Raises for county staff, fare-free nights and weekends for Athens Transit, a property tax rate reduction and expanded public safety initiatives were all on the table as commissioners discussed a budget proposal put forward by Mayor Kelly Girtz last Thursday.
The optimism of the ACC government comes in stark contrast to large budget cuts being proposed by the state. For example, the University System of Georgia has been asked to develop a plan to cut 14 percent of its budget this year, making furloughs inevitable.
But is it possible the economy will recover more quickly than state planners seem to anticipate? It’s always difficult to predict what the future will bring, and it’s even more challenging this year due to the effects of COVID-19. The previous budget recommendation by Manager Blaine Williams in April was surprisingly optimistic even as national unemployment numbers spiked to levels not seen since the “Great Recession” of 2008.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office does anticipate that final numbers nationwide will show that a severe economic recession took place in the first half of 2020, but they expect growth to return in the second half. Like it or not, recovery may come even sooner in Georgia — our economy is already beginning to reopen. UGA is planning to hold in-person classes this Fall which may bring welcome relief for local businesses. Of course, a second wave of coronavirus infection would scrap these plans immediately, but barring that, perhaps there really is reason to be hopeful?
Let’s explore the current draft of Athens-Clarke County’s fiscal year 2021 budget, as proposed by Mayor Kelly Girtz:
Revenue: Property and Sales Taxes
Our local government has two big ways to raise money: property taxes and sales taxes.
ACC Finance Director David Boyd expects general fund revenues to increase by 2.3 percent to $139.3 million. Property tax collections are doing the heavy lifting here; alone, they are expected to increase by about $3.3 million. That means property tax revenues account for the entire 2.3% general fund increase, with other revenues roughly balancing out.
Some homeowners may be tempted to blame the mayor and commission when they get their property tax bill this year. The true culprit is the relentless upward drive of real estate values, not the tax rates set by the commission. Property values have been growing at a phenomenal pace since 2018; in 2020, they grew by 7 percent overall, with some expanding even faster.
Mayor Girtz attempted to soften the blow for homeowners in this budget by recommending a reduction in property taxes by 0.125 mils. He is also recommending a deferral of water and sewer rate increases, which will have an even greater impact — it amounts to a savings of $8.80 per month for the average household. Some relief is also coming to restaurants and bars via a reduction in alcohol license fees.
Another major contributor to general fund revenues is sales tax, which Director Boyd also expects to grow (by 2.8 percent) in the next year! How could that be in this economic climate? Unemployment has exploded nationally and currently sits at 14.7 percent. The Congressional Budget Office predicts an average of 9.3 percent unemployment in 2021, or still much too high for sales tax growth to seem remotely feasible. So what’s up?
Director Boyd is basing his projection on March sales tax revenue, which was (only) 9 percent down when compared to March 2019. He feels these numbers are similar to those seen when UGA is not in session; with UGA students coming back in the Fall, sales tax revenue will return with them. He might be right in these assumptions as far as we know, but the numbers for April are not yet available. If they come in significantly lower than for March, he may be forced to revise his projections.
Back to the plus side, a potential increase in sales tax collection from online retailers such as Amazon is also not included in Boyd’s projection. Governor Brian Kemp signed a law this year to impose sales taxes on all online retail purchases, including from third party vendors, which could raise hundreds of millions annually. This could mean an unexpected boost for both the general fund and various SPLOST capital funds.
Raises for ACC employees and other new programs
Mayor Girtz has recommended the following new programs and other additions to the fiscal year 2021 budget:
- 1% cost of living adjustment for ACC employees.
- 1.5% merit-based raises (on average) for ACC employees.
- $2.1 million for a new pay plan for ACC public safety employees.
- An increase in juror pay from $25 to $40 a day.
- Fare-free nights and weekends on Athens Transit.
- Continuing the Neighborhood Leaders and Workforce Development programs.
- Eight additional 911 Communications Officer positions, trained in Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) protocols.
Mending Athens’ “fragmented” 911 system
About halfway through the meeting, commissioners finally got to discuss their own budget ideas.
Commissioner Tim Denson expressed a concern that the eight additional 911 dispatchers would not be enough to fully implement the ACCPD recommendation for consolidating 911 call centers (National EMS currently runs a call center for medical calls in Watkinsville serving several counties including Athens-Clarke — this would be partially merged into the ACC 911 center if funding for it stays in the budget). Denson pushed for the hiring of two additional dispatchers that ACCPD would need for full consolidation, making 10 in total, and there was broad agreement from other commissioners.
Public safety advocate Sam Rafal approves of the commission’s progress on this issue. “The ACCPD’s recommended option #4 requires the hiring of just two additional dispatchers over the Manager’s proposed 2021 Budget and it actually fixes the problems outlined in the report. It will unify our fragmented system, improve response times, and ultimately save lives,” he said in a comment to APN.
Commissioner Mariah Parker brought up the Mental Health Co-Responder program recently implemented by ACCPD and asked if it could be expanded. This program is especially relevant after an unprecedented six officer-involved shootings happened in 2019, most of which seemed to involve mental health issues. Going further, some commissioners feel this program could be the beginning of a reimagined and completely transformed police force.
Denson described his conversations with Parker “about a potentially drastically different idea of what police forces can do and what their responsibilities are.” This sounds intriguing but it’s still off in the future; Parker’s plan this year would be to increase the program’s budget by 50 percent, if the funding can be found.
Another plan commissioners discussed at this meeting was the addition of a social worker to the Public Defender’s office, an idea which also seemed broadly supported.
Lastly, there’s also at least one area in which Commissioner Melissa Link wants to cut spending — she’d like to stop the District Attorney’s office from getting a raise. The DA’s office is currently budgeted for a 1.6 percent increase, some of which could be used for the DA’s own salary. An election for this position was scheduled for this year, but it has been canceled by Governor Kemp, who would apparently prefer to appoint Athens’ next DA instead.
“Until we can install a DA who is duly elected by the people of this community, I don’t think we need to be increasing that DA’s salary,” Link said.
Opportunities to comment on the budget
If you missed the meeting, you can let the commission know how you feel using this form, or you can attend the second or third Taxpayer Bill of Rights Hearings which are coming up soon:
- June 2, 6:00pm
- June 16, 6:00pm
Those who wish to comment in person will be let into the commission chamber one at a time.