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City denies LHA request

On Tuesday, the LaGrange City Council voted 4-2 against a request from the LaGrange Housing Authority for a commitment of $1.5 million for a Choice Neighborhood Implementation Grant.

Council members Willie Edmondson and LeGree McCamey voted in favor. Council members Nathan Gaskin, Jim Arrington, Tom Gore and Mark Mitchell voted against. Choice Neighborhood grants typically leverage public and private dollars to assist struggling neighborhoods by enacting community improvements. 

“The grant is a Choice Neighborhood Grant, and the grant is for us to use on housing, and it can also be used in collaboration with the city on community planning in any stressed areas in the community,” said Debra Black, the director of finance and administration for the LaGrange Housing Authority. “We are targeting district two to improve the housing, bring in businesses and assist. The grant will also allow you to assist owners to rehab their storefronts or landlords to rehab their porches. It is called porch appeal. It is not just for public housing.”

During the LaGrange City Council’s morning work session, the requirements of the grant were outlined, but the actual plans for the funds were not discussed. Several council members said that they did not like being asked to decide on whether to allocate $1.5 million of city funds at 11 a.m. with a vote required at the 5:30 p.m. meeting in order to meet the deadline.

“I don’t think it is fair for the citizens to have to have elected officials decide on this being notified — Mr. Edmondson had less notification than we did — but five and a half hours notification is not enough time to decide the fate of $1.5 million of the citizens’ money,” Gaskin said. “We need more information. We need more buy in from the housing authority.”

Mitchell said the request raised concerns for him because of its impact on the city budget following the utility rate increase earlier this year.

“I want everyone to remember that we just had to go up on the utility rates, to generate another $1.5 million in city funds because we had no choice,” Mitchell said. “Now, we are fixing to think about handing away $1.5 million. I don’t see it. This is not even in the budget. [City Manager Meg Kelsey] is saying that we would have to take it out of reserves.”

The LaGrange City Council opted not to fund many local agencies following the utility rate increase, and council members said at the time that they could not justify outside expenses to citizens following the increase. 

Kelsey said during the work session that taking the funds out of the reserve would deplete the fund entirely. The city’s reserve fund is typically used to cover unexpected city expenses.

“Financially — and I’m always thinking from a financial perspective — this is going to hit your fund balance,” Kelsey said. “This isn’t something that we budgeted for, so that is one thing that concerns me from that standpoint. I would also want to have more detail specific plans about spending that kind of money.”

Despite the vote, council members still expressed a desire to work with the housing authority in the future, when clearer plans on how the money will be spent is available and there is more time to review those plans.

“We want to be supportive, but it is a short time notice on this,” Gore said. “It is a little bit vague as to what the money will actually go for. We want to support the housing authority, and we want to work with you. We want to keep discussing. Those of us who vote against it, it is not that we don’t want things to happen there. We want all of LaGrange to be better, and we want to help housing in any way that we can, but for myself, it is short notice and a little vague on what the money will actually go to, and I would be more likely to support it if I had more time and more information.”

Finally, it was noted in the meeting that even without a contribution from the LaGrange City Council, the LaGrange Housing Authority will still move forward with the grant application process.

“The housing authority is planning to apply to [Housing and Urban Development] for a $4.5 million grant, but $1.5 million of that, would be, if approved, would be funded locally and $3 million would come from HUD,” LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton said. “The council’s contribution enhances the number of points when they score the grant. If the council does $1.5 million it is a two-point score. If the council only does $500,000, it is a one-point score. The council does not have to do anything in the way of contribution, and the housing authority will still apply for the grant. However, it would not receive the points that potentially they would receive from a local contribution.”

The commitment would have been during a 4-year period, but Mitchell and Gaskin both raised concern over a statement in the request that asked for funding even if the Choice Neighborhood grant is not approved. Black said that section was a request not a requirement under the agreement.

The city council previously approved $300,000 in funding for a linear park to be built by the housing authority. That funding for the linear park will come from a combination of SPLOST funds and city funds, according to Kelsey.

The LaGrange City Council will meet again on Sept. 25 at 5:30 p.m. at 208 Ridley Avenue.