ACC Commission may index pay floor to MIT living wage calculator

The ACC Commission is considering whether to index the local government’s wage floor to the MIT living wage calculator so that all of their workers are paid enough to live in Athens as costs continue to climb.

The commission also decided how to split funding from the downtown tax allocation district and they heard from anti-war protesters who want them to support a ceasefire in Gaza.

Table of Contents
Living wages in the ACC government
TAD funding for east Athens
Calls continue for a ceasefire in Gaza

Living wages in the ACC government

As defined by MIT researchers, a “living wage” is the wage workers require to “support the costs of their family’s basic needs where they live.” Basic needs include things like food, childcare, healthcare, housing, transportation and clothing. In Athens, this amounts to $16.29 per hour in 2024 for a full-time, single worker with no kids.

In recent years, the ACC Commission has placed a high priority on paying all of their workers at least enough to satisfy MIT’s living wage standard. For example, the commission boosted their wage floor to $15 an hour in 2021 and again to $15.60 in 2022. 

When they did this, they failed to increase salaries for higher-paid workers equally over that same time period. As a result, salary compression has become a serious issue in the local government’s pay structure. Some workers now receive about the same pay as those they supervise, causing irritation and reducing morale. 

Salary compression is one reason why the commission did not raise their wage floor last year, even though the local government is no longer meeting the living wage standard for all workers.

A new pay study

ACC Manager Blaine Williams has proposed a new study of wages and classifications across the entire local government, as he plans to do every five to seven years. His goal is to address salary compression and ensure that the local government remains competitive for talent with peer communities. With unemployment at historically-low levels (it was 3.7% nationwide in January), workers now have more freedom to move from job to job seeking higher pay than they did previously. 

That’s made it very difficult for businesses and governments alike to retain employees. About 20% of the jobs the local government has available are currently unfilled. 

Williams feels that improving employee retention has become critically important and he’s been moving quickly to find a contractor to perform the wage study. The ACC HR department put out a request for proposals (RFP) for a contractor last year, but importantly they did not include establishing a living wage policy as part of their request at that time.

Commissioner Jesse Houle
Commissioner Jesse Houle

That irked Commissioner Jesse Houle, who has been advocating for a living wage policy for years, even before seeking public office. When commissioners were ready to approve the Segal Company for the study contract at last Tuesday’s meeting, Houle spoke up to bring living wages into the discussion. Houle proposed including the cost of living as listed in the MIT living wage calculator as a factor in this study and in all future wage recommendations.

“We all know the cost of living is going up,” Houle said. “We haven’t adjusted our wage floor for that. That’s in part because the manager rightly pushed for us to do so in a structured way [which would prevent salary compression].”

As requested by the manager, Houle wants to provide a structured path forward to include living wages in every pay study going forward instead of raising the wage floor in an ad hoc manner during yearly budget negotiations. 

If that eventually happens, it would establish a living wage policy within the ACC government for the first time.

Most commissioners supported Houle’s proposal in an 8-2 vote with only Commissioners Patrick Davenport and Allison Wright voting no. Wright explained her vote by saying she wanted to approve the pay study without delay or additional complications. Similarly, Davenport urged his colleagues to focus more on the need to address wage compression with this pay study rather than on raising the wage floor, which could be done later.

Commissioner Patrick Davenport
Commissioner Patrick Davenport

“When we did the $15.60, what it did was cause compression and a lot of our employees got upset with that,” Davenport said. “I’m all for the plan, but I have a lot of questions about the budget, a lot of questions about how this is going to be implemented every year? We have other mechanisms to address the living wage issue.”

Davenport wants the commission to make the decision on raising the wage floor during each year’s budget negotiations and opposes putting it in the budget automatically through policy. In practice, this would mean the wage floor would rarely be raised.

Next steps

Despite Davenport’s objections, Houle’s proposal passed with a large majority in support. However, their plan to establish a living wage policy within the ACC government may ultimately end up failing.

That’s because the ACC HR department originally sent out the RFP without including guidelines around a living wage floor, as mentioned above. It’s still possible to do so, but it’s a bit late in the process to make the change now. 

Things can still go forward as planned if the Segal Company decides they can include an adjustable living wage floor in their study with a minimum of effort. But if Segal feels that it’s a significant change, the local government would have to re-issue the RFP or face a potential lawsuit. If they made a significant change to an RFP after selecting a contractor, it would be unfair to the other contractors who would have grounds to sue.

But re-issuing the request for proposals would take months. Commissioners may not want to wait that long. They may prefer starting the pay study as soon as possible to address the salary compression problem and slow the rate of attrition among employees.

Despite Houle’s efforts, whether the local government establishes a living wage policy at this time may be up to the Segal Company.

TAD funding for east Athens

Commissioner Tiffany Taylor scored a win for her district at this meeting when she spoke up about a planned split in tax allocation district (TAD) revenue between downtown and inner east Athens.

The commission established a TAD in east downtown back in 2020 which diverts increases in property tax revenue into a special fund that can only be spent within the TAD boundaries.

Recently, Commissioner Ovita Thornton asked ACC Attorney Judd Drake if it was possible to reserve a percentage of TAD funds for part of the district, namely inner east Athens, instead of using them throughout the TAD area. Drake responded affirmatively, and Thornton proposed a plan to reserve 30% of the TAD revenue for the inner east Athens portion (shown in dark blue on the map below).

A map showing two parts of the east downtown TAD.

Taylor agreed with this plan overall but passionately argued for a larger percentage of TAD revenue for east Athens, which she represents.

Commissioner Tiffany Taylor
Commissioner Tiffany Taylor

“We have been under-allocated and under-funded and we need resources,” Taylor said. “We want to come up with a more equitable percentage for our area…The [Classic Center] arena, although it has private investors, it also has been paid with taxpayer dollars which are also eastside dollars. What I don’t want to see is that monstrosity go up and my community still looks the same as it did when I was a little girl…We will not be coddled or patronized when it comes to the percentages.”

Taylor proposed that her district take 70 percent of the funding, leaving the only 30 percent for downtown. Her plan was approved unanimously. 

Potential TAD projects could include improvements to streets, sidewalks, Housing Authority properties or parks.

Calls continue for a ceasefire in Gaza

During public comment, the commission continued to hear demands for a resolution supporting a ceasefire in Gaza.

UGA Students for Justice in Palestine and Athens Against Apartheid have been coming to city hall for months to express dismay and outrage over the war in Gaza. Since December when protesters first began attending commission meetings, the death toll in Gaza has nearly doubled. 28,000 people are now confirmed to be dead, including over 12,000 children killed by the Israeli military. Many thousands more are missing and presumed dead. Over 85 percent of the population is homeless, facing starvation and disease.

Some commissioners responded by drafting a ceasefire resolution for their colleagues to consider. However, Mayor Kelly Girtz blocked the resolution from reaching the commission’s monthly agenda where it could be voted on. Girtz argues that the local government is not the appropriate place to debate matters of foreign policy, and that such a resolution would be ineffective in any case.

Listen to protesters in their own words here.

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