The ACC Commission has approved $5 million in American Rescue Plan funding for the Athens Homeless Coalition and other agencies to help them improve their capacity to provide services for people experiencing homelessness in Athens.
At their meeting last Tuesday, the commission also delayed a decision about a new pay study, raised the stormwater fee, gave their initial approval for a new comprehensive plan for ACC Leisure Services and re-elected Commissioner Ovita Thornton as mayor pro tem.
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Athens Homeless Coalition funded
This year, the local government embarked on a major effort to reduce homelessness in Athens. The commission took the first step in this journey last week when they approved $5 million in American Rescue Plan funding for the Athens Homeless Coalition and other agencies.
Among the various programs and agencies they funded, $1.1 million will allow the Athens Homeless Coalition to hire staff for the first time and another $550,000 will go towards operational funding for the Athens Salvation Army. In addition, the local government will use $500,000 to buy blankets, generators and other warming shelter supplies. Finally, the commission will offer $2.8 million to various nonprofits to carry out the local government’s strategic plan to reduce and prevent homelessness.
This award keeps the Athens Homeless Coalition on track to hire an executive director sometime this spring with two other positions to follow. These staff members will help the homeless coalition coordinate Athens’ many homeless service providers into a cohesive unit. They’ll also gather data, implement standards and develop the organizational infrastructure needed to carry out the strategic plan.
As of yet, the local government has not determined exactly how they will spend the $2.8 million mentioned above, but they have budgeted for three different categories of activity. Therefore, they’ll send out three different requests for proposals for agencies to carry out these aspects of the strategic plan. This will include things like building emergency shelters, transitional housing, comprehensive street outreach and developing employment opportunities for people experiencing homelessness.
ACC staff had recommended that $2.2 million be used for a new homeless shelter, but with last week’s vote, the commission declined to prioritize the funds in such a way. That’s not to say it won’t happen, but the commission has given themselves some wiggle room.
ACC staff had originally recommended $3.3 million instead of $2.8 million for the three requests for proposals and did not recommend funding the Salvation Army at this time.
The commission likely will vote on funding recommendations for these proposals in May.
Most of the ARPA money will be spent only after a formal evaluation of proposals from many different homeless services providers. Only one provider, the Athens Salvation Army, will get to skip this process.
The Salvation Army: A conflict of interest?
Commissioners Dexter Fisher and Allison Wright, together with Culpepper and Thornton, crafted a commission-defined option to grant the Salvation Army of Athens $550,000 for operational costs as they continue to house people experiencing homelessness this winter. This is not a competitive grant, so the money will not go through the normal request-for-proposals process, which would take months.
Many commissioners wish to bypass the normal process in this case to get the money out more quickly.
“[Request-for-proposals] would be a long process,” Commissioner Patrick Davenport said in support of the commission-defined option. “People are in desperate need of help right now.”
Thornton agreed, saying that the Salvation Army has extra bed capacity that is not being used because of lack of funding. “I want to be clear on my support for the Salvation Army,” Thornton said. “38 empty beds and I’m looking at 38 people laying on North Avenue in my district … My priority is folk out in the cold.”
Captain Sheldon Greenland told commissioners at last Tuesday’s meeting that the Athens Salvation Army Center currently has over 50 beds occupied out of their normal capacity of 74 beds. That leaves about 20 beds unoccupied, not 38. Culpepper, who serves on the board of the Athens Salvation Army, told APN that they can no longer afford to hire the necessary monitors who would allow them to fill all 74 beds.
“When I brought this up in November, at that time there were 30 beds that they couldn’t put people in because they didn’t have the funding,” Culpepper said. He felt it was important to get this money out as soon as possible to help get people off the street during the cold winter months.
Since Culpepper serves on the board of the Salvation Army, he recused himself from the commission vote last week. The commission-defined option passed 6-3 with Commissioners Melissa Link, Jesse Houle and Carol Myers voting no. These three commissioners felt that Culpepper had a conflict of interest and should not have participated in pushing the plan forward, which is why they voted against it.
“I respect the recusal from the vote, but the fact [is] that this was generated by somebody who’s been serving on the board… [and] circumvent[ed] the process we would normally do. I think [it is] well intentioned, but it’s something that puts this body at risk,” Houle said at the meeting.
“It gives me real pause to introduce a specific provider into an item that was originally a call for RFPs,” Link said. “To allow this one agency to pretty much skip the line, it sends a poor message to the rest of the providers in our community. There’s a question of fairness there that needs to be addressed. The conflict of interest is really disturbing.”
According to the ACC Code of Ordinances, no elected official should “vote or otherwise actively participate in the negotiation” of a contract with any organization in which they have a “financial interest.” It also says that no commissioner should serve on the board of an agency funded by the ACC government, unless required by law.
