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Chad Warbington's agenda includes crime, business, negative perceptions of Albany

ALBANY — Sitting down with newly elected Albany Commission member Chad Warbington at his Albany business Shutters Plus Inc. almost feels like having a seat at a kitchen table.

That’s because the showroom at the office of the incoming Ward IV commissioner contains a table and chairs.

Although there was no coffee at the table when he sat down with a Herald reporter, Warbington, who takes office in January, was hyper as he discussed his excitement at winning Tuesday’s municipal election by 20 votes over incumbent Roger Marietta and at the job ahead.

On Friday, Warbington said he started realizing that he will be stepping into the role and said he has started focusing on some of the issues that the city faces, including crime, housing shortage and the sense that Albany is in decline.

“It definitely has set in,” he said. “My eyes and ears are open. People are already sharing ideas with me. I’m excited to start getting involved.”

Warbington said he has great respect for Albany Police Chief Michael Persley and the men and women who serve in the department and would like to meet with them to learn about the issues driving crime and a shortage of officers.

“The first thing I want to do (is) understand the crime and just the police situation,” he said. “That’s really what you hear about throughout the community. I think I have some ideas. I want to talk to the professionals and know what I can do to help.”

As part of the learning process, Warbington said he wants to do some ride-alongs with officers on the streets as well as talk to the police leadership.

While Lee County has been the site for recent residential growth in the area, Warbington said that Albany has selling points and locations that housing developers could find attractive for building single-family homes.

“We are set up with infrastructure,” he said. “Whether it’s sewer, water, gas — even telecom. That’s what developers like to hear. That’s something Albany needs, (to) advertise, play to our strength. There are opportunities to develop within the city limits.”

Similarly, Albany business, at least in certain sectors, has been in decline. Warbington gave as an example the closed stores and restaurants on South Slappey Boulevard, many of which have long been vacant.

“I just want to know what’s going on,” he said. “Why are so many businesses closed and why aren’t they being backfilled? I want to know what it would take for (developers) to invest in Albany. I want to talk to business owners, and I want to talk to investors.’

Another complaint commonly heard in Albany involves the cost of utility services, and that is another issue about which Warbington wants to learn more. Specifically, that involves learning whether the complaint is valid or the city just needs to do a better job communicating its side of the story.

“I’m a numbers guy,” he said. “I’m a businessman. I would like to see the numbers and really see what people feel. Also, as leadership, we’ve got to listen to people. As leadership, you’ve got to deal with that. We’ve got to renew their trust and renew their faith.”

Despite the serious issues facing the city, which has been losing population over the past several years, the situation is not all doom and gloom, according to Warbington.

“There are some good things going on in Albany,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to sell Albany for jobs, for real estate development. We’ve got to sell Albany as a place for people to move or to stay.”

Albany aims to ramp up demolition of dilapidated buildings

ALBANY — With the hiring of a little outside help, the city of Albany has halved the time it takes to move cases involving blighted properties to court, but the goal remains the same: to take a bite out of the 100 such properties that have been identified.

A few months ago, the city was considering hiring a part-time employee for the city attorney’s office to work on doing the title searches necessary in order to notify property owners, as required by law.

The work is time-consuming, and the city was not moving the cases along fast enough to make a dent in the backlog of dilapidated buildings that need to come down.

Instead of hiring a new employee, however, City Attorney Nathan Davis asked for permission to enlist two private companies to perform the title searches and the Albany City Commission agreed to the request.

In October, Davis said, his office was able to move 20 cases forward, where previously that number had been 10 or so. The commission authorized $20,000, and two companies have been enlisted to provide the service.

“Our goal now is 20 new cases each month,” he said. “I would say we have at least 100 open files and more coming in every day that need to be processed. We have a backlog of at least 100. We’re really trying to chip away at that backlog.”

Once code enforcement officers identity a home that has structural deficiencies or is unsafe for habitation for other reasons, they pass it along to Davis’ office. Once the title search work is completed, the city attorney’s office prepares the file for presentation in Albany Municipal Court.

In about half of the cases, the owner has not paid taxes on the property, sometimes dating back 15 or 20 years, Davis said.

“Code enforcement will do the initial observations and inspection and, using the tax records, make contact with the owner and see if the owner if willing to do the needed rehabs,” the city attorney said.

When permission is granted to demolish the structure, the city hires a private contractor to do the work and the material is hauled to a landfill for disposal.

Tearing down the structure and acquiring title of the property provides an opportunity for the city to sell it to someone to build on the site.

One major victory was the demolition of a hotel on West Oglethorpe that was an eyesore and attracted a criminal element to the site near downtown Albany.

An area on the 1700 block of Broad Avenue was cleared of a fire-damaged house and several burned-out and abandoned mobile homes in September. Those structures had been eyesores for years and were in a well-traveled street in the city.

While the majority of dilapidated structures are concentrated in certain parts of the city, they can be found all over, Davis said. Wherever a building is located, its removal has an impact citywide.

“No matter where it hits the ground, it’s a benefit to the whole community,” he said. “A lot of times the evidence in Municipal Court will show old food containers or a mattress on the floor” in the abandoned houses.

“It’s a real good service to the public that the city performs when these structures have deteriorated so much they really are a threat to public safety.”

