ACC Commission approves annual budget, workforce plan, firefighter union agreement

The ACC Commission has voted to approve a workforce development plan proposed by the Athens-Area Chamber of Commerce, a collective bargaining agreement with the Professional Firefighters of Athens-Clarke County, site selection criteria for a new fire station and the fiscal year 2025 budget which fully funds the local government’s affordable housing investment strategy.

The ACC Commission also voted to accept ACC Manager Blaine William’s resignation, effective July 12, and they approved two sober living recovery homes. They delayed a decision on an agreement with Piedmont Athens Regional regarding transparency for ambulance services in Athens.

Table of Contents

FY 2025 budget
Athens Achieves

Firefighter collective bargaining agreement
Fire station #5
Recovery houses

EMS agreement

FY 2025 budget

Commissioners passed their annual budget this year with a friendly compromise between Commissioners Jesse Houle, Mike Hamby and Dexter Fisher, which was surprising given the controversy and divisiveness of last year’s budget negotiations.

Commissioners passed the fiscal year 2025 budget in a 9-1 vote, with Commissioner John Culpepper voting no. 

Houle was the primary author of the commission’s budget proposal this year, which fully funds the local government’s affordable housing investment strategy, supports the new judicial center project with an extra $1 million to help cover inflation and funds a proposed Black history museum called the Center for Racial Justice and Black Futures.

Sheriff John Q Williams
Sheriff John Q Williams

The budget also includes $545,000 for the ACC Sheriff’s Office to conduct a salary study and to fund any raises it might recommend. In recent months, ACC Sheriff John Q Williams has advocated fiercely for the commission to raise deputy pay to help improve staffing levels, which he sees as an emergency situation at the jail.

“There is no need for a pay study,” Williams told the commission during public comment before the vote. “You raised the police department’s salary and now they’re [at full staffing levels]. You did not raise ours equivalently and we’re over 40 deputies short. We cannot continue to function [at the jail with so few deputies], it’s not safe.”

Williams objected to the study in part because he mistakenly believed it would be performed by the Mercer Group, a consulting firm based in Athens who lists former ACC Manager Alan Reddish as a senior associate. He says that Reddish “fought to get rid of pay parity between the sheriff’s office and the police department” while he was manager. Williams feels that Reddish would not assess the needs of the sheriff’s office fairly, given this history.

CORRECTION (6/15/24): This article originally implied that Reddish was a senior associate with Mercer, the New York-based company that performed a recent pay study for the ACC government. This is false. Reddish is a senior associate for Mercer Group Associates, an unrelated company based in Athens. Neither Reddish nor Mercer Group Associates had anything to do with the most recent ACC pay study and would not be involved in the study done for the Sheriff’s Office.

Commissioner Jesse Houle
Commissioner Jesse Houle

In contrast, commissioners believed that the proposed study would actually result in increased pay for deputies.

“We can’t foretell what the study that’s done will say, but we did specify that we want them to look at other unified governments in the metro Atlanta area, which were left out of previous studies, and that’s likely to yield figures similar to what we’ve heard the sheriff ask for,” Houle said.

Houle included enough in the budget to fund the study itself, which should take about six months to complete, and for six months of the deputy salary increases they expect to be recommended.

Culpepper voted against this year’s budget because he didn’t feel it was fiscally conservative enough.

“I was hoping to work with colleagues to find areas to cut the budget to allow for another millage rate reduction,” Culpepper said. “I just think we need to work on trying to reduce and rein in our spending.”

The budget keeps property tax rates flat at 12.45 mils.

Athens Achieves

A workforce development plan drafted by the Athens-Area Chamber of Commerce in collaboration with local businesses and other community stakeholders passed narrowly in a 6-5 vote at this meeting.

Commissioners Melissa Link, Tiffany Taylor, Jesse Houle, Carol Myers and Ovita Thornton voted no, causing a 5-5 split. Mayor Kelly Girtz broke the tie in favor of the proposal, allowing it to pass.

Commissioner Melissa Link
Commissioner Melissa Link

These commissioners voted no because they wanted Athens Achieves to compete on an even footing with a similar workforce development plan currently being drafted by the local government in parallel, which should be complete in two or three months.

“I really want to see what this other task force comes up with and see how these two initiatives can be melded to put together something that’s really complete and can meet the actual needs of this community,” Link said.

The Chamber of Commerce will receive $1.9 million in seed capital from the federal American Rescue Plan to start the Athens Achieves initiative. This plan calls for the creation of an online portal for job seekers and the development of academic and leadership skills in the Athens workforce.

