Commissioners finalize American Rescue Plan framework

The ACC Commission has developed a framework for how to spend funding from the American Rescue Plan, an economic recovery package which brought in over $57 million to Athens’ local government. The commission’s framework will address a variety of community needs over the next five years, including youth development, violence prevention, affordable housing, homelessness, behavioral health, business development and workforce support.

How the money will be spent
Thornton’s flawed plan
Other commissioners weigh in
Raising commissioner salaries

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How the money will be spent

The commission has already allocated $22 million of the $57 million package to fund immediate needs like eviction prevention and an official homeless encampment. The commission also authorized $8 million for ACC staff in the form of a retention bonus and premium pay for hours worked during the pandemic. Most of the remaining funds have been apportioned into five “buckets,” or general categories of expenditure. Each “bucket” will have an advisory committee consisting of various community partners, as shown below. 

These partners, in collaboration with the public and outside consultants, will help develop a plan of action to decide on a more granular level how the money will ultimately be spent.

Affordable Housing ($11 million)

The commission is asking for the creation of a “community‐wide Housing Affordability Investment Strategy” including “anti-displacement strategies for gentrifying areas.”

Advisory committee: The Georgia Initiative for Community Housing and other community partners.

Youth Development and Violence Prevention ($7 million)

The plan in this category is to “increase the well-being of at-risk youth and decrease involvement in violence.” $500,000 from this “bucket” has already been allocated and will be used to fund youth summer programs this year.

Advisory committee: The Clarke County School District and other community partners.

Homelessness ($5 million)

The commission wants to see a “community‐wide five year strategic plan to address homelessness, to reduce and prevent homelessness in ACC and to strengthen the mental health and social service support systems for unhoused residents.”

Advisory committee: The Homeless Coalition and other community partners.

Business Development and Workforce Support ($4 million)

The commission wants to find a way to support both businesses and workers directly through various means, including childcare support for low-income families, the development of worker-owned cooperatives and by helping workers organize for improved wages and working conditions.

Advisory committee: To be decided at an upcoming work session.

Behavioral Health ($4 million)

The task here is to “serve under-resourced residents of ACC who have behavioral health needs”  with a focus on “supportive housing as well as alternatives to crisis intervention and incident resolution outside of the carceral system.”

Advisory committee: Advantage Behavioral Health and other community partners.

In addition to the categories above, the commission has reserved $4.5 million of the package for unspecified future needs. The final American Rescue Plan budget breakdown as decided by the mayor and commission is available here.

After the action plans for each category are finalized with community input, ACC staff will seek to contract out most of the work to non-profits or other agencies. Each plan will be funded to at least the tune listed above, but the plans will be much more ambitious than that and will require additional funding if they are to be completed. Commissioners are hopeful that more money can be identified by pursuing federal or state grants.

As you can see above, the commission has decided to split the American Rescue Plan money into a large number of projects in many different areas. This will cause a lot of the money ($2.35 million) to be spent on administration over the plan’s five-year period and a lot of time and deliberation before it can be implemented. If commissioners had instead decided to invest most of the money in something like stormwater infrastructure, an ongoing need in Athens, this overhead cost could have been reduced. 

Commissioner Melissa Link

However, commissioners saw the American Rescue Plan as a unique opportunity to invest in programs of social uplift that would normally be prohibited by the state government.

“This is a gift in our laps that comes along once in a lifetime,” Commissioner Melissa Link said. “The state is very restrictive on how we spend our own public dollars. The federal government is giving us some leeway to actually spend money on people.”

A working majority of commissioners decided months ago to take full advantage of this opportunity, rather than take the easier path of spending on infrastructure that could instead be funded through typical revenue streams or through the infrastructure package passed by Congress last year.

While this framework may have been long discussed, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any disagreement among commissioners at their meeting last Tuesday.

A curious debate

Thornton’s flawed plan

Commissioner Ovita Thornton, headshot
Commissioner Ovita Thornton

A majority of commissioners voted to accept the general framework for how to spend American Rescue Plan funding, but four commissioners (Davenport, Wright, Thornton and Hamby) opposed the idea. After Commissioner Mariah Parker proposed the plan detailed above that eventually passed (which she co-wrote with Myers, Houle and Denson), Commissioner Ovita Thornton spoke up with an alternate plan based on Parker’s. 