Culpepper acknowledged this potential conflict of interest when he recused himself from the vote, but he told APN that he does not have a financial interest in the Salvation Army, a nonprofit organization, and that he wasn’t the one who drafted the commission-defined option.
“Commissioner Fisher was the main author of it,” Culpepper said. “I gave him some information he asked for. If that’s a conflict of interest, I apologize. I was trying to do the right thing. If I need to step down from the [Salvation Army] board, that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that.”
The Salvation Army of Athens will need to be audited before they can receive federal funds as required by the US Treasury. The commission-defined option also specifies that a contract with the Salvation Army will need to be agreed upon by the mayor and commission at a future meeting.
Both of these requirements will end up delaying the release of the funding, regardless of the commission’s intent.
Pay study delayed
Stormwater fee raised
As recommended by the ACC Stormwater Advisory Committee, the commission raised the stormwater fee from $3.50 a month to $4.73 a month for the average homeowner. They will also raise the fee by 3.75% a year for the next five years and 2% a year for three years after that.
The revenue from the fee is used to pay for stormwater utility operations. It does not cover the costs of infrastructure repair, such as replacing the failing culverts and pipes underneath roads all over Athens. The stormwater fee hadn’t been raised since 2005.
The stormwater fee increase passed 9-1, with Thornton as the lone dissenter. Thornton voted no because she feels that the stormwater utility ignores certain areas of her district.
“In my area, there are areas that do not have stormwater drainage…Folks’ houses are actually flooding,” Thornton said.
Manager Blaine Williams clarified that all public roads across Athens are serviced by the stormwater utility, but that private land generally is not covered.
“It’s not just about your house, it’s how you get to the store or your job and how water is conveyed across this county back to the rivers,” Williams said.
The stormwater utility’s efforts help maintain water quality in Athens and prevent flooding. They are federally-mandated by the Clean Water Act. The federal government provides no funding to help cities enforce its mandate, leaving local governments to figure that out on their own. The ACC Commission charges a fee to homeowners rather than use property tax revenue so they can force tax-exempt entities like nonprofits, churches and the University of Georgia to contribute.
Therefore, the stormwater fee actually lowers the amount that homeowners are required to pay into the stormwater utility every year.
ACC Leisure Services’ new comprehensive plan
The commission selected a consultant to create a new comprehensive plan for ACC Leisure Services in a 6-5 vote. The commission was evenly split, with Thornton, Hamby, Wright, Fisher and Culpepper voting no. Mayor Kelly Girtz broke the tie in favor of approving the consultant Berry, Dunn, McNeil & Parker to create the plan.
According to ACC Leisure Services, the goal of the comprehensive plan is to “provide a long‐range vision, reduce cost redundancies, build community support and help secure grant funding.” As part of the plan, Leisure Services will examine the condition of Athens’ parks, evaluate their programming and staffing needs, consider how existing parks could be improved and also where new parks could be located.
Hamby placed $400,000 for the plan into the ACC budget last year, but due to the large expense he ended up opposing the idea at last Tuesday’s meeting. Thornton also opposed it. Together, they asked their colleagues to table it indefinitely.
“We do so many studies and we’ve made some bad decisions based on studies,” Thornton said. “Some studies are just sitting there [without being implemented]. You want to raise taxes for stormwater and you want to pay for a study? You put a $30,000 toilet downtown [APN: it was actually $314,000] and you want to pay for a study?”
Girtz spoke up to defend the importance of the comprehensive plan before casting the final vote in its favor.
“It’s an unusual month in my office when I don’t have three, four or five entities and sometimes individuals – parents or educators – knocking on my door to highlight some of the community needs that we have with the thousands of acres we manage and the hundreds of thousands of square feet of leisure facilities with one of our largest departments,” Girtz said. “Let’s [do the study and] look at the big picture so that we can appropriately prioritize these very many needs the community has.”
Thornton re-elected mayor pro tem
Thornton was elected to a second term as mayor pro tem in a unanimous vote last week.
“I look forward to Commissioner Thornton having another year,” said Myers. “I think it’s a good precedent to have our mayor pro tem serve two years.”
Mayors pro tem in Athens normally serve two years. Myers served as mayor pro tem in 2022 and would have served a second term in 2023 if the commission had followed their normal tradition. However, Thornton ousted Myers from the role last year in a highly unusual split vote.
With the vote last week, the commission’s long-standing tradition of allowing mayors pro tem to serve two years appears to be re-established.
The mayor pro tem facilitates commission meetings when the mayor is away and has a large role in shaping the yearly budget.