VALDOSTA -- In the wake of the Jimmy Carter Work Project, City Council is looking for other ways to combat substandard housing in the city.

Council gave unanimous approval at Thursday's meeting to seek participation in the Group Workcamp's 2004 Project. Like the Carter Project, the Group Workcamp brings volunteers to certain towns for a week of work.

But unlike the Carter effort, the Group Workcamp is composed of high school students and works to rehabilitate decaying properties rather than building new homes from the ground up.

City Manager Larry Hanson said the workcamp -- if approved -- would be a boon for the city's pledge to eliminate substandard housing by 2020. The camp provides another option for the city.

"The main thing that is intriguing to us is that we have a substandard housing problem, and we are addressing that. We are trying to approach that from every angle," he said.

The city has participated in Habitat projects to build new homes and routinely demolishes unlivable homes. The Group Workcamp would provide a method to prevent borderline homes from slipping into total decay.

Hanson said that is the key to any housing push.

"If we can ever get a baseline, we can win that battle," he said.

The city's application will be reviewed by the Group Workcamp Foundation, and Community Development Director Mara Register said a decision will be made in August. If approved, the city will host as many as 400 volunteers from July 11-16, 2004.

The city has already reached an agreement with Valdosta City Schools to house and feed the volunteers at Valdosta Middle School, and an unnamed corporate sponsor has agreed to fund half of the $19,000 required to purchase materials.

Register told Council that the workcamps typically work on 50-70 homes -- usually owned by elderly or low income residents who are unable or cannot afford the repairs. The volunteers handle weatherization, light carpentry, painting, roof repairs and installation of handicapped ramps.

Several other community organizations have also pledged support for the project.

Council also learned Thursday that city water and sewer rates are more than 11 percent below the statewide average. Bank of America performed an independent analysis of the state's 178 city and county run water systems, and found Valdosta had lower rates than all but 71 municipalities, many of which subsidize water and sewer prices with proceeds from electric or natural gas revenues, Hanson said.

The average residential water bill in Valdosta is $42.28 for 9,000 gallons used per month. Lowndes County users average $68 per month, 42 percent above the state average of $47.72 and the nineteenth highest in the state. The county had the 16th highest rates a year ago.

To contact reporter Bill Roberts, please call 244-3400, ext. 245.

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