Thornton wanted to spend an extra $1 million on public health, $5.5 million on infrastructure for stormwater control and broadband access and an additional $500,000 on youth summer programs this year ($1 million in total). In exchange, she cut spending on fighting homelessness in half and took most of the funding from “future needs,” leaving only a half million in that category.

Beyond these spending adjustments, Thornton wanted to speed up the process for getting money to the people who need it but did not fully explain how that would be accomplished. She also wanted to cap spending on outside consultants for each category at $10,000. It is unclear how such a cap would affect the strategic plans that would ultimately be produced, or if these plans could even be created at all for that amount. 

Thornton’s plan also contained math errors and other inconsistencies, showing that it may have been created at the last minute. When Commissioner Jesse Houle asked for clarity on some of the inconsistencies, Thornton withdrew her motion and instead made a motion to delay the decision for another month so she could work out the details. But before the commission could vote on her motion to postpone, she had already changed her mind and decided to stick with her original plan despite its confusing and contradictory nature.

She acknowledged the flaws in her plan, but still preferred voting on it so she could put her colleagues on the record, forcing them to vote no. “I’d rather for the no vote to be on the CDO [Commission-Defined Option, i.e. her original plan],” she said. “It’s real clear I don’t have the votes.”

Thornton presumably feels she will derive some future benefit from forcing a ‘no’ vote on her plan rather than on a motion to delay. Over the past year or two, Thornton and Commissioner Mike Hamby in particular have sometimes crafted flawed proposals at the last minute, intending for them to be shot down by the other commissioners. Later, they will bring up these past votes in an attempt to portray the rest of the commission negatively.

For example, during their discussion on raising commissioner salaries in this very meeting (see below), Thornton criticized her colleagues for one of these past votes. Specifically, she mentioned when they blocked Hamby’s idea to give all ACC government employees making over $15 an hour a 12.2% raise in last year’s budget. She implied that it was wrong for commissioners to give themselves a raise while not boosting the salary of the average worker.

Mike Hamby
Commissioner Mike Hamby

Thornton did not mention that Hamby’s idea was brought up at the very last minute after months of complex budget negotiations. She also did not mention that it was a reaction to the new pay floor of $15 an hour for all ACC government employees favored by progressive commissioners. Hamby’s plan would have actually delayed raises for these lower-paid employees by six months while giving upper-level management a huge boost in salary.

Nevertheless, Thornton has often used that vote against her colleagues as a way of causing political damage.

Other commissioners weigh in

Commissioner Allison Wright seconded all of Thornton’s motions, saying that she wanted more money spent on infrastructure like broadband and water and sewer connections in low-income areas of the county. Wright voted for Thornton’s proposal but against Parker’s.

Hamby spoke more directly than Wright in opposition to Parker’s plan, saying that there were “very specific guidelines” built into the proposal that “the community ought to look at and weigh in on.” He urged for a delay in passing the framework, but later changed his mind and voted for Thornton’s motion, which included all of the same specifics, although he voted against Parker’s plan.

Commissioner Patrick Davenport
Commissioner Patrick Davenport

Commissioner Patrick Davenport, on the other hand, voted no on both proposals because he objected to spending money on things like fighting homelessness and youth programs without a strategic plan, saying that “we need to be responsible to the taxpayers.” He wanted to “slow down” and gather more community input before deciding on a general framework for how to allocate the funding. 

All other commissioners voted no on Thornton’s plan, but yes on Parker’s proposal, which passed 6-4.

Raising Commissioner Salaries

Commissioners voted 6-4 along the exact same lines to raise salaries for their own positions at this meeting as well. Commissioner salaries haven’t been re-evaluated since 2001, although they have received regular cost of living adjustments, bringing their current annual salaries to $19,100 with an extra $1,200 available once they complete their certification with UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute.

Starting next year, commission salaries will be set at $28,693. This specific number was chosen because it is the average commissioner salary for comparably-sized counties in Georgia.

For more information on this controversial vote, check out Flagpole’s excellent reporting on the topic here.

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