The commission passed the fiscal year 2021 budget for the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government this Thursday in an 7-2 vote.
Commissioner Mariah Parker, who voted no, urged her colleagues to do more to reform the ACC Police Department in the wake of the George Floyd protests. Furthermore, she asked Mayor Kelly Girtz to commit to participatory budgeting to encourage residents to be more involved in the budgeting process going forward.
Parker, along with Commissioner Tim Denson who also voted no on the budget, had crafted a proposal which would have reduced funding for ACCPD by 50% over the next 10 years, but this plan was not included in the final budget draft.
Parker tried to insert this language with a last-minute amendment, but her proposal to amend the budget failed 6-3. Denson and Commissioner Melissa Link both supported Parker’s motion.
Activists call to delay budget vote
A new group called the “People’s Budget Athens” had requested this vote be delayed by up to a month. Founded by two local activists, Imani Scott-Blackwell and Chris Xavier, this group sent an open letter to the mayor and commission which brought up all sorts of issues plaguing Athens, including low wages, housing insecurity and a high poverty rate. They asked for dramatic changes to the budget, but were not specific as to how a month’s delay would improve the situation.
It may be more likely to do the opposite by throwing the city’s finances into chaos. This is why the ACC Charter states that “the commission shall adopt the final annual operating budget for the ensuing fiscal year not later than the thirtieth (30th) day of June.” This means the commission could have delayed the vote for only five additional days.
The People’s Budget disputes this conclusion, citing the next line of the charter which reads, “in the event the commission fails to adopt the budget by this date, the amounts appropriated … for the current fiscal year shall be deemed adopted for the ensuing fiscal year.”
Link rejected the idea of delay. “It’s far too late to even think about that now, We’ve already delayed three weeks. [Delaying] also means we’d lose out on some grant funding.” Link said. However, she added that she supports a “people’s budget” and looks forward to a work session to be held in September when the budget will be refined.
The Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement held a protest on Thursday, joining in with the call to delay the budget vote. They had a detailed list of demands going beyond a delay in approving the budget. These included banning choke holds and tear gas, no longer using law enforcement officers in the school system and the removal of the Confederate monument from Broad Street.
The latter was, incidentally, voted on unanimously by the commission at this very meeting. Barring a restraining order from a judge, the monument will be removed soon.
What’s in the budget?
Progressives should not despair with the vote tonight. First, there’s nothing preventing it from being amended during the year, so the People’s Budget can continue advocating for changes over the coming months. While the budget does not include the core component of the Parker-Denson plan, it does incorporate many of its other parts:
- $350,000 for a Public Safety and Community-Building Task Force
- $175,000 for a third mental health co-responder team for ACCPD
- $57,100 for a second social worker for the Public Defender’s office
- $292,000 to bring 911 dispatching fully under public control
Athens’ 911 center will now control ambulance dispatching
At least one Athens activist will be celebrating with the passage of this year’s budget.
Public safety advocate Sam Rafal, who runs the website wheneverysecondcounts.org, has been pushing for tighter regulation of emergency services in Athens for years. He has strongly supported the police department’s own recommendation (listed as “option 4” in this 2019 report) that they be allowed to handle dispatching for ambulances as well as police units. Currently, National EMS, a private company, handles their own dispatching in Athens. This forces 911 callers to state their medical emergency twice — once to Athens’ 911 center, and a second time to National’s dispatching center — before an ambulance is sent.
Unfortunately, there are some technical hurdles to overcome first. For example, National EMS will have to install new radio systems in their ambulances. These and other challenges will take about three years to solve before the integration is complete, according to ACCPD.
This will cost $292,000 due to the need to hire ten additional 911 dispatchers. All of these new ACC employees will be trained to give medical advice over the phone, so assistance can begin immediately, and also to stay with the caller until help arrives in person (i.e. all dispatchers will be trained in Emergency Medical Dispatching protocols).
Let’s talk about taxes
The public gave almost 120 comments on the budget last Thursday. While most commented on funding for law enforcement, some also asked for a reduction in the property tax rate set by the commission. Although Mayor Girtz had already recommended a reduction of 0.125 mils, property values are rising at such a sharp rate in Athens that many homeowners still would have had to pay more than in previous years.
In the final budget, the commission lowered the property tax rate by another 0.125 mils for a 0.25 mil reduction in total. Undoubtedly, some homeowners will still pay more in taxes, but fortunately for them, the blow will be softened somewhat.
The US is in recession. Why doesn’t that show in the budget?
Nationwide unemployment is currently at 13% and economists are confirming that the US is officially in recession. Yet, budget planners in Athens recommended lowering taxes and increasing spending on a number of new initiatives even before the commission stepped in, increasing the potential deficit even further at both ends.
We’ll probably later discover that this budget was a shade optimistic.
Fortunately, our local government is in good shape to weather even a severe recession, as long as it’s a short one.
Our primary defense against budget deficits is fund balance kept as emergency reserves, sometimes called the “rainy day fund.” This was the same fund that powered the “Prosperity Package” in 2019. ACC currently has about $25 million sitting in reserve, which is enough to last through essentially any one-year recession. It’s enough to last a month with no revenues coming in at all, and that was boosted to two months with this budget.
Still, we don’t know how long this recession would last. More importantly, keeping adequate fund balance is essential even in the best of times to maintain Athens’ credit rating.
That means it’s not a good idea for the ACC government to run through their reserves in a single year; they’ll try to avoid it. In a worst case scenario, furlough days for ACC staff are a possibility.
Additionally, the commission has already “baked in” a number of less obvious budgetary tweaks that should help in the short-term. For example, they ordered that all positions becoming open during the year will stay open for a minimum of 120 days. They’ve also stretched the lifespan of ACC vehicles as a way of saving money. Finally, the cost of on-street parking downtown has been raised by 25 cents.
The Congressional Budget Office expects that economic growth will resume in the second half of this year. However, until a vaccine can be developed for COVID-19, it’s unclear whether this or any prediction should be considered reliable.
Until then, please remember to wear a mask and let’s all hope for the best. Bye for now!
Wait, what happened to the Prosperity Package?
Oh yeah! I almost forgot about that.
Some readers may be curious about the fate of the Prosperity Package, which was an attempt by Commissioners Ovita Thornton and Mike Hamby to begin to address our county’s dire poverty problem.
Originally, the idea was to spend $4 million of fund balance on twelve different poverty-fighting programs. However, the commission couldn’t decide on the best way to spend this money, and after several months of debate they had only agreed on one program — Neighborhood Leaders. They also approved salaries for two grant writers so they could find additional funding. The rest of the money was spent on economic relief measures after COVID-19 shut down Athens’ economy.
Both the Neighborhood Leaders program and the two grant writer positions are being continued this year.
For the current budget, the title “prosperity package” is no longer in use. However, similar poverty-fighting aspirations have been folded into Commissioner Melissa Link’s “Safe Communities” plan, so don’t think the commission has given up on this idea.