The FY2020 budget for the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government is complete and it passed the commission on June 4th, 2019. But what’s in the budget? How is our tax money being spent this year?
First, APN dives into some budget basics, and then we’ll talk about 6 interesting things in this budget in an interview with Mayor Kelly Girtz:
2:44 – The new Office of Inclusion / Civil Rights Committee
4:02 – Expanded Funding for Elections
4:10 – Workforce Investment Program
5:18 – New Housing Coordinator position
6:33 – Fare-Free Transit Expansion
Lastly, there is $70,000 in the budget for a plan to get us to 100% renewable energy.
Welcome to Athens Politics Nerd. In this video, I’ve got an interview with Mayor Kelly Girtz for you! We’re gonna break down the 2020 Athens-Clarke County Budget.
Mayor Kelly Girtz: “It was a lot of work, and even though I’d seen 12 budgets as a county commissioner, it was different being on this end of the process.”
There’s some great stuff in there, like fare-free buses for seniors, a new Office of Inclusion and funding for a plan to get us to 100% renewable energy.
First I’ll go over some budget basics, then we’ll explore the cool stuff in the budget with Mayor Girtz. Here we go!
Our local government’s budget is split into a bunch of smaller budgets, with the biggest piece being the “general fund.” The general fund is basically a catch-all for anything that doesn’t have it’s own fund. We’re talking about basic government services like police, fire, the courts. That’s $136.2 million in FY2020. By the way, the “FY” stands for “fiscal year” which begins and ends on July 1st.
Okay. The total across all funds this year is $245.1 million, which is $2.5 million more than last year. That’s broken down like so.
The biggest slice is public works, that’s things like roads, bridges, water, and sewers. Next is general government which are mostly employee salaries and benefits, then comes public safety and the courts, and there are also a few smaller slices, too.
Now let’s talk about revenue! The local government raises money for general expenditures mostly through taxes like property and sales taxes, but they have other methods too. For example, there are charges for services like our water bills, parking fees, summer camps and whatnot – anything we have to pay to use counts in this slice. And it’s actually one of the biggest slices of revenue.
Okay, I often hear worries that our sales tax base is shrinking as businesses formerly on Atlanta Highway head to Oconee county. This is partially true of course, and the good news is that even with Best Buy and those other shops having moved, our sales tax base is still growing slightly in real terms.
Our property tax base, on the other hand, is growing at an amazing rate, 8.8% last year! That’s without a rate increase – they didn’t raise taxes – property values are just rising that much.
Something else I hear is a concern about how much higher our property taxes are in Athens than they are in surrounding counties. But looking at nearby cities, this isn’t actually true. And once you account for our higher homestead exemptions, the final amount we pay for the same property value is less than most nearby cities. Again, it’s those higher property values that are causing people to pay more, it’s not the rate set by the county.
Okay, let’s go over the cool stuff that’s in this budget with Mayor Kelly Girtz!
First, we’ve got the new Office of Inclusion, funded with $170,000 in this budget.
Mayor Kelly Girtz: “That office will have both some inward-facing activity that they’ll be involved in, in the government, to ensure that we’re thinking about bias as employees of government. And then there will be a lot of external-facing work, too. Making sure that we’re simply getting out to the various parts of the community, and so we’re not just getting one perspective or a small handful of perspectives, but we’re hearing from everybody.”
Part of the responsibilities of this office would be to act as liaison to a civil rights committee.
Mayor Kelly Girtz: “There would be 9 members who would be directly appointed by a variety of community organizations, such as the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, the NAACP, Athens Pride, Georgia Options, the Council on Aging and others. And there’d be three members who would just be mayor and commission-appointees and liaisons. And they would be staffed by the Director of the Inclusion and Diversity Office.”
APN: “Okay, so the citizen advisory board would be not housed within that office, but would be working together with?”
Mayor Kelly Girtz: “That’s right, yes. So that office would be sort of the staff liaison to the advisory body. So they would be the direct, ongoing link.”
Next, Mayor Girtz included $54,000 in the budget to expand funding for elections. This funding will let us expand early voting days and polling locations. It will also make the Elections Coordinator a full-time position so they can react more quickly to address any problems that arise.
APN: “And another really interesting thing in the budget is the Workforce Investment Program.”
Mayor Kelly Girtz: “There’s $150,000 embedded in the budget right now, separate from the Prosperity Package, which may bolster this even further, depending on how that conversation goes. The goal is high-wage, high-demand jobs. There are a lot of positions right now that employers will tell anybody they’re having a hard time filling. Electricians positions, diesel mechanics, CDL drivers; all positions that pay more than double the median income in the county. And so what we’re going to try to do is move some of our most struggled residents here into those jobs by subsidizing some training for them. And then what we want to do is get a pipeline for those local residents to not only get training but move into those positions that are open.”
There’s also funding for a full-time Housing Coordinator position to support the creation and management of affordable housing in Athens. What would they do, exactly? And how would this additional affordable housing be funded?
Mayor Kelly Girtz: “So, I anticipate that SPLOST will be one of the areas that they’ll be supporting, you know, in putting nearly $45 million dollars into affordable housing over a decade through SPLOST. We’re simply gonna be putting a lot more money into affordable housing than has been historically-true, at least in my 12 years on the county commission before I was mayor. And so, ensuring that the units are permanently affordable, there’s a good screening process to make sure we are in fact finding people who are eligible for affordable housing, is something that existing housing providers already do. But those organizations don’t have staff large enough right now to do even more screening and even more analysis that’s gonna be required when we build much more affordable housing that we have on the ground right now. So, this staff person will do some of that training and coordination and screening. I anticipate, in addition to the SPLOST package, we’ll have some tax allocation district revenue that will specifically be targeted at affordable housing.”
Fare-free for seniors, people with disabilities and county employees was included in this budget as well, at a cost of $94,000. But what about fare-free for everyone?
Mayor Kelly Girtz: “I think the question of fare-free for everyone involves sort of how structurally and functionally that will happen. So, one of the things that could happen: we could have a designated section of TSPLOST that’s a transit local option sales tax. And that could provide not only for capital expenses, but also operating expenses. Should we have a transit local option tax, that might be just a portion of a penny, it might be a quarter of a penny, and we might do a traditional TSPLOST for lack of a better phrase, with the other three-quarters of a penny. So, it wouldn’t increase the tax burden on the population. That will allow us to more easily move into a fare-free environment for everybody. And then we could address institutional partners, like the university. I think there are a lot of moving pieces there, and certainly the question of what a universal fare-free environment would look like is still on the table.”
This budget also includes $70,000 to develop a plan to get us to 100% renewable energy. Learn more about that plan, here.
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