Planning for construction of a multimodal transportation hub is well into its second decade, but Albany officials are now leaning toward locating the site at the 300 W. Oglethorpe Ave. bus terminal. (Herald file photo)
ALBANY — Asked about the issues that will keep the Albany City Commission busy during 2014, Mayor Dorothy Hubbard offers a weary reply that is as much knee-jerk reaction as it is truthful.
“You mean other than Cutliff Grove and pit bulls?” she says.
And while those two concerns — the repayment of a $1.5 million development loan by the Cutliff Grove Family Resource Center and a breed-specific ordinance to regulate ownership of dangerous pit bulldogs — will no doubt remain on the commission’s radar throughout the coming year, there are other prominent issues that will occupy that body’s time.
To wit: The city is knee-deep into the second decade of a plan to build a multimodal transit center that has been bleeding potential state and federal funding with each passing year; city workers are clamoring for a cost-of-living adjustment, one of the side effects being the loss of some key employees; infrastructure continues to age even as the city prepares to implement a stormwater collection fee designed to pay for needed improvements; and a potential storm is brewing around the city’s Water, Gas & Light Commission over management of the utility.
Welcome, first-year commissioners Bobby Coleman and B.J. Fletcher, to the reality of local government.
“I know these issues are out there,” Coleman, who defeated incumbent Ivey Hines to claim the commission’s Ward II seat, said. “I’m going to listen to the conversation, learn as much as possible, but I’m also going to be talking to my constituents to gauge their feelings. I said during my campaign that I planned to engage the people of Ward II in this process, and I intend to do that.”
Coleman made his concerns known during a recent discussion of the city’s proposed pit bull ordinance when he said, “We should be looking for solutions rather than saying the same things over and over.”
Hubbard said conducting some kind of salary study has moved up her priority list as she’s watched skilled employees such as WG&L linemen and Albany Police Department officers leave for higher-paying jobs.
“We spend all this money to train them, and they go where they’re offered more money,” the mayor said. “I know finding money to increase our employees’ salaries is going to be a hard issue to tackle, but it scares me to think about not tackling it. We can’t keep losing some very good employees to the competition that’s out there.”
Hubbard also admits that she’s worried about the city’s insurance program. The absence of major catastrophic illnesses among employees has been a boon for the self-employed city, but the mayor says that could change quickly.
“We’ve developed this employee clinic that’s supposed to help give us healthier employees, and prevention is definitely a key issue,” she said. “But my question is are we doing enough to prevent some of these catastrophic claims? It would only take a few to really put our insurance program in trouble.”
The Water, Gas & Light issue is a concern that could ultimately divide the commission. Hubbard serves as de facto chair of WG&L’s board, and veteran commissioner’s Bob Langstaff and Tommie Postell have long pushed for more city control of the utility. They accomplished that goal last year when the commission approved an ordinance that definitively made WG&L a city department under the oversight of the city manager.
But Fletcher, who won a landslide victory in Ward III, says she’s not sure that complete city control is the best way to manage the utility.
“If we’re going to make all the decisions on the commission, why even have a Water, Gas & Light board?” she asked. “I do believe WG&L had gotten maybe a little too independent, but I don’t think we have the expertise needed to manage a utility. And it’s going to be tough to find a city manager who has the technical knowledge needed to do his job and manage WG&L.”
Tom Berry, who has served for the past several months as interim director of the utility but is pushing to leave that position by March, said the commission may need to back off a bit in its control of WG&L.
“The city got (WG&L’s) attention by hitting them over the head with a 2-by-4,” Berry said. “They probably needed to do that. But now I think the city needs to work more toward putting a plan in place for the utility to start managing the day-to-day operations.”
The commission voted to move forward with an environmental assessment of the 300 W. Oglethorpe Blvd. multimodal site that the board selected as the preferred site after citizens overwhelmingly favored that location at community forums. But Assistant City Manager Wes Smith pointed out at a commission meeting in January that funding for the project does not include money to purchase the property. And while Smith said the city has no exact estimate on the cost of the property, he did allow that he’d “heard talk” that around $1 million is owed.
Hubbard said that her primary concern is the desires of the citizens who regularly use public transportation, which would originate at the new multimodal site.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to satisfy everyone in the community, but the reason I voted to approve (the preferred site) is that I believe we should put it where the people want it,” the mayor said. “The support for that site was overwhelming throughout the community.”
Fletcher, for one, says she’s concerned about the possible purchase price of the land.
“I believe that the will of the people is the primary factor, and the citizens have said they want the multimodal site where the bus station is located,” the Ward III commissioner said. “But if the cost of the land is too high — if the owners of the property don’t work with us to get a fair price — I’ll be the first person to say we need to look at the next option.”
The second-most anticipated site for the transportation hub is two blocks west of the preferred site at the location of the former Heritage House hotel. That property is owned by the city.