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Macon-Bibb delays action on drones | News

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Macon-Bibb delays action on drones
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UPDATE, 7-21-15, 7:55 pm:

In a 5-3 vote, Macon-Bibb officials have delayed a decision for now a plan to bring a fleet of as many as 17 drones to the county. Commissioners did not take a vote Tuesday night, instead opting for more time to research and discuss further what the plan would mean.

Commissioners Gary Bechtel, Elaine Lucas, Scotty Shepherd, and Virgil Watkins voted to put off a decision. Larry Schlesinger, Bert Bivins, and Ed Defore were against delaying action. Commissioner Al Tillman was absent.

Leaders have said the drones would be used for public safety and emergency response and would cost an estimated $5.7 million over five years.

That cost would cover a certified drone fleet with all maintenance, repairs and warranties.

A move Tuesday night wouldn't have approved a purchase or made a financial commitment to the manufacturer Olaeris. Rather, the vote would have paved the way for the county to begin negotiations on a possible purchase.

That's why Mayor Robert Reichert said he was disappointed that commissioners decided to put off a decision.

"There is no risk to us whatsoever, until they get all of the licenses, until they demonstrate to our satisfaction that it works. We're not on the hook for a dime," Reichert said.

He says he believes commissioners and the public cannot yet grasp the potential benefit of drones for emergency response.

"The first time I looked at a cellphone, I couldn't imagine what it could do. Now, I can't get along without it. I think the same will be said for public safety response," Reichert said.

The mayor also says he's interested in the economic impact a drone manufacturing and maintenance hub in the county could have. But, he says, Olaeris could easily choose another launch site.

"I'll tell you this, if there's no market here locally, where do you think you're going to locate your plant?" Reichert asked.

But Commissioner Mallory Jones, who made the first motion to table Tuesday night's vote, says there are still too many questions left unanswered.

"If you vote this memorandum of understanding, you vote yes, you're saying we're moving forward. And my constituents have overwhelmingly 100% that I've heard from have said 'no'," Jones said. "We haven't seen the actual product. We've seen computer-generated video that shows us what it can do."

He says officials haven't done their due diligence or research into the use of drones, how they would be paid for, or into the company that's in charge of the technology.

"We need more information," Jones said.

Former Macon Mayor C. Jack Ellis addressed commissioners Tuesday night and called the deal a waste of money.

"If [county officials] don't have money for a senior center, if [they] don't have money for a recreation center for the Bellevue area that's been clamoring for one all these years, but mysteriously [they can] find $96,000 per month to pay for [drones], where is that money coming from?" Ellis asked.

"What's the need? How are they going to be used? Who will monitor them? Who will make a decision when they are in flight?" he continued asking. "If you're going to draw up a contract, you intend to implement it at some point. Until we define a need, that yes, we have five houses that burned down last year and they wouldn't have burned down with drones... I'm against it."

There's no word on when the drones discussion will start up again, but Mayor Reichert says he hopes commissioners will vote in favor of at least exploring the technology.

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At least two elected Macon-Bibb officials say they will vote against the drones proposal Tuesday.

If the majority of the nine commissioners approve the drone deal Tuesday, it would give the county attorney the green light to draw up that contract between Olaeris and Macon-Bibb County. Tuesday's approval would not commit the county to spend any money for drones.

Commissioner Al Tillman, who sits on the five-member economic and community development committee, says he will be voting against the proposal Tuesday after hearing from people in the community. He says he'd prefer to see those funds set aside for educating and engaging youth in the community.

Looking for answers from the drone company Olaeris

"Getting kids educated, back in school. We need to put a stop to the violence," Tillman said.

Commissioner Scotty Shepherd, a former sheriff's deputy, says he sees the benefits of drones for public safety, but he believes there are more pressing issues, including the county pay scale for employees.

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Tillman said he believes the proposed $5.7 million price tag over five years is too steep, and that as technology evolves and drones become more common, that cost will drop, as well.

"Just like when flat screen televisions cost $2,500, now you can get a nice one for $99 on Black Friday," Tillman said.

Last week, all five members, including Tillman, unanimously approved the proposal to draw up a contract with aviation company Olaeris. The other four members are Chairman Larry Schlesinger, Commissioners Virgil Watkins, Elaine Lucas and Ed DeFore.

The county would have no obligation to pay until they're provided with a satisfactory fleet of drones with all required certifications. County officials estimate that could take between 18-24 months.

The proposed agreement and cost would cover all maintenance, service repairs and warranties for an estimated 17 drones. Olaeris also plans to operate a maintenance and manufacturing hub in Macon-Bibb County, which CEO Ted Lindsley says would stimulate economic development and bring jobs to central Georgia, though he could not estimate how many.

#13DroneChat: You asked, we answered

Commissioner Larry Schlesinger says the drones are 21st century technology that can help save lives.

"Things need to be surveyed from the air. I'm thinking about the Mother's Day tornado and we didn't really know what the extent of the damage was for quite some time," Schlesinger said. "After the storm's passed, you can send a drone out to see what happened."

Commissioner Virgil Watkins says just because they're considering this proposal doesn't mean officials are ignoring other problems.

"We're also pumping a lot of money into the blight initiative, so we are handling the city in a new way on multiple fronts," Watkins said.

He says Tuesday's vote is not a stamp of approval to immediately start buying drones.

"Right now, we are voting to give our attorney the right to continue negotiating," Watkins said. "When we go pie in the sky with an initiative like this, I think it causes a knee-jerk reaction."

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Both Schlesinger and Watkins say they plan to vote in favor of the drone proposal Tuesday. They say they don't want to dismiss the possible benefits of drones too soon.

"It's worth testing it out. We have no financial commitment until it's up and running and we're 100% satisfied," Schlesinger said.

Schlesinger says he doesn't believe these public safety drones threaten privacy.

"If it's flying over a neighborhood, it's doing the same thing a helicopter does," Schlesinger said. "I don't see any real threat of being in a photograph in your backyard."

Commissioner Elaine Lucas declined further comment, but she said she also plans to vote in favor of the proposal. She told 13WMAZ she does have concerns about the high cost of the drones.

Commissioner Ed DeFore, Gary Bechtel and Mallory Jones say they're still on the fence.

Mayor Pro-Tem Bert Bivins could not be reached for comment.

Officials are expected to vote on the drone proposal Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Macon-Bibb Government Center on Poplar Street.

Follow 13WMAZ's Anita Oh on Facebook at Anita Oh WMAZ and on Twitter @anita_oh.


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