By Josh Kaib | Watchdog Arena
Augusta, Georgia is spending millions on its controversial Hyde Park project but refuses to disclose where the money is going. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right?
Just ask the residents of Hyde Park, who are supposed to be relocated from their current homes so the city can build a drainage pond. Despite spending at least $4.5 million on the project so far, dozens of families remain in the neighborhood.
Now littered with abandoned buildings, the neighborhood is less safe in the eyes of some residents.
“It just makes the people that are still out here worried,” said Clifford Gordon, a Hyde Park resident, in an interview with the Augusta Chronicle. “I hear stuff all night.”
Scavengers have reportedly stripped abandoned homes of copper and aluminium. Due to years of minimal upkeep, homes in the majority African-American area are already in bad shape.
One former resident, who has family remaining in the area, helped shed some light on why the homes are in such disrepair:
They had a big meeting and said, ‘Do not touch your property, you will be relocated,’” Williams said, so most residents quit making improvements to their homes.
Years later, they’re still waiting to move.
“So when the house is about to fall out, they’re going to come back and give you nothing for it,” Williams said.
“It ain’t nothing but a setup.”
This is the human cost to government operating without transparency. The financial cost is another story.
Repeated attempts by news organizations to obtain the records of real estate transactions under the Hyde Park project have been denied. This reporter’s request was denied, the Augusta Chronicle’s request was denied, Newschannel 6’s request was denied, and so on.
The city claims it does not have to release details of its real estate transactions made in the course of relocating Hyde Park residents. Why? Because the project is ongoing. But with millions of dollars still needed to complete the project, no end is in sight, and neither are the real estate transaction records.
Fortunately the Augusta Chronicle has started to piece together the financial puzzle. Based on invoices given to the paper by the city, it concluded that the government “is unable to account for nearly a quarter-million dollars” of spending for the project. In addition, property records show the city overpaid for the properties it acquired from Hyde Park residents.
By how much did they overpay? Nearly a million dollars. The assessed values of the properties acquired add up to $579,337, but the city spent $1,440,350, according to the Chronicle.
Until the city discloses its documentation of the real estate transactions, residents remaining in Hyde Park won’t know where exactly the money went or into what kind of homes, and where, previous residents were relocated.
The millions spent were supposed to pay for their properties and relocation too, but late last year the city ran out of funds. Then the Augusta Commission approved an additional $2.8 million for the project.
That same commission turned down an opportunity to audit the project. At the November 18 meeting last year, a number of Hyde Park residents demanded an audit. But after hearing from city attorneys and meeting behind closed doors, the commission decided against it.
The residents of Hyde Park, and all Augusta taxpayers, are ill-served by a government unwilling to open its books and allow in some sunshine.