January 22, 2014 10:50:12 AM
Columbus councilmen voted to table a proposal from commercial consulting firm Retail Strategies after Mayor Robert Smith suggested that elected officials discuss the idea with the Golden Triangle Development Link.
Smith said making the hire Tuesday night would be "a slap in the face" to Link CEO Joe Max Higgins and the organization, as it has long represented the city's retail development interests. Columbus chief operations officer David Armstrong said city planner Christina Berry did not have $20,000 in her department budget set aside specifically to pay Retail Strategies, disputing Berry's assertion during a specially called council meeting last week that she did have the funds in her budget.
Retail Strategies' proposal was for a three-year contract with the city to recruit retail development. If councilmen agreed to the proposal, the city was to pay the firm $40,000 during the first year of the contract and $24,000 in each of the following two years -- a total of $88,000 over the three year period. Berry said last week that $20,000 from her budget would be paid to the firm this fiscal year with the other $20,000 the city would still owe the firm for the first year of the contract to be paid when the next fiscal year begins in October.
Councilman Charlie Box opened discussion on the proposal, stating he was impressed with the firm's presentation last week and noted it specializes in bringing retail to municipalities like Columbus. Smith agreed, saying he thought the two representatives who made the presentation "did an outstanding job," but said the city needed to speak with Higgins before agreeing to the contract.
"I would hope that we do not put the cart before the horse," Smith said. "With the Link, they have been doing our retail development for us. Nothing against Retail Strategies, but we did not budget for this and I would hope that before we go ahead and approve this, that we would at least give Mr. Higgins an opportunity where we can discuss (this) with him before we go any further since they're already doing our retail development."
Box reiterated that Berry told councilmen the money was set aside and said he'd still like to make a motion to proceed. Councilman Joseph Mickens seconded before Smith again suggested officials "owe it to the Link" to discuss the proposal. Councilman Gene Taylor then asked if what Berry budgeted had been approved. Armstrong then distributed copies of Berry's capital improvement request list before saying she did not have the required funds.
"I don't know why she said that, but there's nothing in Mrs. Berry's budget for $20,000, $40,000, whatever for a marketing proposal study," Armstrong said. "She has money for redevelopment authority operations (in) $27,000, $15,000 for a drainage improvement plan, which we haven't done, $5,000 (for a) neighborhood improvement plan, $10,000 for a bike trail plan (and) $10,000 for a community garden park. You could say there is money in her budget, but specifically for a marketing study, that's just not the case."
Berry did not attend Tuesday's meeting, saying during a phone conversation with The Dispatch after the meeting that she was on vacation. She said $25,000 of what she budgeted under the $27,000 for redevelopment authority operations was listed as 'Professional Services.' A copy of the document Armstrong distributed to councilmen confirms her statement. She said that amount was for a market study.
"I'm not sure why David is unaware. David didn't take a moment to call me to verify," Berry said. "I gave the council a list of all the projects that I would like to work on this year. One of those projects was for the redevelopment authority and it listed staff professional services, which is related to the market study. I'm not sure if there is confusion or if he is just not aware that the market study falls under professional services. There is money in my budget for that, and I really wish that before David made a public statement concerning that, that he would have contacted me."
Box: 'We find money for everything else'
After Armstrong said there was no money specifically for a marketing study, Smith asked where funding to pay Retail Strategies would come from.
"We find money for everything else," Box said. "I feel like we can find it if it's something we want to do and it's something the community needs, I think we'll find the money for it."
Smith reiterated his stance that communication with the Link was needed first.
"For us not even to have the decency to discuss this with Mr. Higgins and the Link ... I don't think it's fair to the Link. I really don't. It sends a bad message. To me, we're being reactive rather than proactive."
Councilman Bill Gavin said he understood why Smith wanted to meet with the Link.
"I'm sure there's some very valid points they have that we may not have thought of. I am in favor of this proposal, though," Gavin said. "Given the Link's involvement with Starkville and West Point now, I do think it's in our behalf and in the best interest of the city to do everything we can to promote retail development, whether it's working through the Link or other agencies ... To me, all this is is another avenue to help increase in different areas that the Link may not be able to go to to find that development."
Mickens said he was "getting tired" of officials bringing reports before the council that were not accurate.
"Councilman Box was going on $20,000 being there," Mickens said. "He was told tonight that it's not there for this. (Berry) said she had $20,000 in her budget for this that she wasn't going to use. That's the assumption I'm assuming we're going on is that the money was there and now we're finding out the money is not there. I have a problem with that."
"So where's the money coming from?" Smith reiterated.
"As I said, we've found money for all other kind of things we've added to the budget over the years," Box said.
"Don't we need to know where the money is coming from now before we approve this?" Smith asked. "Do we know whether it's coming from the general fund or coming from reserves?"
"We approve things all the time on this council without that type of stipulation," Box said. "If (Berry) doesn't have (it as) a budgeted item, we're going to have to take it out of the general fund."
Taylor then made a substitute motion to table the proposal until councilmen and Smith could speak both with Higgins and Berry. After Gavin seconded, councilman Kabir Karriem asked Smith if he had a timeframe for when he and his colleagues could meet with Higgins. Smith said he'd work with Higgins to arrange one within a week.
Karriem said he would have voted in favor of Box's motion but didn't feel the council should move forward without Berry in attendance to explain the budget figures.
"It's unfortunate that we have to look for outside retail development to put our folks to work. We've had countless meetings with the Link that everyone up here has been privy to. There's no question that the Link does an outstanding job for the county, but we do have an enormous void inside the city limits when it comes to retail development," Karriem said. "We need to make sure we have this meeting immediately so we can move forward on what we need to do."
The vote on Taylor's substitute motion was 5-1 with Box in opposition.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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