MACON — City officials believe a key to revitalizing downtown Brunswick is more housing.
A trip to Macon by group of Golden Isles business leaders on Thursday helped to confirm the belief. They met with members from the Community Foundation of Central Georgia to learn more about Macon’s dramatic turnaround.
“In the past five years, more has happened downtown than in the past 50 years,” said Robbo Hatcher, moderator for the daylong conference.
Josh Rogers, president of NewTown Macon, said city officials offered incentives to lure new businesses downtown with no success. So, they began focusing on housing downtown, creating lofts on the upper stories of buildings with businesses on the ground floor and renovating vacant storefronts into apartments.
A little more than two decades ago, Rogers said downtown Macon had one restaurant, few residents and no parks or walking trails, giving people few reasons to come downtown.
“We have come a long, long way really fast,” Rogers said. “The business leaders were aggressive and willing to take risks. We have had to be tremendously creative.”
Macon officials conducted a marketing study and learned property owners had problems getting financing if they wanted to create lofts in some of their commercial buildings, so Bibb County created a program to loan money to create more living space downtown. Rogers said no one has ever defaulted on the loans.
“This has been a good tool that didn’t cost anyone,” he said. “It’s made ups much more efficient and effective without giving away the farm.”
Downtown Macon now has more than 600 rental lofts, with a growing number planned as demand continues to increase. Rogers said property values have increased an average of 10 percent a year in the city, adding to the tax base.
And with the residents have come many new businesses to meet the needs of their needs.
“The future looks brighter and brighter,” Rogers said.
Bryan Nichols, a Macon businessman who has built lofts and affordable housing downtown, said he heard a lot of skepticism when he built his first loft apartments 10 years ago.
Paul White, president and CEO of Coastal Georgia Foundation, said the trip to Macon was “incredibly important” and the trip was both informative and provocative.
“Downtown Macon used to be dark and dangerous,” White said. “Now, downtown Macon is clean, bustling. This is a great opportunity.”
How hot is it in South Georgia?
A disagreement last Saturday afternoon between an apartment complex’s official pool monitor and a man who lived there led to heated words, scalding threats and a drawn pistol, according to a Glynn County Police report. It was the Camelia Apartment’s pool monitor who was allegedly packing heat, punctuating the armed stance by vowing, “I’m going to air you out!” police said.
And that invective was not considered an offer to provide relief from Saturday’s blistering 98 degree temperatures, police said.
Fortunately, a cooler head prevailed. Off duty Brunswick Police Capt. Angela Smith witnessed the showdown and stepped in to disarm the pool monitor of the 9 mm handgun, the county police report said.
County police arrested Kim Allah Smith Jr., 42, and charged him with making terroristic threats and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Smith remained Thursday in the Glynn County Detention Center without bond, according to jail records. Smith and Brunswick’s Capt. Smith are not related.
The manager of the Camelia Apartments at 5800 Altama Ave. confirmed Thursday that Kim Smith and his wife were the resident pool monitors for the complex. “They were pool monitors,” Ina Chumley said, emphasizing the past tense. “We never condone any kind of hostile actions like this.”
It started during the heat of the day Saturday when the man and his daughter went to the apartment’s pool to cool off, the police report said. Some of the daughter’s friends joined them. Smith allegedly took issue with their presence, saying the party’s total exceeded the number of guests an apartment resident is permitted to invite to the pool, the report said.
The man told police that Smith began “cursing in front of (his) kids,” the report said. The man, his daughter and their guests left. But the man thought better of it later and wanted to discuss what happened with Smith, the report said. He asked a woman at the pool if she had seen the pool monitor. The woman was Smith’s wife, although the man did not know it at the time.
He returned to his apartment unit, having failed to find Smith. Later, the police report alleges, Smith confronted the man outside of his unit. The man told police that Smith “pulled a gun out, pulled the slide back, and pointed it” at him, the report said. That is when “Captain Smith came outside and seized the gun from” Kim Smith, the report said. Capt. Smith then called county police at 7:40 p.m. and “asked for officers to respond quickly,” the report said.
Police said Kim Smith admitted pulling the gun out of its holster and holding it in his right hand during the heated exchange, but denied pointing it at the man or threatening him. Capt. Smith told police she heard Smith say he was “going to air him out,” the report said.
Police seized the Taurus PT 809 9 mm pistol. Before taking him to jail, a criminal background check revealed Smith had been convicted of felony armed robbery in New York in 1995, the report said.
