Friday, December 2, 2011

The Many Inconsistencies of Joe Bowles

                                                                                    Friday, Dec. 2, 2011
                                                                                    The Outsider

In the local media, Augusta Mayor Pro-tem Joe Bowles is often portrayed as a champion for smaller government, a watchdog against government waste, and an advocate for greater government efficiency. In fact, Bowles himself has compared his political philosophy as leaning toward Libertarian. He even received the endorsement of the Libertarian Party for the CSRA in his 2009 re-election bid..

In some cases Joe Bowles deserves his small-government credentials. He has consistently championed privatizing many city services, such as public transit. He was also instrumental in getting the city to lease out the municipal golf course known as The Patch to a private firm to not only save $150,000 annually from the money losing public course, but also earn the city a small profit. Bowles was the only commissioner to oppose a SPLOST referendum in 2009 because he said it included too much pork. 

But when you take a closer look at Joe Bowles' record, you will find a litany of inconsistencies and flip-flops and a commissioner who seems to be very selective with what he considers government waste. The ordeal over the new $12 million TEE Center parking deck on Reynolds Street is just the latest instance where Joe Bowles seems to have flip-flopped on a controversial issue.

Joe Flip-Flops on ParkingGate
The Joe Bowles of October sounded very different from the Joe Bowles of today regarding the newly constructed $12 million TEE Center parking deck. When news broke that the city didn't actually own the land where the deck now sits, Bowles voiced displeasure over what he viewed as a "bad deal" for the city and also was upset to learn that the land was not donated as commissioners were told by Fred Russell it would be at the Dec. 9th, 2009 Commission meeting where the TEE center and parking deck deal was approved. 

But as we told you earlier, the deal was later changed, but commissioners were never told. No one has so far been able to produce any meeting minutes where commissioners were made aware that the parking deck deal had changed so as 933 Broad Investment LLC (a subsidiary of Augusta Riverfront LLC) would retain ownership of the property instead of donating it to the city as Fred Russell had assured commissioners that they had agreed to do. As you can see in this October 25th report by George Eskola for WJBF, this didn't sit well with Joe Bowles.. and he even leaves the option of condemnation proceedings on the table for the city to acquire ownership of the land where the newly built deck sits. See George Eskola's Oct 25th report for WJBF: Augusta Commissioners Say New Parking Deck Needs to be on City Land

But the tough talk over the parking deck soon faded. After just a couple of weeks Joe Bowles seemed to have completely changed his tune. Though he still believed the city deserved a better deal from Paul S Simon of Augusta Riverfront, LLC over operation of the deck, missing was an insistence that the city should own the land. Now Bowles was starting to parrot the  talking points of Fred Russell and Paul S Simon, stating that the discussion centered on donation of "air rights" rather than donation of the land itself. But the meeting minutes clearly show that Fred Russell told commissioners that the land was to be donated. That never happened supposedly in order to use tax free bonds to finance construction of the deck. But no one can produce meeting minutes where commissioners were told that it was air rights that were to be donated and not the land itself. In fact Bowles even went as far to call certain writers for "idiots" on a local afternoon radio talkshow for persisting to ask these important questions.

At one point Joe Bowles said at the very minumum, that Augusta Riverfront LLC would need to match the terms of a competing bid from AMPCO parking Systems to operate the deck. But the Joe Bowles of today seems to have dropped that ultimatum. He has even stated that the city has saved money by not owning the land, a seemingly 180 degree turn-around from his statements in October.  But the use of this bonding mechanism to finance the deck still leaves more questions than answers.

Why in this instance was the DDA (Downtown Development Authority) taken out of the process of issuing the bonds for a downtown parking deck (the original purpose for their creation in the first place)? If building city buildings on privately owned land  is such a win-win for taxpayers because it allows for tax-free bonds then should the city make it a policy to build all future public buildings on land it doesn't own? And why did the city buy a 0.07 acre parcel where the deck sits when the more than remaining 90% would  still be owned by 933 Broad Investment LLC?

