VALDOSTA – A Valdosta group is asking the city why more COVID-19 relief money hasn't been allocated to the southside of town.
The People’s Tribunal held a press conference earlier this week at its Victory Church headquarters to demand more American Recovery Act funding be earmarked for Valdosta's southside.
Johnny Robinson, a People's Tribunal representative, said the group plans to file litigation against the city in wake of the expiration of a 60-day notice to distribute funding necessary for revitalization, referring to the $16.2 million awarded to the city through the American Recovery Act.
Robinson was joined by Sam Robinson, D.J. Henderson, Charles “Chuck” Judge, Robert “Bob” Elders and the Rev. Floyd Rose. People’s Tribunal is a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing ongoing community concerns with local government.
He said no funding has been allocated to the southside and a lawsuit is “simply the next step in achieving our objective.”
“The revitalization of the southside and low-income community is very important and it needs to have Black ownership as well. Instead, it's being somehow excluded. The only difference is who will own what in the end and we just want to make sure that the people of the traditional Black community have and maintain ownership of their own neighborhood and community,” Robinson said.
“We had proposed a partnership with the city. We put together a community plan. We even suggested a committee with southside residents. We tried it all. So now we’re asking the city to request $250 million for the revitalization of the southside and aid people of low income.”
Elders claims the city has a pattern of underfunding underprivileged areas, such as the Southside Recreation Center.
“The federal government has provided the city with funding to help the community and we’ve seen time and again that they’ve misused and misallocated those funds designated for certain areas of town and then when audits come around, it was clear money hadn’t been spent there. So that’s the basis of it,” Elders said.
“They bemoan the crime and rise of gangs and gang shootings, but that comes from people who don’t have jobs or opportunities. They have nothing to lose. The people running the city don’t seem to get that. This funding, it's about spending money and improving people’s lives through training and creating a good labor pool.”
The ARA projects with the largest funding allocated for them include:
– Savannah Avenue Train Project: $3,500,000
– Griffin Avenue Housing Project: $3,300,000
– Premium Pay to Employees: $3,214,584
– City of Valdosta (Facilities, Technology, etc.): $1,300,000
– Purchase of Properties on South Patterson & Surrounding Parcels: $1,300,000
The Savannah Avenue Train Project funding in particular has come under fire for being excessive, from both the Tribunal and City Councilmember Sandra Tooley.
"I'm not against the project and I think it would be good for Valdosta in general. However, there's a difference between something people can use and something people can actually benefit from. We're talking about something that can change and affect the lives of people in the community," Robinson said.
"We have aid from the federal government and it should be used for what it's intended for: direct economic relief and restructuring for its citizens. The funding can help build trade centers and programs that can reconstruct people's livelihoods and income disparity. It can provide more opportunities."
Tooley brought up her contention with the project during the April 7 Valdosta City Council meeting, stating the $3.5 million allocated is "exorbitant," needed to be further reviewed and was part of the original agreement.
The project originally had a price tag of $2.5 million which then jumped to $3.5 million, Tooley said, adding she opposed the higher amount.
"I fussed and fussed, but nobody wants to support me on this. That's OK," she said. "I'm going to still fuss. I believe in doing what's right."
Valdosta City Manager Mark Barber said he admires the Tribunal’s passion for revitalizing the southside but he claims the city has worked with the Tribunal to ensure proper funding would go to the community.
“We have met with them and we’ve had several discussions about funding for the southside and taking care of their needs. The city has always made sure to fund and serve our underprivileged communities,” he said.
Tooley confirmed that City Council had received information from the Tribunal previously but it has mostly worked with Barber.
"We're not directly involved. We did hear something from the Tribunal a while back but we were under the impression they were going to move forward with everything. Our city manager said he has given the Tribunal all the information and everything that they asked for," she said.