On what has previously been a routine matter returning every two years, Statesboro City Council on Tuesday tabled renewal of U.S. Rep. Rick Allen’s rent-free lease of a City Hall office in order to ask if he gets the same deal in other 12th Congressional District communities.
Allen’s Statesboro District Office, on the ground floor of City Hall across the lobby from the mayor’s office, is assigned to the congressman’s regional representative. Austin Stacy has served in that capacity for almost two years now and keeps regular five-day weekly office hours.
“City has traditionally provided office space in City Hall to our Congressional representative,” City Attorney Cain Smith summarized in his memo for the mayor and council. “This lease would continue placement of the office in City Hall through Rep. Allen’s current two-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives.”
The memo prefaced the proposed lease, with “-0-” listed for the rent and any other charges, extending the term from Jan. 2, 2023, when the current lease would expire, to Jan. 2, 2025.
The lease includes provision of electricity and a desk, three chairs, a small sofa, end tables, a hutch and bookcase.
During Tuesday morning’s brief, regular council meeting, City Manager Charles Penny recommended approving the renewal. District 5 Councilwoman Shari Barr asked how often the office is used, and Penny answered that Stacy “is usually there on a daily basis.”
“I have a question. So, why is it free?” asked District 2 Councilwoman Paulette Chavers.
At first there was some laughter among the city officials.
“Well, no, that’s a reasonable question,” said District 1 Councilman Phil Boyum. “Is he getting free resources across the district?”
“But it’s not for Rick Allen. It’s for the seat,” said District 4 Councilman John Riggs.
“John Barrow actually started that,” noted Mayor Jonathan McCollar.
Barrow, a Democrat, was Georgia’s 12th District representative in the U.S. House for 10 years, until Allen, a Republican from Augusta, defeated him in the fall 2014 election. Allen, who took office Jan. 3, 2015, has been re-elected every two years since, most recently on Nov. 8 over a Democratic challenger.
“I don’t care who’s in the seat. I want to know why it’s free,” Chavers said.
“I think a lot of folks would think that it would be advantageous to have a congressional office in our building, and I think that’s probably the basis for making it available and as a service to our citizens when they need congressional help,” Penny said. “But that is an excellent question.”
He noted that the council would meet again in two weeks and that the current lease does not expire until January, so the decision could wait if the council wanted an answer.
When McCollar asked if there was a motion, Riggs at first made one to approve the lease. But after there was no immediate second, Chavers offered a motion to table the action until the next meeting. That motion was seconded by District 3 Councilwoman Venus Mack and passed 5-0.
The answer, according to Allen’s Communications Director Michael Plummer, is that the 12th District member of Congress also receives the Dublin and Vidalia district office spaces rent-free from local governments, but pays rent for a larger office suite in a privately owned business center at Augusta.
“We do pay rent for that one, just as any other occupant of the business center would, but there’s something in place so that governments can share, governments can offer office space rent-free to other government entities, and ‘offer’ is the key operative word there,” Plummer said.
He also noted that Statesboro has done this since Barrow was in office.
“So this arrangement is in place in Statesboro, it’s in place in Dublin, and it’s in place in Vidalia,” Plummer said. “Those three facilities are all housed in government buildings and they’re subject to that agreement.”
He had called the House Administration Committee and found out that this arrangement, established under House policy, is “pretty widespread,” involving members of Congress “from both parties all around the country.”
“It would make sense that governments would sort of pool their resources and help one another, and it also, on top of other things it would save taxpayer money, so those are resources that are better put to use serving the residents of the district,” Plummer said.
Allen’s office space in Dublin is within Dublin City Hall. The Vidalia office is in the Vidalia Community Center, which also houses the Toombs County Senior Center where Action Pact provides services.
The rented Augusta location, which serves as Allen’s in-district headquarters, is in the Augusta Corporate Centre.
Other communities of the 12th District, which encompasses all of 17 counties and parts of two others, do not have regularly staffed offices. But Allen’s staff plans “community office hours” at various locations in these counties.
For example, “community office” sessions were planned for Wednesday, Dec. 7 at Millen City Hall, 9:30 a.m.-11 a.m.; at the Swainsboro-Emanuel County Chamber of Commerce, 12:30 p.m.-2:30 p.m.; and at Metter City Hall 3 p.m.-4:30 p.m.