Fred Russell was told by commissioners to renegotiate better terms on the parking deck management contract with Paul S Simon of Augusta Riverfront LLC. Russell held private negotiations with Simon and now has supposedly come up with only a "slight change" in the terms. The details of those negotiations have not been released to the public. Russell plans to meet "individually" with commissioners to explain the terms in hopes to line up the six votes needed to approve the parking deck management contract  before the commission meeting. Considering how Russell has been less that forthright with commissioners previously over the details of the parking deck, such as neglecting to inform them that major aspects of the deal had changed regarding ownership of the land, how confident can citizens be that Russell will have a consistent story for the 10 commissioners in his private individual meetings with them? See George Eskola's Nov 29th report for WJBF news here: Parking Deck Deal Do-Over Doesn't Do Much

And what has happened to the city acquiring the land from 933 Broad Investment LLC? That was apparently never a part of the discussions Russell had with Paul S Simon. By owning the ground floor of the new deck and it's 160 spaces, Augusta Riverfront, LLC holds all of the leverage, and by taking discussion of condemnation off the table (which back in October, Bowles said would be an option for the city) the city is left in a very weak position to renegotiate better terms.

The Bloated TEE Center and Joe Bowles
As we have mentioned, Joe Bowles tends to be very selective in what he considers government waste and pork and the TEE Center is a prime example of that. The Trade Exhibit and Event Center (TEE) has been a center of controversy since it's inception and the fiasco over the parking deck is just yet another in a long succession of controversies surrounding this massive project. In the Summer of 2009, the TEE Center was stuck in the mud. Voters had approved $20 million in a 2005 SPLOST referendum for construction of a TEE Center.

But disagreements over its location and who would operate it stalled the project for years and then in 2009 it became known that the TEE Center would actually cost twice as much than what voters approved in the 2005 SPLOST. And not only that, its backers now wanted to include a $17 million parking deck (the same one involved in The ParkingGate Scandal). This means that a project that voters were initially told would cost $20 million had ballooned to over $72 million when you factor in the new $38 million price tag for construction of the TEE Center, the $350,000 annual operational subsidy to Augusta Riverfront LLC to manage it, and the $17 million parking deck. And that's not including the $37.5 million for redevelopment of Laney-Walker/Bethlehem inorder to secure Betty Beard's vote in 2007 to award the TEE management contract to Augusta Riverfront LLC. That brings the total to close to $110 million when you add everything up.

Now you would think that if anyone on the commission would have a problem with this new price tag for the TEE center, it would be Joe Bowles, who is supposed to be the main watch-dog of government waste on the commission and supposedly for a smaller and "leaner" local government. But when it comes to tens of millions in cost overruns for something like the TEE Center, Bowles didn't seem all that concerned. In fact, he was one of the commissioners who wanted to rush a vote to approve the deal with the new inflated price tag to be paid mainly through the issuance of more revenue bonds.

But that can be risky if the promised business does not materialize at the new convention center. In fact, only one convention has been booked for the new TEE Center and that is one that has come to Augusta before. The phones aren't exactly ringing off the hook at Barry White's office at The Convention and Visitors Bureau from groups wanting to book the new TEE Center upon its completion. But a nationally recognized expert on convention centers had this warning for commissioners back in 2009 and was willing to explain to them why sinking tens of millions of dollars in a new convention center may not be a good investment.

Dr. Heywood Sanders, a professor at University of Texas San Antonio, and author of the Brookings Institute Study Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy was willing to come to Augusta or tele-conference with commissioners to explain how the convention business has been in a steady decline since the mid 1990s and that the future looks even more grim. With conventions in decline and a glut of available space on the market,  Dr Sanders consistently warns cities that investing mega bucks in convention centers is a risky development strategy based on mostly faulty data. Wouldn't commissioners, especially the government waste watch-dog Joe Bowles, want to find out if they were about to make a $72 million mistake? Apparently not.

After Matt Aitken won a run-off election for the Dist 1 seat, breaking the 5-5 racial split on the commission, there was an immediate rush to approve the TEE Center deal. Before commissioners could even hear the arguments against it from Dr Sanders, they approved the TEE Center and Parking deck on Dec 9th, 2009. The cost of the parking deck was reduced to $12 million. This was also the same meeting when commissioners were told by Fred Russell that the land for the deck had agreed to be donated by Augusta Riverfront LLC.