A long-time member of the Brunswick Police Department, Capt. Smith was just glad she could help simmer things down.
“I just wanted to intervene and make sure no one was hurt,” she told The News on Thursday.
Gov. Brian Kemp took to the podium at the Morgan Center on Jekyll Island and received ovations from members of the Georgia Press Association not once, but at least three different occasions, before ending his remarks and quickly departing for another scheduled appearance on the evening, at a Coastal Georgia Council Boy Scouts event on Sea Island.
The governor recounted the efforts of the state first lady, Marty Kemp, on combating human trafficking, and discussed some of the policy goals he and legislative leaders worked to address in the last session and will look at again next year.
The first applause break was for education spending, especially teacher pay raises.
“We’ve again, for the second year in a row, fully funded the public school education formula, which is just huge — it’s over $10 billion for our local school systems,” Kemp said. “We’ve given Georgia educators the largest teacher pay raise in the history of the state government. I know that is a huge issue in the areas that you are covering in your local media, because it doesn’t matter where you are — people are having teacher retention problems.”
The governor’s focus on addressing gang crime also brought acclimation from the media audience, as did when Kemp discussed the state’s hometown publications themselves.
“Hardworking Georgians make a huge difference in their local communities,” Kemp said. “Our teachers, our coaches, business owners, volunteers, public servants, those who give charitably in their local community — they’re all working for one thing, and that’s for a better tomorrow, for a better state tomorrow than it is today.
“Quite honestly, in our current political environment, a lot of these people are forgotten in today’s world. These local folks, they aren’t trending on Twitter, and you certainly won’t see their names on Fox News or CNN. But thanks to you all at the local papers and in local media, their voice is being heard. It gives me great hope for our state.”
Kemp said he still pays for three local papers every week, and while he admits that by the time he gets the editions they’re a few days old, he assured those in attendance that he does read them, regardless.
Earlier in the day, two candidates for state Supreme Court — former U.S. Rep. John Barrow and current state Court of Appeals Judge Sara Doyle, spoke to the assembled representatives of the state press. But to hear renowned media law attorney David Hudson describe it, maybe Barrow and Doyle could be best off not campaigning at all.
“For the first time in 40 years, there’s a vacancy on the Georgia Supreme Court that’s going to be filled by a contested election,” Hudson said in his introduction. “I must tell you, that the last time that happened, in 1982, there were five or six very prominent Georgians who qualified and ran in the election.”
He said one of the people who qualified for the ballot was a virtually unknown superior court judge from Decatur, Richard Bell, who chose not to campaign.
“And when the first round of voting took place, he was in the runoff,” Hudson said. “So, you’d think since he was in the runoff, he’d campaign. No — he and his wife took a vacation out of the country.”
But Bell won that election, partially, Hudson said, thanks to being alphabetically first on the ballot, and partially because of name recognition, in that there were a fair number of well-known Bells in Georgia public life.
Barrow said he would bring to the bench a lifetime of experience in how the law applies to the lives of different people. Doyle said she would bring a legal mind disposed to taking the proper time and deliberate action in making sure the law was and is decided correctly.
The judicial election, which is nonpartisan, takes place next year concurrent with the state party primaries.
The Glynn County Fire Department may have some difficulty paying the bills in the coming years.
The department is expected to go into the next fiscal year with a $616,000 deficit, according to interim Chief Financial Officer Tamara Munson.
Overall, the department’s expenses dropped, she explained to the Glynn County Commission during a special called meeting on Thursday. The commission gathered specifically to discuss a proposed budget for the fiscal year 2019-2020.
The problem arose because the department’s revenue dropped as well, in large part due to the county diverting the insurance premium tax that once went to the fire fund. It’s now going to the Glynn County Police Department’s new fund to cover for a drop in overall tax revenue.
“There are four reasons why we had to fund with (reserves) this year, and we did not in the past. The first reason is the insurance premium tax,” Munson said. “... The second reason was there was $175,000 worth of (promotions) for the fire department this year, so that caused an increase in personnel costs ... in addition to the (cost of living adjustment). The SAFER grant, also, will cause a $70,000 increase this year.”
The department could close most of the $616,000 gap by paying off two fire trucks. Annual debt payments come out to around $600,000, but paying them off would cost around $4 million in total. The money could either come from the $4 million in the fire department’s reserves or out of the county’s $19 million in undesignated funds, Munson explained.
