DECATUR — The city council this summer could consider a municipal bond between $1 million to $2 million to tear down blighted properties, among the first tangible steps in a sweeping neighborhood revitalization effort officials outlined Monday.
City Manager Tim Gleason described the bond as one of several upcoming actions the council could take toward its goals for the project, which officials announced last fall. Others include:
- June 18, the city council's next meeting, members will vote on the city's purchase of more than 700 abandoned residential lots from the Macon County trustee.
- In August or September, the council will vote on city code changes that would ease restrictions for property owners on the use of nearby vacant lots.
The neighborhood revitalization project, a long-held goal for city leaders, aims to help stem the tide of disinvestment and blight in the city's core neighborhoods.
City staff members organized nine groups of community volunteers last year to begin shaping community goals, and that feedback drove much of the wide-ranging presentation that council members heard Monday.
“We’ve tried as a city staff to serve more as moderator and not be involved directly,” Tyus said. “We didn’t want to be in a situation where we were telling the public ‘this is what you should do.’”
Drawing on the results of five meetings attended by 75 to 120 volunteers, Tyus highlighted wide-ranging potential economic and social welfare goals that he said the city could help direct as part of the community revitalization initiative. He acknowledged, however, that the city might act as a facilitator of other agencies for some of the goals.
“The ideas we have listed here, there is nothing that says it is the city that will do all of these things,” Tyus said. “... We know we can’t do all of this as a city government.”
Several council members were quick to ask what plans of action they could take, indicating they wanted to act as soon as possible.
"There’s no way I’m going to wait until 2020 to get these houses down," said Councilman Pat McDaniel, referring to the 2020 goal of the city staff's presentation to demolish 127 abandoned homes.
"(Housing) is the thing that our (city) government is qualified to address," said Councilman David Horn. "There is a need for urgency."
Tyus said city staff members would begin to attach a timeline and cost estimate to potential action items devised by the community groups. He said the city would also reach out to others, include inner-city residents and those who might not have been likely to attend community meetings.
How to pay for it
- The city's $3.2 million deficit budget kept intact a $300,000 budget item from its property tax levy for the neighborhood revitalization project. Gleason indicated Monday that that money would likely be used to purchase the $1 to $2 million municipal bond and pay for debt service in future annual budgets.
- The Howard G. Buffett Foundation donated $1 million for the city's efforts, Gleason has said the foundation has approved plans for the city to buy up 700 abandoned residential parcels now in the hands of the Macon County Trustee. All of these parcels are either vacant or have homes that are falling down.
- City staff also recently acquired a state grant of $125,000 toward home demolitions.
- Horn has pushed for increasing video gaming terminal fees for Decatur restaurants as a way to generate more revenue for the effort, something other council members have expressed support for.
Besides the need for demolitions and to identify uses for hundreds of vacant lots in the city, Tyus said one other major issue stood out among all of the volunteer groups: how to attract or incentivize people to live in the city limits.
One possible step the council could entertain would be tax incentives or abatements for homeowners and incoming residents.
Tyus said the city could offer tax incentives for homeowners similar to ones offered to businesses in tax increment financing districts: Those looking to make improvements to existing homes, or build new ones could buy construction materials tax-free, and pay no property taxes on those new improvements over several years.
Student-loan and tuition forgiveness from the city in exchange for residing in Decatur, and "results-based grants" for local organizations were other options.
"The initial question always is: How do you pay for (these incentives)? There are options out there, and the first thing is to decide whether this is something that we can do," Tyus said.
For decades, inner-city neighborhoods such as GM Square, Old King's Orchard, and the newly dubbed Millikin Heights have gone through disinvestment and economic decline, while many middle-class families have increasingly opted for nearby communities such as Mount Zion and Forsyth.
Right now, hundreds of residential properties in the city are vacant, generating no tax revenue for the city. And with a smaller population, city officials still have to maintain the same amount of sewers, lights and roads with fewer residents to pay for it.
The latest U.S. Census figures show about one in five residents live at or below the poverty line, and though job openings in the region are increasing, those in the most need of well-paying jobs face obstacles such as access to transportation, affordable child care, housing and marketable job skills, to name a few.
Those are issues that city leaders and volunteers hope to correct with the neighborhood plan.
“You encouraged the big-picture thinking approach and I really like that,” Councilwoman Dana Ray told Tyus. “You address a lot of huge concerns we have in our community.”