But you have to wonder why Joe Bowles, who is supposedly so keen  on cutting  waste and pork from Augusta's government didn't want to hear from Dr Sanders first about whether this might be a bad investment for the city. I mean this isn't peanuts we are talking about, but tens of millions of dollars. Also, one has to wonder why Mr Bowles wasn't more concerned that a project that voters were initially told would cost $20 million ended up costing more than 3 times as much. And perhaps prudence would have been in order at that Dec 9th, 2009 commission meeting when all of this was approved.. such as to get in writing that Augusta Riverfront LLC had agreed to donate the land for the parking deck. It was commissioner Hatney who brought the issue up and wanted Russell to reiterate that the land would be donated. Perhaps we need more commissioners asking questions like that. You would certainly think that is a question that a supposed champion for small government and a watchdog against government waste would ask.

Does Smaller Local Government Include Publicly Financed Ballparks?
Another issue where Joe Bowles seems to be out of step with his supposed small-government Libertarian-leaning philosophy is over a proposed new ballpark for the Augusta GreenJackets. Bowles was one of six commissioners to approve tasking Fred Russell to have negotiations with officials from Ripken Baseball to develop a creative "financing package" for a  new baseball stadium. Now, granted, the commission has not voted to date to commit any public funds towards the construction of a new ballpark, but obviously the point of tasking the city administrator to develop a "financing package" was to bring a financial commitment from the city into the picture. And tasking the administrator to do this is actually committing city resources and personnel to the matter.

There has been nothing keeping Ripken Baseball officials from coming before the commission and presenting a plan for a new stadium, including the financial commitment they are willing to make and what they expect from the city. But so far they have not done this, and the action to task Fred Russell to develop a financial package puts the city in the position where it is going to Ripken Baseball offering something. The Mayor has previously said that a new ballpark would need to include a public buy-in.

TAD (tax allocation district)  is one public financing option that has been mentioned. But TAD is designed for bringing major employers to the county.. such as a large scale manufacturing plant or distribution center. Whatever jobs a new baseball stadium would produce would be minimal at best. Plus, TAD is supposed to encourage investment and development in blighted areas. One could hardly call the downtown Augusta riverfront at The Riverwalk a "blighted" part of the city. Nor could that label be easily applied to an alternative site proposed for the stadium at The Villages at Riverwatch site near the intersection of Riverwatch Pkwy and Alexander Drive in West Augusta.

And for most true Libertarians, the government should have no involvement in financing sporting venues like minor league ballparks for the benefit of private companies in the first place. It seems rather hypocritical that Joe Bowles would want to get the city out from under the financial drain of a money-losing municipal golf course, yet vote to look into options for publicly financing a new baseball stadium that some estimates have shown could cost as much as $40 million. It would seem that the champion for the taxpayers and the crusader against government waste would have voted no and told Ripken Baseball that they were more than free to build a new stadium with their own money, but that the city had more pressing issues to attend to at this time, such as making sure public safety has enough money to make up for a deputy shortage.

The Mayor Gets $100,000 for a New Propaganda Department
As we told you earlier the newly approved city budget includes $100,000 for a new "economic development" micro department, which is really nothing more than a new PR department, or a Ministry of Propaganda for the Mayor. Perhaps this would not be such an outrage if the city was not $6.3 million in the hole and cutting more than 34 positions. Also, just about every city department is having to make major cuts to help fill the budget gap and there is no money in the new budget to hire more deputies for the Sheriff's dept. which is short 34 deputies from 10 years ago.

So with everyone else having to sacrifice, the Mayor actually has his office expanded by $100,000, a sum that will become a permanent fixture in the annual budget. That's enough to hire at least 3 new deputies. But, no, expanding the Mayor's office is a bigger priority. So what did Joe Bowles, the crusader for the taxpayer, the watchdog of government waste, the champion for smaller government think about this? Well Bowles voted to approve the budget raising no objections over the $100,000 for the creation of a questionable new city department in the wake of mounting yearly budget deficits.  How's that for smaller government for you? Bowles even went as far to say that commissioners who opposed the new budget were only against it because they didn't want their "friends" to lose their jobs. But apparently that is not an issue for Bowles when the mayor wants to expand his office and hire a couple of cronies, eh?

