Mayor releases budget with millions unspent as revenue projections skyrocket

With economic storm clouds on the horizon, Mayor Kelly Girtz has released a fairly conservative budget proposal for fiscal year 2024 that includes a 4% raise for employees, a change in medical provider at the jail, funding for neighborhood traffic management and more while keeping property tax rates steady. It also keeps $4.7 million unallocated after the most recent revenue projection came back stronger than expected.

You can read Girtz’s proposed budget here.

Table of Contents

Taxes and other revenues
Commissioners weigh in
Next steps

The first commission discussion on the budget is in the video above, towards the end. It starts at about 2:58:00.

Taxes and other revenues

Property taxes

ACC residents voted overwhelmingly last November to more than double Athens’ already generous $10,000 homestead exemption on property taxes to $25,000 while adding a tax freeze for low-income homeowners. Despite the community support, Girtz opposed this idea when it was brought forward in 2021 because he feared it would erode the ACC government’s tax base and require him to raise taxes.

This fear appears to have been unfounded. 

Skyrocketing home values and new construction grew the tax digest by an incredible 13% last year. Even accounting for the increased homestead exemption, ACC financial staff estimate that property tax revenue will grow by 7.4% over the next fiscal year. That means the stable property tax rates recommended in this budget will provide an extra $6.1 million in revenue for the local government.

Sales taxes

Sales tax revenues also show extremely strong growth as Athens continues to become an even more attractive place to live, work and shop. While a recession could always throw these numbers off, ACC financial staff expect to see an eye-popping 12.8% increase in sales taxes collected over the next fiscal year. That will bring in $3.8 million in additional revenue.

Other taxes and fees

Our water bills will be going up this year by about $4-6 a month for the average household. Landfill tipping fees are also increasing as a way of extending the landfill’s lifespan more than for the revenue itself. Athens is also expected to see significant increases in revenue from excise taxes on things like alcohol sales and rental cars over the next year.

Hotel-motel special revenue fund collections are expected to increase by a massive 23.8%, in part because more people visiting Athens, but also because AirBnBs and other short-term rentals are now expected to pay hotel-motel tax just like any other hotel.

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Mayor Kelly Girtz
Mayor Kelly Girtz

Unlike past years, Girtz isn’t proposing a lot of new programs or initiatives in this year’s budget. Rather, he’s focusing on keeping up with what we already have. Girtz even left $1 million in the budget up for grabs, a figure that’s grown to $4.7 million just recently after the ACC Tax Assessor’s Office revised their revenue projections upwards.

Interestingly, commissioners don’t seem to have any solid ideas for how to spend this money yet, at least not that they mentioned at their first budget work session on Tuesday. This means taxpayers might see a property tax rate reduction after all, although Girtz is recommending that the windfall go towards increasing raises for ACC staff.

Raises for ACC staff

Before realizing exactly how strong revenue projections would end up being, Girtz had already proposed a 4% cost of living raise for ACC staff, with an extra 1% on top for potential merit increases. This will cost the county about $4.7 million. Public safety employees have their own pay plan, but the increases appear to be fairly similar. 

While a 5% raise sounds good in isolation, remember that inflation is currently running at about 4.9% annually. That means the 5% raise and $3.00 can maybe buy you a cup of coffee at one of our fine local establishments. Enjoy!

All joking aside, this is probably why Girtz is now recommending additional raises. He also says he wants to completely absorb all health insurance cost increases in this year’s budget on the county’s tab. But he can say whatever he wants – the budget is currently in the hands of the ACC Commission and Mayor Pro Tem Ovita Thornton.

Pay study

ACC Manager Blaine Williams is requesting $350,000 in funding to update the county’s 2018 pay study. He feels it’s good policy to perform a pay study every five years, so the local government doesn’t fall too far behind peer communities and risk losing talent.

Improved healthcare at the jail

Sheriff John Q Williams
Sheriff John Q Williams

Another big-ticket item in this year’s proposed budget is a massive improvement to healthcare for inmates at the jail. This will cost about $2 million over the amount spent last year. Sheriff John Q. Williams has decided to recommend a new medical provider, Mediko Correctional Healthcare, instead of continuing with the current provider, Armor Health, even though Mediko’s bid is $1.2 million more expensive than Armor’s.

At a January work session, Williams heavily implied that Armor has failed to provide adequate care for inmates and may be in breach of contract. Armor shot back, calling these allegations “outright wrong, misleading and bordering on slanderous.” Either way, it’s indisputable that Mediko is offering significantly more staffing hours and a sharper focus on mental healthcare and substance abuse problems, which should improve health outcomes for inmates.

Girtz is also recommending a new medical contract compliance officer position for the Sheriff’s Office, at Williams’ request.

Other expenses

Girtz included the following smaller items in the new budget as well:

  • $348,000 for the fire department to fully-staff ladder trucks and to provide emergency medical service supervision to each fire department shift,
  • $300,000 for traffic calming in neighborhoods (things like speed bumps and traffic circles),
  • $100,000 for new software to support analysis of ACCPD datasets to improve police investigations,
  • $75,000 for a “clean tools” initiative to replace things like gas powered leaf blowers with electric versions,
  • $75,000 for pay increases at the ACC Library, 
  • $75,000 to boost salaries in the public defender’s office, and
  • $15,000 for Spanish translation at the ACC Board of Elections.

Commissioners weigh in

Commissioners didn’t mention much they wanted to add to the budget at their work session on Tuesday, even though there is $4.7 million in funding that’s unallocated. Perhaps this year’s budget negotiations will turn out to be relatively painless?

Dexter Fisher
Commissioner Dexter Fisher

Commissioner Dexter Fisher had some funding requests, including $500,000 to open community centers that have been closed around the county. The funding will come out of Athens’ share of the American Rescue Plan, not from the ACC budget, so it doesn’t count towards the $4.7 million. Fisher also wants to put an extra $16,500 towards the Athens Tutorial Program and give $20,000 more to the Athens Community Council on Aging.

Commissioner Jesse Houle spoke up for raising the pay table for all ACC employees, even new hires, to a minimum of $16.07 per hour, up from the current pay floor of $15.60.

Next steps

The public has their first opportunity to provide input on the local government’s fiscal year 2024 budget today at 5:30 pm (Thursday, May 11) at the Dougherty Street government building. After public input, the commission will confer with charter officers and other officials such as the ACC Sheriff and District Attorney about their funding requests.

The budget will also be discussed at the commission’s agenda-setting meeting at city hall on May 16 at 6 pm, with another meeting on May 18 at the Dougherty Street building if needed. The last opportunity for public input will be on June 6 at city hall at 6 pm, right before the commission votes to approve the budget.

If you have a request you want to see funded in this year’s budget, don’t wait until the last meeting when things have already been decided. Talk to your commissioner as soon as possible if you want to see any changes.

The fiscal year 2024 budget will go into effect on July 1, 2023.

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