Tuesday night, Athens-Clarke County Commissioners expected a difficult set of choices in store for them going into budget talks this year. Might they be forced to raise taxes or cut services as the COVID-19 recession continues? According to initial estimates, maybe not.
ACC Manager Blaine Williams’s first draft of the budget is surprisingly optimistic, expecting revenue growth, mostly in property tax collections but also for sales taxes, even in the wake of economic disruption caused by COVID-19.
ACC fiscal years run from July to June. If social distancing restrictions are lifted by July, the impact from the economic downturn would be contained almost entirely in the current year’s budget, leaving next year — fiscal year 2021 — mostly unaffected.
That would be welcome news for Athens’ small businesses and service-sector workers, many of whom are closed for business or out of work right now. But don’t get too excited just yet — Athens (and Georgia in general) would need to see COVID-19 cases drop significantly before that would be possible. There are 54 cases in Athens as of April 1, with 7 recorded deaths.
In addition, UGA would have to reopen for in-person classes and football games would have to be played for live audiences. If that happens, we might see Williams’ optimistic scenario become a reality. Can we really expect a return of football season this Fall?
Some bad news
It’s impossible to say.
“We hope and pray we are able to return to ‘normal’ later this summer and this fall, but no one really knows the timeline of that happening,” said UGA Athletic Director Greg McGarity in a comment to APN.
McGarity emphasized that UGA football is “focused on being part of the solution” and that he will “follow the guidelines established by the medical experts.”
With those medical experts increasingly urging caution as the year continues, it’s likely that William’s budget will need to be amended. He’s planned for this scenario as well: if UGA does not reopen, he forecasts a much less rosy future. Athens would be $16.1 million in the hole (if taxes and spending otherwise remain the same), almost completely wiping out the town’s “rainy day” fund. This is the same fund that powered the “prosperity package” last year, the existence of which is extremely important for determining the county’s credit worthiness.
If commissioners expect this scenario, they will most likely make budget cuts, raise taxes or do a little of both.
Still, things aren’t so bad! Even with the $4 million prosperity package spent* and with the impact of coronavirus on the economy, Athens will still run $3.6 million under budget this year. Amazing!
This fiscal prudence has restored the “rainy day” fund for now, and gives a bit of a financial cushion to work with during budget negotiations this year. That has given Williams the freedom to include extra programs, new positions and even small raises for staff.
This budget draft includes:
- 1% cost of living adjustment for ACC employees.
- 1.5% merit-based raises (on average) for ACC employees.
- A much-needed increase to juror pay as requested by numerous grand juries.
- Fare-free nights and weekends on Athens Transit.
- Continued funding for the Neighborhood Leaders program.
- Expanded cybersecurity initiatives.
- Eight additional 911 Communications Officer positions, trained in Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) protocols.
A Much Needed 911 Fix
ACCPD and public safety advocates have long recommended the eight extra 911 Communications Officer positions. These positions would allow ACC to handle intake for all medical 911 calls, which are currently outsourced to National EMS, a for-profit ambulance company.
However, the positions do not cover taking over ambulance dispatching as well: that would still be outsourced. The ACC Police Department sees that as a problem.
Athens’ “fragmented” 911 system “presents delays … when urgent information must be relayed,” ACC Police said. This is why they have recommended the additional positions, but they originally asked for more.
Public safety advocate Sam Rafal agrees. He told APN that he supports the plan to hire eight additional officers but still feels it would “leave serious public safety concerns unaddressed, even after spending up to 80 percent of what it would cost to fully solve the problem.”
Four commissioners (Hamby, Denson, Mariah, Davenport) spoke up specifically to urge hiring two additional officers (making 10 in total) to fully implement ACCPD’s suggestions.
There will surely be changes made before passage of the fiscal year 2021 budget sometime in June. Williams presented the budget draft to commissioners at their work session on March 31.
*For those wondering, the prosperity package ended up being just one program (Neighborhood Leaders) and two grant writer positions tasked with searching for more money to support future poverty-reduction programs. The remaining ¾ of the original package was folded into a COVID-19 relief and “resiliency” package, which is currently being debated by the commission.
Featured images from pexels.com.