An Inconsistent Advocate for Property Owners
When it came to the vote on whether to approve an incomplete application for an Overlay Zoning District for Laney-Walker that would have drastically altered the zoning laws for that part of the city and have ramifications for property owners throughout the county, once again Joe Bowles was on the wrong side,  But he took it even further and blasted opponents of the overlay as misinformed. But from listening to Bowles' explanation of the Overlay District it was clear that the Mayor Pro-tem was the one operating on incorrect information. Bowles went to the media, parroting the talking points of the Overlay proponents claiming that the main purpose of the overlay was to keep out unwanted businesses like liquor stores and pawn shops and to protect the city's investment in the area.

But that's not entirely true. Most of Laney-Walker is already zoned single family residential, so the current zoning laws already prohibit these undesirable businesses from locating in those areas. What the overlay district would effectively do  is change the current zoning structure to allow the introduction of multi-family residential and commercial uses into areas currently zone single family residential. It could also impose architectural guidelines on existing property owners dictated by the developer seeking the overlay district. Joe Bowles even said that he would welcome such an overlay district in his neighborhood: (see video from WRDW News 12 below)
That would be quite a turn-around for commissioner Bowles, who just earlier this year was vehemently opposed to a daycare being operated out of Woodlawn Methodist Church at the corner of Milledge Rd and Walton Way almost directly across from his home: Summerville Daycare Approved.

Back then, Bowles had this to say about the decision to approve the daycare in the comments section of The Augusta Chronicle:
"A daycare in a residential zoning violates county and state zoning requirements. You all need to get the facts before judging."
"The reason we have taken a decent area and made it better is through our master plan and adhering to it since 1977. That's why we have the property values we have, and now we have another area that is considered commercial. THIS IS KNOWN AS SPOT ZONING AND DETRIMENTAL FOR ALL NEIGHBORHOODS, NOT JUST SUMMERVILLE [emphasis added]. It sets a dangerous precedent that could spread and erode what Summerville residents have built!"

So when it came to a church wanting to operate a daycare across from his home, Mayor Pro-tem Joe Bowles was adamantly against "spot zoning" because it would set a "dangerous precedent" and "erode property values".. but when it came to imposing an Overlay Zoning District on the homeowners  of Laney-Walker that would essentially codify "spot zoning" in their neighborhoods, Bowles was all for it and even called opponents "misinformed."

So maybe we should hold Joe Bowles to his statement that he would welcome an Overlay Zoning District in his neighborhood of Summerville. Perhaps he could bring a motion at the next commission meeting to do such. But something tells us that his neighbors probably would not be so ecstatic over such a drastic change to the current zoning laws that they claim has helped protect their property values. And if Mr Bowles was so afraid of a church daycare eroding his property values, just what would he and his neighbors think of "mixed-use" developments being allowed in single family residential areas of Summerville, including commercial and multi-family?  But that's what he voted to impose on the residents of Laney-Walker. Luckily in that case, he was in the minority.

Lip Service for Harrisburg
In the Spring of 2010 The Harrisburg neighborhood activists had thought they found an ally in Joe Bowles. After pleading for months for the city to get tough on slumlords who they say were ruining Harrisburg by renting shacks for more than $1,500 a month that were being used as drug houses and brothels, commissioner Bowles introduced a motion to create a subcommittee to study creating a "Chronic Nuisance Property Ordinance".  It was what Lori Davis, President of the Harrisburg West-End Neighborhood Association, and her neighbors had been asking for months but were getting no traction on at city hall, despite numerous protests. Joe Bowles' district abuts Harrisburg but most of the neighborhood is within Matt Aitken's Dist 1.

The motion to create the subcommittee passed and was chaired by Bowles. He appointed Lori Davis to the committee but also appointed several members who were openly hostile to the creation of a Chronic Nuisance Property Ordinance, one being a rental property owner who Davis and the Harrisburg group had had difficulties dealing with in the past. 

The idea of a Chronic Nuisance property ordinance is nothing new.. they have existed in some form or another for well over 100 years, but their more modern incarnation can be traced back to Portland, Oregon in the 1980s. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani also resurrected old New York state chronic nuisance property laws (originally known as "bawdy house" laws) to successfully clean up areas of New York City like Times Square and The Lower East Side. 

