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Commission Passes Budget With Free Transit and $15 Minimum Wage

Mayor Kelly Girtz. Credit: Nicole Adamson/file

The Athens-Clarke County Commission passed a 2022 budget Tuesday night that includes fare-free transit for the coming year, as well as a minimum wage of $15 an hour for ACC employees.

The approximately $271 million budget—which funds water and sewer, trash and recycling, public safety, parks and other services for the fiscal year that starts July 1—also includes a host of job training programs and more mental health response teams in the police department.

Other additions include funding for the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, unarmed alternative crisis response teams for mental health emergencies, a study on racial disparities, additional funding for youth development programs, pay raises for public defenders, two new positions requested by District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez, a memorial to razed Black neighborhood Linnentown and a study on a railroad “quiet zone” in Boulevard.

“A lot of the priorities that we’ve coalesced around in recent months of work are reflected here,” said Commissioner Mariah Parker, who introduced the final version of the budget that was approved.

All told, the commission added more than $2 million to Mayor Kelly Girtz’s original proposal. But there was little agreement on what to cut. Instead, the commission will dip into rainy day funds, as well as $29 million in economic stimulus funding from the federal American Rescue Plan passed in March to make up a nearly $7 million gap between revenue and expenditures. Commissioners nixed Manager Blaine Williams’ proposal for a small property tax hike.

Funding for fare-free transit came from last year’s CARES Act that addressed COVID-19 relief. Girtz and commissioners have said they want to make it permanent using T-SPLOST, a 1% sales tax for transportation that will be up for an extension next year.

The vote on the budget was 7-3, with commissioners Mike Hamby, Ovita Thornton and Allison Wright in opposition. They wanted to include a 12% pay raise for all ACC employees to counteract wage compression, but other commissioners said higher-paid employees don’t need that raise. The county will do a study and deal with the wage compression issue later.

The commission also approved a resolution calling for a publicly owned “structured encampment” run by a local nonprofit.

“It gives our staff the go-ahead to reach out, to do the outreach, to put out [a request for proposals] to local nonprofits to actually oversee such an encampment facility, and the local government to find the public land, the appropriately located public piece of land where such a facility could be located,” Commissioner Melissa Link said. One site under consideration is a county-owned warehouse on Willow Street, but it currently lacks power or working restrooms. 

Commissioners are concerned that railroad company CSX will be clearing out homeless camps along its tracks in September, especially because there is already a shortage of housing and not enough time to build new shelters or transitional housing for people who are removed.

“This is a way for us to protect private property owners” and address complaints about homeless individuals camping on private property without involving police, Parker said. “It’s in their interest, as well, making sure folks have a safe place to sleep at night.”

The resolution passed 6-4, with Wright, Hamby and commissioners Russell Edwards and Patrick Davenport opposed. 

“My concerns are many about this concept,” Wright said, including that people could be forced into the camp, liability issues, the quick timeline and the workload it will put on staff. “I don’t agree that quality affordable housing is relocating and providing tent/tarp supplies for people,” she said. 

In addition, the commission voted 9-1 to retain Internal Auditor Stephanie Maddox for two years, with Wright opposed. Maddox—whose work has been the subject of much discussion among commissioners in closed session—recently revealed that she had filed a federal discrimination complaint last year and publicly accused Girtz and Williams of trying to intimidate her. Williams, Attorney Judd Drake and Municipal Court Judge Ryan Hope were reappointed unanimously.