how much it’s going to cost for demolition, we can get an average price per house to tear it down. Then instead of Macon-Bibb County doing all the demolition, we can sub out some of the work. But Bloomfield, Unionville, Pleasant Hill and east Macon are focus points.

CCJ: How can people buy these abandoned houses and are there any existing programs?

Miller: (9:00) Contact the tax commissioner’s office. In particular, if we have homes that haven’t pay their taxes, and they post them, contact Wade McCord’s office. We have the Land Bank Authority that we’re going to be beefing up a lot. We have some inventory now in the land bank. If you can show you’re ready to invest or rebuild, for a nominal fee you can get that home. And with stimulus money we want to come up with a revolving loan fund. You can borrow at a low interest rate to remediate these homes. It allows homeowners to borrow for their improvements, too, so they won’t become blighted structures. We want to help people improve their homes. We’ll have a perpetual cycle to do this and spur investment in these neighborhoods. Also will work with developers so we can have more affordable housing to cover all of Macon-Bibb County.

Hiring help to keep streets clean

CCJ: In your Clean Streets Matter initiative, you are now looking into hiring folks through temp agencies to supplement the labor force. Can you tell us a little bit about that plan?

Miller: (10:30) One of the things I noticed when I started in this job is that we had several departments that were way understaffed. Parks & Beautification is down 13 people, Public Works is down 8, Solid Waste is down 8. It’s really hard to do a good job and serve our community when you’re about 30 people short. Plus we have seasonal work when the grass is growing. You can’t do that when you’re 30 people short. Can’t pick up trash along the side of the road when you’re 30 people short. By hiring a temp agency, you don’t have to hire folks 365 days a year. You have no worker’s comp insurance. We have four approved agencies we can pull from and use them as needed. We can help supplement the labor force and do a better job providing services and also be more efficient and save us money in the long run.

Georgia election reform

CCJ: Where do you come down on state election reform and is there any role for local government to advise or give input on that?

Miller: (12:25) Local government itself has no role in making decisions as far as that goes but I think we have an advisory role. Many of our commissioners are passionate on both sides. We can reach out but as a body it doesn’t really move the needle if you take a vote. You can make sure we have safe and secure elections and also to suppress people’s votes. In my own personal campaign, I asked people to mail in ballots and was encouraging them if they were scared to go and vote. I certainly wouldn’t be here today without that. The last thing I want to do is to keep people from voting but I do think we need to protect the integrity of the process. But I don’t want this to become a partisan issue. No matter what the resolution is going to be, I don’t think it will have an impact on what they do in Atlanta.

Honing in on homelessness

CCJ: What’s the update on Homeless Warming Center set to sunset on April 1?

Miller: (14:15) We have extended that to June 1 and worked out an agreement with the Bibb County School System. We met with our partners, Salvation Army and have raised some additional funds. It’s going to be time for the county to put money in. We’re very close to a longterm solution because we don’t want this to expire. We’ve seen about 300 people and keep about 150 to 155 on average. We’re making a lot of good changes in people’s lives. We have good wraparound services and several stages. We don’t want people to come here to abuse the process and just try to save some money to come here and take up a bed space. By Stage 4, they’ll have taken the steps they need to have a job and work and a place to live. That’s another effort – to provide affordable housing. If they’re on a waiting list for Section 8, we’ll help them jump through the hoops to get there. See if there’s jobs available. The temp agencies can hire some of those folks at the warming center. Making $12 an hour to allow them to get enough money to qualify for housing. That’s the ultimate goal. Not just to put a bandaid on something to keep someone out of the elements for a couple months, but really try to help them maintain the lifestyle they need to have.

Being the ‘talk of the town’

CCJ: I know you have other proposals in your quiver. Anything you’re ready to share?

Miller: (16:30) April 10, we want everyone to shut down the whole community for a massive cleanup.We believe that’s going to be a huge event.                                              For the first time ever, we got the OLOST (Other Local Options Sales Tax) passed in the (Georgia) House on a 162-0 vote. Now it’s in the Senate Finance Committee. We’re working diligently behind the scenes to get one small change to that and get it passed and hopefully have a referendum this year. Those are encouraging things. We’ll have several announcements probably in the next couple of months in economic development. As you know, those things are kept private because we don’t want to discourage it. Businesses are starting to take notice of Macon-Bibb County. Many new businesses coming through the state have called us and said, “Look, y’all are really becoming a hotbed right now. People are really taking notice of how your community is coming together.” They’re starting to take notice that we’re business friendly and coming together on blight and crime and taking care of some of those liquor stores and moratoriums that we’ve talked about. I’m hearing this from the governor’s office, to the economic development in the state, to other mayors from all over the state who are calling me asking how we did this, how we did that. It’s nice to be the talk of the town a little bit. We’re very excited about the initiatives we have going on and we’re very excited about some that might be coming in the near future.

Send your “Ask Mayor Miller” questions to [email protected]