Athens Achieves will take about half of the available funding. This means the local government’s workforce plan will need to be cut significantly because the two plans were in competition for the same pool of funding.

You can read more about Athens Achieves here.

Firefighter collective bargaining agreement

The commission unanimously approved a collective bargaining agreement between the ACC firefighters’ union and county management at this meeting. The next day, Mayor Kelly Girtz signed the collective bargaining agreement with Emily Thompson Alger, President of the Professional Firefighters of Athens-Clarke County at Fire station #1 on College Avenue. 

The agreement shortens the firefighter work cycle from 28 days to 14 days, making it easier for firefighters to gain the benefit of overtime pay. These benefits are shared with other public safety agencies such as the ACC Police Department to maintain parity and to preserve police morale. The total cost of the new contract will be at least $600,000 as the benefits are extended across these other agencies.

This is the first such agreement in the union’s history, coming exactly one year to the day after the commission voted to officially recognize the firefighters’ union.

Fire station #5

The commission approved another round of site-selection criteria for the new fire station #5 intended to serve the southeastern part of the county. 

This comes after they rejected potential sites for the station last year which were proposed using a similar set of criteria. Commissioner Patrick Davenport, who represents the southeast side, asked last month for this vote to be delayed so he could consult with fire department officials about widening the search area. 

Despite Davenport’s wishes, the site criteria are determined primarily by the need to expand fire department services to the southeast side. The criteria were approved unanimously.

Recovery houses approved

The commission also approved sober living recovery houses at 129 Peach Street and 1005 Henderson Extension, to be operated by New Life House of Hope. The house on Henderson Extension was approved unanimously, and the house on Peach Street was approved in a 9-1 vote, with Davenport voting no.

Commissioner Patrick Davenport
Commissioner Patrick Davenport

The ACC Planning Commission had recommended that the recovery home at 129 Peach Street be denied. Several community members spoke out against the proposal at previous meetings, saying that it would have adverse impacts on traffic, nearby property values and the character of the neighborhood. These concerns were echoed by Davenport to explain his opposition.

“I support the work that the young women are doing, but I do have concerns about that neighborhood. I hope that my colleagues would understand and appreciate if a recovery house goes into Cedar Creek or to Green Acres or in the Five Points area, y’all would have the same due diligence in approving that as well,” Davenport said. “This has been a traditional Black neighborhood…I think it is going to destroy the nature and characteristics of that neighborhood.”

Matt Pulver has an AthCast episode explaining more about why the house on Peach Street was considered controversial to many.

EMS agreement delayed

UPDATE (6/14/24): The commission unanimously approved Myer’s revised proposal for EMS data reporting. The proposal also has support from National EMS, the company which provides ambulance services in Athens and Oconee County. “Hopefully this is the beginning of some fruitful, transparent conversations about what’s going on because it sounds like we all want the best thing in terms of emergency response for our community,” Myers said. Sam Rafal, a public safety advocate, said this agreement was “a big step forward towards transparency.”

The commission has delayed a decision on an agreement with Piedmont Athens Regional that would provide some transparency regarding ambulance response times and other metrics. The commission has been completely in the dark about ambulance performance since 2020, when the EMS Oversight committee stopped meeting. 

Commissioner Carol Myers
Commissioner Carol Myers

Piedmont Athens Regional had agreed to provide quarterly reports and a semi-annual presentation to the mayor and commission including various performance metrics, but Myers wanted to modify the agreement to provide a greater degree of oversight. For example, she wanted to include a requirement for certified paramedics to staff advanced life support ambulances alongside emergency medical technicians trained at the intermediate level (EMT-I).

Myers also wanted to change how Piedmont would report ambulance response times from a simple average of all responses to the more specific metric of below 9 minutes, 90 percent of the time as reflected in national standards.

John Bandzul, Vice President of Operations for National EMS, spoke during public comment to request that the commission delay approving this agreement. He said that National EMS has no problem being transparent with their response times, but that Myers should tweak some of the technical language around EMT training in her proposal so that it would not hinder service delivery.

“Intermediates are a dinosaur and they are a dying breed,” Bandzul said. “If you want to become an intermediate EMT, you cannot in the state of Georgia. It’s no longer a licensing level that is being taught…it’s being replaced with the EMT advanced.”

Myers proposed delaying the vote until Friday, June 14, so she could tweak her proposal. This was accepted unanimously.

National EMS has never willingly shared their raw response time data with the public or with the local government.

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