Harrisburg residents even pooled their money together to bring a nationally recognized expert on the creation of Chronic Nuisance Property Ordinances (CNPOs) to Augusta to advise the committee and commissioners on how it could be done in Augusta. The President of The Olde Town neighborhood Association also joined with Harrisburg in advocating for a CNPO. But apparently bringing the expert on this matter was all in vain (sounds familiar to the expert on convention centers Dr Heywood Sanders trying to give advice to the commission over the TEE Center doesn't it?) In the end the committee punted the drafting of the ordinance to the city's in-house legal department. After presenting their draft ordinance to the committee, city attorney Wayne Brown immediately called it "unconsititional". Yes that's right, the legal department drew up an ordinance they claimed was unconstitutional. 

Lori Davis called the whole ordeal a "charade" and a "farce", and that if the committee didn't plan to do anything substantive in creating a CNPO then it should disband: Augusta Chronicle" Officials Chided on Nuisance Issue.  

Where did Joe Bowles stand on all of this? He was ready to drop pursuing the CNPO issue altogether opting for a "task force" to deal with code violations. Lori Davis and CNPO advocates wanted a second opinion instead of just giving up after the first draft. She pointed to successful nuisance ordinances that exist in other Georgia communities like Toccoa that should withstand legal scrutiny. And the issue was not with federal law but with state law, and that the committee, if it wanted to, could find a way to draft an ordinance that fits within Georgia law. But no effort was made to do that. Joe Bowles was ready to give up on a CNPO after the first try citing a hesitance to set the city up for a lawsuit. Lori Davis wondered what the whole point of the exercise was all along.

So what about that task force that was created? Well according to Davis, they have not seen much from it and Harrisburg is still dealing with many of the same problems they have been fighting against for over 3 years. Some people contend that Joe Bowles was just trying to placate the Harrisburg activists like Davis but set the process up to fail by packing the committee with people openly hostile to the idea of a CNPO and handing it over to the chronically inept in-house legal department. 

Davis and others even tried to get traction at the state level. They contacted State Sen. Hardie Davis about the possibility of introducing legislation to make it easier for communities in Georgia to adopt CNPOs. But that went no where because Sen. Davis claims he was never asked by Augusta commissioners to pursue it. It appears that the ally the Harrisburg residents thought they had found in commissioner Joe Bowles had abandoned them in their efforts.

What's Next?
Joe Bowles has apparently not ruled out a run for Mayor in 2014, though he still says it is unlikely. Undoubtedly, if he does run, his record will be scrutinized, and as you can see it is a record riddled with inconsistencies. Some may call it flip-flopping. Others may just call it a political evolution. But whatever you call it, it seems pretty obvious that Commissioner Joe Bowles is very selective in what he considers government waste and he can change his tune on an issue as fast as Mitt Romney can change his positions on health care and immigration. Perhaps instead of a run for a mostly ceremonial mayor's job, Bowles should set his political aspirations higher where flip-flopping and nuance has become a political  art form. We might want to suggest The Waffle House as an appropriate location to announce his candidacy.***

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Anonymous said...

On the parking deck; the reason they cannot donate the land is because they ONLY own the air rights above the first floor. If they had not doen it that way, Billy Morris would own more than the allowed amount to get tax free bonds. That is how they rigged the deal so that River Front gets the entire first floor without it being more than the allowed % to qualify for tax free bonds.

I suggest someone ask how in the hell we could end up owning just air rights on the floors above the most PRIME parking. What happens when the bonds are paid off? Do we get the land and the first floor back? Not likely and none of these current commissioner will be around to answer for it.

If the OWS crowd want to occupy something, why not the first floor of this parking deck? It represnets everything that is wrong with our giverment system, corp welfare and crony capitalism.

Joey, you all paying attention here?

HERE is what you need to occupy, the 160 parking places in OUR parking deck Billy Morris is stealing from us. Have a sit in and FORCE the real issue to be addressed.


City Stink said...

good points bradleyeowens

Anonymous said...

I have one correction to make, my fingers got a ahead of my mind,

We only own the air rights and the parking deck, above the first floor. Does that mean we are GIVING the entire first floor to the River Front boys forever?

Don't forget, it sits on River Front LLC's property.

City Stink said...

Brad.. essentially Augusta Riverfront LLC owns the ground floor of the deck.. the city only owns what is above that first floor.. sweet deal for them, eh?

Riverman said...

I wonder at what height the air rights begin? We should have the second floor low enough to at least make Morris and Simon bend over when walking on the ground floor.

City Stink said...

Glad to see you are posting here Riverman! Always enjoy your comments on The Comical.