Commissioners debate as the ACC budget approaches final form

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

Mayor Kelly Girtz
Mayor Kelly Girtz

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:

Commission priorities

(click for details)

Commissioner Jesse Houle’s top priority (as reported here) involves paying all ACC employees at least $15 an hour, including part time, seasonal and temporary workers. This is the single most expensive budget addition commissioners have proposed, but the hefty price tag of $700,000 doesn’t include the cost of relieving the pay compression that this action would create.

If this was included, the final cost would be in the millions. Girtz has suggested a study of the issue to find the most cost-effective way to solve these problems, but that would take some time and it could not be ready for this year’s budget.

Nevertheless, Commissioners Mariah Parker and Patrick Davenport joined Houle in this request. Others may support it as well, but did not list it as a top priority.

While Girtz’s budget draft includes funding for four additional mental health co-responder teams as mentioned above, some commissioners wanted to go further by starting a new crisis response program modeled after CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon.

Athens’ current “co-responder” model pairs a social worker with a police officer in response to certain calls, such as those involving a mental health crisis. By contrast, the CAHOOTS program does away with the law enforcement officer and instead pairs a medic with a counselor. This team is, of course, not called out to violent situations, but they do respond to calls involving issues of mental health or homelessness. Their sole mission is to de-escalate tense situations and to provide those in need with emergency care and social assistance.

This program is a top priority for Commissioners Mariah Parker, Tim Denson and Jesse Houle.

Certain non-profits are listed in the budget as “independent agencies,” which means they are considered close partners of the ACC government. This partnership comes with a promise of long-term financial support.

Commissioners Patrick Davenport, Tim Denson, Jesse Houle, Ovita Thornton and Mike Hamby all want to make the Athens-Area Homeless Shelter an independent agency as a top budget priority, meaning it will likely be included in the final draft.

New District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez has requested funds to support two new positions in her office and also the creation of a publicly-accessible data portal, which was a campaign promise. 

According to Gonzalez, these positions are necessary before she can start a sentencing / conviction integrity unit to review past cases to ensure justice was applied equitably before she took office. The positions would also allow the creation of a diversion program “meet[ing] national standards” which would help keep people out of jail by giving “first time and low level offenders another chance.”

Commissioners Melissa Link, Carol Myers and Ovita Thornton support this additional funding for the DA’s office as a top priority. 

Notably, Commissioner Jesse Houle opposes the increase. In an open letter to Gonzalez, Houle wrote “there is a major disparity ($1.7M) in our budget between the total funding for public prosecution … and the total funding for public defense. That funding disparity is itself a key part of the inequity we’re trying to root out in the legal system.”

Commissioners Patrick Davenport, Allison Wright, Ovita Thornton and Mike Hamby support two new groundskeeper positions to enhance the landscaping along Athens’ main corridors as a top priority.

Commissioners Patrick Davenport and Allison Wright support the Public Information Office’s request for a new Digital Coordinator position as a top priority. This position would enhance our local government’s digital outreach and public engagement efforts.

The Board of Elections has requested a new Elections Assistant position and funding for extra poll workers. Commissioner Allison Wright supports this as a top priority.

Commissioner Allison Wright
Commissioner Allison Wright

The Linnentown Justice and Memory Committee, established by Mayor Kelly Girtz last year, has requested a “Walk of Recognition” memorial near the site of their former neighborhood which the city demolished in the 1960s. This memorial was mentioned in the Linnentown resolution, and is supported as a top priority by Commissioners Mariah Parker and Mike Hamby.

Public defenders in Athens are underpaid relative to prosecutors, as they are throughout the country. Commissioners Mariah Parker, Allison Wright, Tim Denson, Jesse Houle, Russell Edwards and Carol Myers all support increasing their pay as a top priority, making it very likely to be included in the final budget draft.

Residents of the Boulevard neighborhood have requested a railroad “quiet zone” be installed at railroad crossings, which would eliminate the need for trains to blow their horn as they pass through the area. Applying for such a zone would cost a flat fee of $6,000. Then a study would be needed, which would cost about $200,000. Actually implementing the quiet zone would cost significantly more, probably in the millions, a project which might be included in the next TSPLOST.

Commissioners Melissa Link and Ovita Thornton support applying for the quiet zone as a top priority. On the other hand, Commissioner Jesse Houle has spoken out against the proposal on equity grounds (Boulevard is a predominantly white, wealthy area).

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.

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