Library workers fight for $15 as county budget talks continue

As the ACC Commission works through the final details of the local government’s yearly budget, employees of the ACC Library are asking for funding to increase their pay to a minimum of $15 an hour. 

That would be a big boost for these workers who are now paid as low as $9 or $10 an hour. Public libraries in Georgia are a part of the University System of Georgia and not the local government, so their wages are not affected by the local government’s $15 wage floor. But neither did library workers benefit from recent boosts to state employee wages; libraries only receive a small amount of funding from the state government.

No one in either the state or local government has taken responsibility for wages at the library. Furthermore, library management itself has often failed to place emphasis on providing competitive wages for its employees. For example, library management only asked the local government for an extra $48,000 in last year’s budget, not enough to make significant adjustments to their pay scale.

As a consequence, wages at the ACC Library have been extremely low compared to peer institutions for some time. This year, with expenses rising quickly across the country, the problem has only gotten worse for library employees.

A woman stands at a podium
Anna Tench, ACC Library employee, speaks to the commission.

“As wages fail to keep up [with inflation], I see people who are extremely valuable essentially not being able to stay anymore,” said library employee Anna Tench speaking to the mayor and commission at a budget hearing last Thursday. “It’s at the point where people aren’t making enough to live.”

Nathan Sheets, a circulation manager at the ACC Library, also spoke up to support a wage increase at last week’s budget hearing. He touted the many services the library provides but lamented the institution’s rapid turnover as employees leave for better-paying opportunities. “Of all the jobs I’ve worked in Athens, including in the service industry, there is more turnover at the library than in any job I’ve seen,” he said.

Sheets handed commissioners a petition signed by 52 current and former ACC Library employees asking for higher wages. A majority of library employees have signed the petition, with more having signed since Thursday.

Fortunately, Library management is aware of their problem with low wages and is taking steps to correct it. This year, they asked the local government to increase their budget by just over $420,000 so they could increase their wage floor for most workers to $15 an hour and account for the resulting wage compression.

Valerie Bell, Executive Director of the Athens Regional Library System, told APN that the current wage floor of $10 an hour for non-temporary workers is not enough. “The staff do an amazing job for our community but they can’t afford to live off of that salary. They deserve a living wage,” she said. Temporary workers at the library are currently paid as low as $8.40.

A living wage in Athens for a single adult is currently $15.89, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, meaning the library would need more than the $420,000 they originally asked for to bring all employees to a living wage. Nevertheless, Mayor Kelly Girtz is recommending that the commission boost library funding by only $200,000 this year, or about half of their request. While this would represent a sizable 9.3% increase in the library’s local subsidy, it would not be enough to boost the lowest paid library workers to $15 an hour without causing salary compression.

MIT LIving Wage Calculator
MIT’s Living Wage Calculator results for Athens, GA

The commission questioned Girtz via email about why he was not recommending the full $420,180 increase in this year’s budget. In response, Girtz asked commissioners to “encourage our General Assembly delegation to more fully fund [library] employee compensation … as they have this year other sectors that receive state funding (public school teachers, state patrol, etc.),” implying that the state government was responsible for the other half of the request.

However, the state government does not structure the library system in a way that leaves them accountable for the salaries of local library employees, as Bell was quick to point out. 

“That’s not how it works,” Bell told APN. “The state does not pay library staff salaries. The state pays a certain amount for each region, but not everybody at the Athens-Clarke County Library receives state funding.”

The reality of the situation, barring a structural change on the state level, is that ACC Library employees will only receive a living wage when the ACC Commission steps up and provides it for them. But this request will have to compete in the budget with many other requests the commission has been receiving, including one from homeowners.

Homeowners request lower property taxes

The mayor and commission also heard from several Athens homeowners who are angry about their ever increasing property tax bills at the budget hearing.

“You’re killing the homesteaders, the people who actually live here and work here. You’ve increased our tax burden much more than our fair share,” said one Athens resident.

Girtz is recommending the commission cut property tax rates by 0.5 mil, or double the rate cut included in the fiscal year 2021 budget. This relatively large reduction in tax rates comes as Athens is experiencing a housing market explosion which has caused rapid appreciation in home values. From one perspective, this is beneficial for homeowners, whose home investment is increasing in value, and also for the government, as they have seen increased revenue. Even accounting for the millage rate decrease, our local government is projecting an amazing 12.9% windfall in property tax collections over the next year.

While some of that increase is from new construction, homeowners – particularly those living on low or fixed incomes who do not intend to sell their homes – are feeling increasingly squeezed by rising property values and the resulting rise in property tax bills. These homeowners fear they will be forced out of their homes if current trends continue.

None of those who requested a larger decrease to property tax rates mentioned anything they’d like to see cut from the budget, although one speaker suggested that federal American Rescue Plan funding should be used to make up the difference.

Mike Hamby
Commissioner Mike Hamby

Commissioner Mike Hamby suggested that the millage rate should be reduced a full mil, rather than the 0.5 mil reduction recommended by Girtz. Commissioner Allison Wright also spoke in favor of reducing the millage rate by more than 0.5 mil. 

On the other hand, Commissioner Jesse Houle opposed any millage rate reduction. Commissioner Mariah Parker also did not want to give wealthier residents a millage rate decrease, but suggested that low-income homeowners should be directly targeted for tax relief using American Rescue Plan funds.

Next steps

The commission will hold their second budget hearing at City Hall tomorrow (May 17) at 6 pm. The third budget hearing will be held on June 7 at 6 pm, right before the commission votes on the completed budget. 

The public is invited to attend either of these meetings to let the commission know their thoughts on the proposed budget, but it is highly unlikely that any changes will be made on the fly at the June 7 meeting. Be advised to send in your thoughts well before that time, either online (with “budget” as the agenda item) or in person at the meeting tomorrow.

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