The Anniston City Council on Monday finalized a deal that rewards the developers of an estimated $10 million hotel project downtown.
The incentive package approved at Monday’s council meeting includes rebated municipal sales taxes on construction materials, furnishing and other equipment bought locally; rebating half the city’s lodging tax for four years and all the city’s ad valorem taxes for four years for any taxes due over the current tax rate for the property.
The city in January approved a letter of intent supporting the incentive package. Monday’s vote makes the city’s agreement to do so legally binding. The hotel is being developed by Mississippi-based JW Hartlein and Company and Tag Investments of Baton Rouge, La., doing business as J2 Investments.
The new, four-story Best Western Plus hotel with 75 guest rooms is to be built at 1200 Noble Street, where the building known as the Model City Center now stands. Demolition of the older building is to begin this week.
But before council members voted to help usher in the hotel project, members debated — at times heatedly so — changing the language of a previously approved resolution.
Councilman Ben Little made a motion to change the language of a resolution unanimously approved by the council on June 5 that directed the city manager to formulate the terms of a proposed agreement between the city, the Anniston school system and the Abernathy Trust for the city to help pay for a technology initiative for the schools.
In the June 5 meeting, which Little attended, council members agreed unanimously to change the word “would” to “could” in the resolution, to make clear that once passed, the city “could” contribute toward the technology initiative, but is not required to. Anniston attorney Donald Stewart has asked the city to pay $600,000 over three years toward the technology initiative, which would put a laptop into the hands of every student and offer citywide wi-fi internet connectivity.
Little and Councilman David Reddick at Monday’s meeting asked that the word “could” be changed back to “would.”
Mayor Jack Draper said the council’s procedural rules would only allow an amendment to make such a change if the matter was first brought up at a work session, then placed on a regular meeting’s agenda. Doing so, he said, would take at least two weeks.
City attorney Bruce Downey agreed with Draper, and said for council members to make the change it would either need to be brought up in a work session then placed on a meeting agenda, or four members of the council could vote to suspend the rules and make the change Monday.
Reddick made a motion to suspend the rules, but the motion was voted down 3-2 with Little and Reddick voting yes.
Councilwoman Millie Harris said she supports the school system’s push to enlarge its technology program, but that she has questions about Stewart’s proposal.
“We have to do our homework,” Harris said.
Council members also agreed to apply to the Community Oriented Policing Services grant program, administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, which can help pay to hire new officers or rehire officers laid off due to budget cuts.
If approved, the program could pay $570,000 toward the cost of hiring four new officers for three years. The city would be required to pay a $190,000 match to employ the new officers for that period.
Little voted against allowing the city to apply for the grant, but said he did so because he believes the city should pay toward the technology initiative as well. Reddick voted to allow the city to apply to the program, but said he also believes that the council could pay toward the technology initiative.
Draper said that while the schools have an independent school board with its own revenue sources, the city’s police department only receives local funding from the city.
Harris said the city’s first priority is to provide safety for its citizens.
During the council member comments portion of the meeting Little made allegations of wrongdoing against a judge currently overseeing a case in which he is the defendant, but gave no details of what was alleged to have happened.
Little asked Monday how much the city paid Rochester “to do some kind of investigation of the museum or misappropriation of funds or whatever it is.”
Little alleged money at Anniston’s museum complex had been “plundered and a cover-up is in that museum.” Little also alleged that people who work at The Anniston Star are involved in the alleged coverup of wrongdoing at the museum.
“I want to know how much money did Judge John Rochester from Clay County, the presiding judge , how much he was paid by the city to come in and did a cover-up of the doggone museum,” Little said. “I said a cover-up. Sue me.”
Asked after Monday's meeting what was alleged to have happened at the museum, and about his allegations that Anniston Star employees were involved, Little declined to answer.
“My comments were already made and that’s what they are,” Little said. “I stand by my comments.”
Little’s allegations of the judge’s involvement in an alleged cover-up of wrongdoing came the day before voters deposed in the suit are to give their depositions at the Calhoun County courthouse.
In 2014 the city’s former finance director released a report that alleged the museum’s former director skirted city rules for paying employees, and gave bonuses to herself and workers without withholding funds that would typically be paid into the state retirement system. The former finance director made a complaint to the Alabama Ethics Commission, which later ruled that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that ethics laws were violated.
Attempts to find contact information for Rochester late Monday were unsuccessful.
Before adjourning the meeting Draper addressed the visitors, and asked that they research on their own what is said in council meetings.
“Vet what is said from these microphones,” Draper said. “I do believe that baseless allegations with no evidence of corruption or misconduct, it hurts. It hurts our ability to attract business to this city, and we have to attract business to the city if we are to survive.”
Draper, speaking after the meeting, said he was unaware of the details of Little’s allegations, and added that “we can’t get up here and just accuse people of misconduct and corruption, when the accuser is unwilling to present evidence of that.”
In other business, council members:
— Agreed to limit the number of discussion topics on work session agendas to three per council member.
— Agreed to reimburse four city officials a total of $868 for travel outside of the city.
— Pay Anniston-based EMTEK Demolition $30,000 to demolish three substandard properties, and Anniston-based Teag Hauling and Demolition $40,000 to raze four structures.
— Declared 32 Anniston properties as public nuisances.
— Declared a 2001 F-350 flatbed dump truck as surplus.