Commission recognizes firefighters union, Thornton manipulates budget vote

The ACC Commission officially recognized the Professional Firefighters of Athens-Clarke County and approved the fiscal year 2024 budget after an unusual series of votes in a five-hour meeting on Tuesday. They also approved a multi-use path concept for Barber Street and provided some extra funding for the Classic Center Arena.

The long meeting was necessary so the commission can clear their agenda before taking their scheduled vacation this month. Let’s break it down!

Table of Contents

Firefighter’s union recognition
Budget approval
Barber Street bike lanes
Classic Center Arena cost overruns

Firefighter’s union recognition

The Professional Firefighters of Athens-Clarke County logo

Supporters of the Professional Firefighters of Athens-Clarke County packed the meeting to ask that the mayor and commission finally recognize their union after months of advocacy. Firefighters have been urging the commission to act to address low morale and the high number of fire department vacancies, although many departments in the ACC government are dealing with similar issues.

“This job is stressful,” said the wife of one ACC firefighter who pleaded with the commission for help. “This job is already hard, but with the overtime needs, running short-staffed, trucks out of service, that makes this job even more stressful. You can give the firefighters hope. You can show them you’re serious about opening the lines of communication.”

Maintaining open communication between the fire department and the rest of the government has been a persistent theme in these discussions, with many firefighters saying they feel silenced by current policies.

“At the end of the day, the vote comes down to whether you believe that firefighters have the right to advocate for themselves and our community,” said Emily Thompson Alger, the President of the Professional Firefighters of Athens-Clarke County.

ACC firefighters enjoy a large amount of public support that cuts across party lines. The Athens Republican and Democratic parties have both spoken in favor of the measure, and firefighter support on the ACC Commission only seems to increase regardless of shifting political winds. 

Commissioners in favor of official recognition for the firefighter’s union said that it would help to improve firefighter morale, that it would enhance recruitment and also that it would allow firefighters to bring their concerns forward in a structured way. Those opposed to the idea, including Mayor Kelly Girtz, feel that giving one class of employees benefits that others don’t share would be unfair and may cause resentment. They argue that the morale benefits for firefighters may come at the expense of morale for police officers or other local government employees.

Commissioner Allison Wright
Commissioner Allison Wright

Commissioner Allison Wright was the only one to make such an argument at last Tuesday’s meeting, showing courage in the face of potential political backlash. 

“It’s going to have an adverse effect on us as a unified government,” Wright said. “All of our departments are overworked and underpaid. I think this is going to be divisive. It might help the morale of this group, but I don’t think it will help the other.”

The measure passed 9-1, with Wright as the only no vote. Girtz had previously promised a veto if this ordinance were to pass, but with support for the firefighters so firmly established on the commission, he decided to let it go. Seven votes would have been enough to override a veto in any case.

“It shows the strength of the Fire Department of Athens-Clarke County,” Commissioner Tiffany Taylor said, addressing the crowd of supporters. “You should be really proud of yourselves.”

The firefighter’s union will now begin the long process of negotiating with the local government in an attempt to come to an agreement on a contract. If they can’t agree, the contract would go to arbitration; regardless of what happens, the firefighters are prohibited by law from going on strike.

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Budget approval

Mike Hamby
Commissioner Mike Hamby

The commission also approved their annual budget for fiscal year 2024 at Tuesday’s meeting. Written by Commissioner Mike Hamby, the new budget slashes the property tax millage rate from 13.1 to 12.45 mils. This 0.65 mil cut is not as steep as Hamby had planned in earlier drafts of his proposal, but it will still provide at least some minor relief for homeowners. 

The budget also provides for a 7% raise for all ACC employees with an additional 1% in merit-based raises. It prevents employee health insurance costs from increasing this year, it provides some extra funding for neighborhood traffic calming, it fully funds a request from the ACC Library and provides $500,000 towards a new Center for Racial Justice and Black Futures among many other items.

This generous budget was made possible primarily due to phenomenally high property and sales tax projections. Hamby’s proposal will also drain the local government’s “rainy day” fund balance by about $2 million more than in Girtz’s proposal. It also makes liberal use of Athens’ share of the American Rescue Plan, which is a temporary source of funding.

You can check out Hamby’s budget proposal yourself here. You may also wish to review the Mayor’s recommended budget, which Hamby’s proposal modified.

An unusual series of votes

Hamby’s proposal eventually passed 6-4 on the third vote, with Wright, Hamby, Taylor and Commissioners John Culpepper, Ovita Thornton and Dexter Fisher voting in support. This is already quite unusual. Since they have months to discuss and negotiate, the commission normally passes the budget unanimously on the first vote.

That didn’t happen here. Instead of compromising with each other, Hamby and Commissioner Jesse Houle were working on two different budget versions in parallel. Each attempted to gain support from their colleagues up until the final vote.