Once the county decides how to tackle that, it will have to figure out what to do with 15 firefighters hired using SAFER grant money.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded the SAFER grant — Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response — to Glynn County in 2017. It covered roughly a third of the salaries and training for 15 firefighters over three years.
In the third year of the grant, fiscal year 2020-2021, it will cover around 65 percent and end in March 2021, when the county would have to pay the full $60,000 a month in salaries.
“If those positions are not eliminated at the end of March, the cost to the county would go up significantly because we would bear 100 percent of the cost of those 15 firefighters,” Munson said.
Retaining all 15 firefighters would cost around $1 million a year, she said.
Munson and commissioner Peter Murphy said they recalled the grant being more of a recruitment tool than anything.
“There might have been the anticipation of a significant enough attrition during that period of time that these 15 positions would just fill attrition, and we’d just stay firefighter neutral,” Murphy said.
It wasn’t quite how Glynn County Fire Chief R.K. Jordan remembered it, however.
“My intent was always to add 15 personnel for safety (purposes). Actually, the year before, I requested 30 from the SAFER grant,” Jordan said. “The department is understaffed as it is.”
For an area our size, Jordan said fire departments typically assign three firefighters to an engine, while it’s not uncommon to only put two to an engine in Glynn.
“The loss of 15 people would hurt. However, I did make the statement during the grant (that) there is no requirement to retain those 15 positions, so that may be where this is coming from,” Jordan said. “I would, of course prefer to keep them.”
He couldn’t say whether or not losing the personnel will affect the county’s fire insurance rating but said he was sure it would impact public safety.
“We also have to remember that, in the same time period, our overtime has been drastically reduced,” Jordan said.
The county would not only lose firefighters but EMS personnel as well, he continued, increasing overtime costs on that end as well.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Jordan said.
Murphy revived an old discussion about imposing the fire tax on commission chairman Mike Browning’s district.
Glynn County is composed of six tax districts, designated in county documents as District 1, the city of Brunswick; District 2, outlying areas of the county; District 3, the Ballard area and Blythe Island; District 4, St. Simons Island; District 5, Sea Island; and District 6, Jekyll Island. They are different from the districts used for commission and school board representation.
Browning’s district — commission District 1, tax District 2 — doesn’t pay the fire tax. As in the previous discussion, he mounted strong opposition to the idea.
“Well, if your house is assailable within five minutes of the call and they got there, you might have had real fire protection there,” Browning said. “But if you’re 15, 20 minutes, it’s gone. You really don’t have fire protection.”
Commissioner Bob Coleman, an insurance agent, backed him up. He added that residents in the outlying areas of the county pay “through the nose” for insurance.
Jordan, however, felt the district was getting enough of a benefit to warrant it.
“How many of these fires in those districts would have burnt the house down if we hadn’t stopped the grass fire, had we not stopped the fire in the neighbor’s home, had we not stopped the car fire in the garage or carport,” Jordan said. “These people do receive fire service, they do receive fire protection.”
When rating an area for insurance purposes, class 10 means the area effectively receives no fire service, Jordan explained. The worst areas in Glynn County is class 9, he said.
“They are in an area where our response time is extended,” Jordan said. “The response time on average in Tax District 2 is about twice as long as it is to the areas that we serve. They do receive a benefit from the fire department.”
Even if the county did impose a fire tax on that district, it would only bring in around $78,000 a year, Munson said.
“That would not even come close to balancing the fire fund budget,” she said.
Commissioner Allen Booker asked if maybe the commission should look at building a fire station in the area.
“You can’t build a fire station with $78,000,” said commissioner Bill Brunson.
Browning suggested looking at the fees the county charges for fire and EMS services to see if they need to be increased or restructured.
“It sounds like one thing we’ve got to do is look and make sure the fees are where they need to be,” Browning said.
Ultimately, Browning asked County Manager Alan Ours to work with other county staff members to come up with a game plan for dealing with both the $600,000 deficit and the SAFER grant employees.
The commission discussed other changes to the proposed budget, including two new positions for the tax commissioners’ office — one full- and one part-time — $150,000 for new pickleball courts, a $12,280 increase in court bailiff fees and roughly $355,000 in promotions including the fire department promotions.
Browning asked Ours to put the budget on the commission’s June 6 meeting agenda for approval.