Last week we sat down with Augusta Richmond Counties new District 1 Commissioner Jordan Johnson. Below is a transcript of the interview. Topics included the Laney Walker/Bethlehem area, blight, the strip clubs on lower Broad Street, homelessness, and stormwater issues.
THE LANEY WALKER/BETHLEHEM AREA AND GROWTH
EDGE: What is your opinion of the growth that downtown has experienced related to both low-income and market rate housing.
JOHNSON: What we don’t ever want to say is that we don’t want new development. We want to make sure the neighborhoods are revitalized, but we don’t want to see it done in a way to where it pushes people out or its priced where everyday folks can’t afford to move in.
I think the life of downtown is super important, and to have a place where people can walk to work or cycle to work or to a coffee shop is very important. That is the future of downtown, along with the things that come with that such as entertainment.
I am very concerned about growing downtown and displacing people in the process. There is so much we can do to stop that (displacement).
We need to build neighborhoods where the developer can make money but not price people out, but make it available to people who want to live in the area. I think it’s possible, and I think it can be done with very little commission involvement.
EDGE: What is the plan for blight in District 1, and do you support a blight tax.
JOHNSON: The problem is the city doesn’t have much teeth where dealing with that is concerned. State legislation controls the teeth pretty much. We have never had a comprehensive blight ordinance in the city.
EDGE: Can a blight tax or ordinance be mandated locally, or does that have to be done on by the state legislature?
JOHNSON: Locally, I think the first step is to have an ordinance that determines how to address blight. From a punishment standpoint or an incentive standpoint is another thing. If you own a home and it’s blighted, we need to ask what can we offer you to help you get your home back in a condition that people can live in it.
EDGE: What about properties that are not owner occupied and maybe owner by out of town investors?
JOHNSON: We would have to look at it and see what other cities have done. Macon-Bibb County has a pretty good program that they have used that involves revolving loans that’s collected off of back taxes and things of that nature.
It goes back to identifying pieces that need to go into an ordinance that you can actually enforce because I can’t enforce XYZ when you’re looking at the rights of someone who owns that home. I can’t just come in and eminent domain everybody’s property in Augusta. That’s just not how it works.
EDGE: If the property is and abandoned nuisance property and presents life-safety issues Code Enforcement enforce the international property code. They can go in and cite the property and lien it. Afterwards, though, they have no teeth because the city doesn’t have the money to go and tear the structures after they put a lien or foreclose on it.
JOHNSON: Taxes are the teeth.
EDGE: What if the homeowner pays the property taxes.
JOHNSON: That’s where we need a stricter code enforcement law. I think the first thing is to create some type of ordinance that’s comprehensive, planned off of other cities that have been successful, bringing people like yourself on the real estate side to the table to talk about it.
EDGE: Homelessness is a big problem in District 1. Do you see any solution for it?
JOHNSON: We had a gentlemen die last Saturday behind Gap ministries. They found him dead of hypothermia. He was a veteran. United States Army. A great man. I learned a lot about him talking to his family. There is no excuse in that.
We then talked off the record on the issue and agreed to follow up next week after Commissioner Johnson finished some meetings he had scheduled related to this topic. More to come on that next week.
EDGE: How do you feel about the strip clubs?
JOHNSON: I have no opinion on that right now, I don’t know much about that. I don’t even have an opinion on it. Now from a larger perspective I would love to see the lower end of Broad developed into something more than it is right now. Strip clubs specifically I don’t have an opinion on, though, right now. Not yet. I am sure I will.
EDGE: People are paying storm water fees but complaining that they are not seeing work done. Stormwater is a big problem in District 1. For example: every time it rains, it seems Greene Street and its sidewalks flood. Do you know if there is any comprehensive plan to address any of that?
JOHNSON: I am meeting with the engineering department to talk about some storm water projects we can get in motion for downtown. A lot of the projects completed included clearing a lot of ditches and fixing a lot of potholes. Most of the drainage improvement projects have been happening in south Augusta simply because there is very little infrastructure in the whole county, so investing in that infrastructure out there was first. I think that from a larger standpoint this area just hasn’t had any attention paid to it as far as the money that came in for the program and its allocation.
EDGE: Who determines how the storm water fee income is allocated?
JOHNSON: You just have to have a commissioner that jumps on top of it. It’s not allocated to a specific district. It just takes me going and saying, “Hey, Broad Street floods.” I went to Augusta Candle Co. the day before Christmas. I went to buy a gift basket for my friend. I had to walk from Augusta Candle Co. all the way down to 1102 Broad because the sidewalks were flooded. I live in east Augusta. Say no more. The idea that money is allocated to a specific area by mandate, that is just not the case. You have got to go knock on somebody’s door and follow the money and say this is what I want. The commission and engineering services has to vote on it.
EDGE: Everybody in the county is paying a storm water fee. Properties in south Augusta that are paying storm water fees and have no infrastructure, is that really fair that their storm water fees get spent outside of their district?
JOHNSON: I think that with the review coming up, we should definitely talk about allocation for districts. It goes back to the blight situation. If there is more blight in District 1 and we have allocated ten million dollars, which we haven’t, for blight, then that shouldn’t be splitting that evenly between ten districts. I’m thinking there needs to be some kind of tweak to how that money is allocated. That way you don’t have to fight out of one general pool to get XYZ done.
EDGE: Wouldn’t that require that some districts pay more in storm water than others since some districts have more infrastructure and less needs while others have no infrastructure.
JOHNSON: Possibly, but I don’t think it will have to be that.