APD: Witnesses watched as Albany man committed murder

ALBANY — Residents in the city of Albany rested a little easier this weekend after Albany police announced Friday that a 37-year-old homeless man had been charged with the felony murder of a woman who was killed at the {strong id=”yui_3_10_0_1_1573255901360_102”}{/strong}Albany Transportation Center on Monday night.

The Albany Police Department said in a news release that Xavier Alexander Keeley was charged with felony murder in the case that has shocked the community. Keeley was already in the Dougherty County Jail on charges of disorderly conduct and having an open container of alcohol when investigators identified him and charged him with murder in the death of Teresa Lynn Cole.

Keeley is a homeless man who was living in a vacant building on Jefferson Street.

Albany Police Chief Michael Persley will hold a news conference Monday at 11 a.m. to discuss the particulars of the case. He said Friday night that while police are still sifting through physical evidence gathered, “We strongly, strongly believe we have the man who committed this crime.”

Grisly video footage taken from a nearby convenience store, which shows a man police believe is Keeley dragging his victim across the Transportation Center parking area before depositing her body behind some shrubbery, was instrumental in the arrest of Keeley, Persley said.

“I’ll just say it’s a good thing there was video surveillance available,” the APD chief said. “Without that surveillance footage, I don’t think we’d have been able to make the arrest so quick.”

Persley said he has a list of witnesses who saw Keeley as he, reportedly, raped and killed Cole at around 8:30 p.m. Monday. A coroner’s report said Cole was asphyxiated and suffered blunt force trauma. The chief said none of the witnesses intervened in the case.

“I don’t know that there is any (Georgia) law that allows us to bring criminal charges against such witnesses, but there could be civil liabilities,” he said. “That’s a question that the district attorney will have to answer.

“Some of the people who saw this happening, we believe, could have done something to stop it. We always tell our citizens, ‘If you see something, report it.’ But when you see a fellow human being in desperate need, as this woman was, I would hope that people could find it in their heart to do something. Short of putting yourself in physical danger, I would think citizens would want to so something to help another person.”

Ward III Albany City Commissioner B.J. Fletcher, who said she has received numerous calls since the attack, said Friday night she’d heard that witnesses of the crime included a person who is a law enforcement officer and another who taped the murder on their cellphone.

“I think bystanders have a moral responsibility to intervene when they witness this kind of violent crime,” Fletcher said. “The trust and personal liability any community needs depends on our ability to interact without the fear of violence. I think we are all ethically bound to keep the peace.

“I would hope that if it’s true one of the witnesses was a person who wears a uniform and that person did nothing that there would be some kind of discipline. Anyone who wears the uniform of law enforcement should be held to a higher standard.”

Monday’s news conference will be held at the Law Enforcement Center.

Roger Marietta: I'm optimistic about Chad (Warbington)

ALBANY — Roger Marietta exuded a sense of calm Friday as he walked around his neighborhood with his wife. He talked with a reporter — stopping every few minutes to exchange greetings with friends and neighbors who are accustomed to seeing the Mariettas in that setting — reflecting on his just short of 12 years of service as an Albany City Commissioner. And there was no sense of what might have been.

“Those 12 years went by so quickly,” Marietta, who lost a close re-election bid for his Ward IV commission seat Tuesday by a scant 20 votes, said. “Sure, I wanted to win that election, but if you pause for a minute and look at it, 12 years is enough. I’m proud of my service to this community, but I can step back now and let someone else represent this ward.

“I’m optimistic about Chad (Warbington, who defeated Marietta). I think he’ll respond to the people in the ward; I think he wants to help solve their problems. I think he’ll be OK.”

As he reflected on his 12 years as a city commissioner, Marietta said he generally saw plenty to be proud of during his tenure. He noted the formation of a Gang Task Force within the Albany Police Department, the use of one-third of credits returned to the city by the Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia to create a Job Enhancement Fund that has helped the city attract new business and add jobs, and the installation of new LED street lights throughout the city as some of his top-of-the-head matters he feels will continue to benefit the city.

“There were people who wanted me to run for mayor over the years, and it certainly was a privilege for me to serve one term as the mayor of (north Georgia’s) Fayetteville,” Marietta said. “But I was honored to serve here under mayors Willie Adams and Dorothy Hubbard. I feel like they had a vision for the city; they did a lot of stuff behind the scenes that people don’t know about.

“I’m proud to have been a part of bringing positive changes to our community.”

Marietta says citizens in the region have short-term memory issues when it comes to the city working through the Great Recession that hit nationally around 2008 and filtered its way down to smaller cities like Albany over the next couple of years.

“Revenue dropped, and we had to compensate,” the outgoing commissioner said. “We were fortunate that the MEAG credits started coming in about that time. People tend to nitpick now, but I think we used that money wisely. I think the one-third/one-third/one-third compromise for the city, Utilities Authority and Job Enhancement Fund was a good decision that’s benefited the city.”

Marietta said he hasn’t taken a lot of time to reflect on the close loss to Warbington, which was confirmed by the county Board of Elections on Friday. But he said there are plenty of memories he’ll take with him as he leaves his seat in the city government behind.

“You don’t ask the tough questions like the Boy Scouts do,” the college professor laughed. “Now those kids, they ask the tough questions. They want to know what’s hardest about being a commissioner. I told them those stories I told you (recently) — about chickens and dogs and deer, about responding to constituents and other citizens’ sometimes unusual requests.

“I’ll have to adjust, but I’m going to be fine. I’m ready to spend some time hunting with my grandkids.”