The ACC government budget for fiscal year 2022 will be approved on June 1 (barring a last-minute plot twist). In this article, APN breaks down the Mayor’s budget as it currently stands and goes over the changes some commissioners want to make to it. Finally, I’ll describe the remaining opportunities for public input.
The mayor’s budget
The budget process starts every year with ACC Manager Blaine Williams who works on a draft in consultation with various department heads. He then passes it to Mayor Kelly Girtz who finalizes his version of the budget and sends it to the ACC Commission. This year, the mayor’s proposed budget was released on April 30.
Some highlights of the Mayor’s budget draft:
- Zero-fare public transit at pre-pandemic service levels. 🚌
- Continued support for a number of workforce development, jobs and mentorship programs, such as the Young Urban Builders and the Community Corps. 🔨
- Raises for public safety employees and a restart of the Police Youth Cadet Corps program to create an employment pipeline into the ACC Police Department. 👮
- Four additional Jerry Nesmith Co-Responder teams for ACCPD, a program which pairs police with social workers. 👮👨⚕️
- A new Energy Program and Conservation Coordinator position to help get Athens to 100% renewable energy. 🌎
- Expanded public engagement efforts, including a new Community Engagement Coordinator position. 🗣
- 2% merit-based raises (on average) for non-public safety employees and a study on the development of a $15 / hour wage floor, to be implemented next year. 💲
- Property tax rates holding steady at 13.70 mils. 🏠
The effects of the pandemic
Last year as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to spread through our community, I wrote that the ACC budget being drafted at that time was “surprisingly optimistic” because it anticipated revenue growth in the face of very uncertain times.
Looking back, we know now that ACC financial staff had it absolutely right; local government revenue has indeed grown over the past year (mostly in property tax collections). While sales tax collections stayed flat, the ACC Finance department expects collections to begin to grow again in the coming year — by a hefty 5.1%!
This means the pandemic’s impact on the county budget last year was quite small, and even that small effect is now over. In fact, the local government will be flush with cash this year as we receive Athens’ share of the American Rescue Plan, which will amount to at least $57 million. But since the commission hasn’t yet decided how they will spend this money, there’s not much else to say about it here (look for future articles on this topic).
Kicking a tax increase down the road
Williams recommended a property tax increase to achieve a balanced budget this year, but Girtz didn’t agree and instead chose to keep tax rates steady. The commission then sided unanimously with Girtz, something which homeowners across Athens will certainly appreciate.
But that means about $5 million of Athens’ “rainy day fund” will be spent over the next year to meet the difference.
This isn’t a problem in the short term — the local government keeps adequate reserves to weather any brief financial crisis. Over the long term, it’s a different story. When ever expanding progressive priorities (which we’ll get to below) collide with a firm reluctance to raise taxes regressively, something’s got to give.
For now, this dynamic is resulting in a growing rift between income and expenses.
The American Rescue Plan will put off the reckoning a bit longer, but eventually the commission will be forced to either limit their priorities or bite the bullet and raise taxes, as Girtz reminded the body at their budget work session last Thursday.
The commission weighs in
At the work session, commissioners expressed their top priorities for inclusion in the final budget draft:
(click for details)
Trimming the fat
In general, commissioners had more to say about items they’d like to add to the budget, but they also mentioned some items they’d like to remove. For example, several commissioners spoke out against the Police Youth Cadet Corps idea, which sports a price tag of $184,000.
Others talked vaguely about potentially defunding Envision Athens, which is supported by the local government to the tune of $75,000 in this year’s budget. However, they seemed hesitant to voice this opinion clearly in an open forum.
By contrast, Houle and Parker were crystal clear in their opposition to the militarization of police and voiced their desire to sell ACCPD’s Bearcat, an armored vehicle. However, the ACC attorney has yet to weigh in (to my knowledge) on whether selling military hardware on the open market is legal. Also, it’s possible there wouldn’t be a buyer for such an item. The Bearcat is valued at $240,000 according to Parker, but she said it costs our community tens of thousands a year in insurance and maintenance expenses.
Opportunities for public input
There’s still time to voice your opinion about the ACC budget! You can write your comment here and it will automatically be sent to all commissioners (the budget is item #16).
The commission will be meeting on Tuesday, May 18 for their agenda-setting session at 6 pm. They also have a budget work session planned for Thursday, May 20 at 5 pm. The final opportunity to comment on the budget is right before they pass it on June 1 at 6 pm — just don’t expect them to change anything based on your comment if you wait until this late stage to speak up.