Vote #1

After Hamby presented his proposal, Houle and Commissioner Carol Myers jumped in with a counter-proposal as expected. The Houle / Myers proposal would have cut the property tax millage rate by 0.3 mil, raised the local government’s wage floor to $16.07 per hour (from $15.60) and provided $1.7 million to help maintain the ACC government’s fleet of vehicles, including a new fire engine. In most other respects, their proposal was very similar to Hamby’s.

When it came time to vote, the commission was evenly split on the Houle / Myers proposal. Houle, Myers, Davenport, Link and Taylor voted yes while Culpepper, Hamby, Fisher and Wright voted no. 

Commissioner Ovita Thornton
Commissioner Ovita Thornton

Crucially, Thornton declined to vote. 

Normally when the commission is split, the mayor breaks the tie. In this case, it was clear that the mayor preferred Houle’s proposal and would have voted that way if given the chance. By abstaining, Thornton prevented a tie vote and stopped the Houle / Myers proposal from being adopted.

Girtz questioned Thornton about this abstention, asking her to give a reason. According to the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia’s parliamentary procedure manual, “Abstention should not be allowed unless a conflict of interest exists.” However, Thornton didn’t indicate that she had a conflict. Instead, she said she needed to abstain because she had not been very involved in the budget discussions lately due to the recent death of her husband.

The death of Thornton’s husband was very unfortunate for both her and her family, but as a reason for abstaining it was quickly revealed to be a façade.

Vote #2

After the Houle / Myers proposal was shot down, attention returned to Hamby’s proposal. This time, Thornton changed her mind and decided to vote after all. She voted no. All other votes were the opposite of the previous vote.

Hamby then began negotiating on the fly, attempting to win the necessary six votes he needed. He lowered the millage rate reduction in his proposal from 0.75 to 0.65 mil, which was apparently all it took.

Vote #3

This time, both Thornton and Taylor voted yes, allowing Hamby’s modified proposal to pass 6-4. Taylor was slumped at her seat, her head in her hands when it came time to vote. She even asked for more time before needing to make a decision, but of course this is not allowed.

Mayor Kelly Girtz
Mayor Kelly Girtz

After the meeting, both Houle and Myers asked for a review of commission policies surrounding abstentions. The commission does not currently have a policy preventing the weaponization of abstentions that we saw at this meeting, but perhaps they should.

“As inappropriate as I read an abstention, given the gravity of the work we are tasked with doing by the public, it clearly is proper,” Girtz said after consulting with ACC Attorney Judd Drake, referencing the lack of commission guardrails against this kind of behavior.

Barber Street bike lanes

The commission unanimously approved an initial concept design for a multi-use path (or a two-way cycle track for some segments) along Barber Street from Prince Avenue to Chase Street at this meeting as well. The Athens in Motion Commission had originally recommended an on-street two-way cycle track for this stretch, but ACC Commissioners instead opted for an off-street multi-use path for some segments at the suggestion of Fisher and Link.

Link was particularly vocal on social media against the cycle track idea, saying that it would have adverse impacts on neighboring properties due to the proposed project’s width. However, the Link/Fisher multi-use path option will also have about a 5-foot impact on the yards of some houses along Barber Street, unless care is taken in the project’s engineering. 

Perhaps more important than the property impacts for Link were some parking spaces along Barber Street in-between Boulevard and Prince Avenue – those would have been removed in the Athens in Motion recommendation, but are kept in the Link / Fisher option.

There were significant objections to these Barber Street improvements at the commission’s agenda-setting meeting last month, but Link and Fisher managed to win a unanimous vote for the project. 

Despite voting yes, Thornton expressed some concern about spending money on bicycle and pedestrian safety projects like these in the future. “I think it’s important for the folk that live in that neighborhood, but I’ll keep reminding you that bikes are not for everyone,” Thornton said. “Please don’t make it sound like this was a unanimous great thing for all of Athens.”

The project now heads to the preliminary engineering phase before coming back to the mayor and commission to receive their final approval.

Classic Center Arena cost overruns

The proposed Classic Center Arena is once again running into cost overruns resulting from contaminated rock and soil on the project site. Contractor JE Dunn is claiming about $14 million in additional expenses over the original contract amount, which the local government is on the hook for.

Commissioner Jesse Houle
Commissioner Jesse Houle

The commission gave the initial go-head for $13 million in additional revenue bonds to ensure the completion of the project, bringing the total cost to nearly $150 million. The vote was 9-1, with Houle as the only no vote. 

Houle’s concern was primarily the speed with which this agenda item was brought forward and the frequency at which it was changed. “I just don’t personally feel comfortable voting yes on something that’s been modified so substantially the day of,” Houle said. “Everything I’ve heard has made sense, but I don’t think I’ve heard it on a timeline that’s given me the chance to fully digest it.”

The Classic Center Arena is expected to open in 2024.

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