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ACC Commission Approves Budget, but Not Without Controversy

Commissioner Ovita Thornton caused a controversy by abstaining from a vote on the Athens-Clarke County budget. Credit: Savannah Cole / file

After rewriting a portion of Athens-Clarke County’s fiscal 2024 budget on the fly, a split ACC Commission voted last week to approve a budget with a 0.65-mill property tax cut over the rate Mayor Kelly Girtz had originally proposed.

The commission voted 5–4 on commissioners Jesse Houle and Carol Myers’ budget proposal, which included a smaller tax cut of 0.3 mills. Commissioners Patrick Davenport, Melissa Link and Tiffany Taylor also supported it. However, it needed six votes to pass. Commissioner Ovita Thornton abstained; if she had voted no, Girtz could have broken the tie in favor of the progressive faction’s budget.

Clearly caught off guard, Girtz asked Thornton for her rationale for abstaining. “The budget vote is the most significant thing we do annually,” he said.

Commissioner Mike Hamby jumped to Thornton’s defense. “I don’t think you do [need to give a reason],” he said. “There are plenty of times people have abstained and just abstained.”

“I’m just abstaining,” said Thornton, who participated by phone but was not physically present. 

Houle asked Attorney Judd to clarify whether Thornton could abstain with no explanation. “I’ve been to a lot of [Association County Commissioners of Georgia] classes where they heavily emphasized against abstaining if you don’t have a conflict of interest,” Houle said.

Judd Drake said after reviewing the commission’s rules that Thornton could abstain, but Girtz pressed her to vote yes or no. “I was actually going to abstain on both because I have not been involved in this process,” Thornton said. (As mayor pro tem, she chaired one budget hearing in May but missed several others after her husband’s death.)

“I take issue with abstaining. I think it’s being done under false pretenses,” Houle said. “I don’t want to speak for the mayor, but I think it’s pretty clear where he stands on this. I think this abstention is being done to blockade the budget from passing. I do feel like if someone doesn’t feel comfortable with the version on the floor, a no vote would be much more appropriate.”

Thornton did not abstain on Hamby’s budget, co-signed by commissioners Dexter Fisher and John Culpepper. She voted no, so the Hamby budget failed by a 4–6 vote. 

Then Hamby started altering his proposal on the fly, offering to cut the millage rate by 0.65 rather than 0.75 and put $680,000 back into reserves “so that we can meet those emergencies that have been spoken about.”

“We can’t be modifying the budget on the floor,” Houle said as Taylor agonized. “We’ve worked on this for months.”

Thornton and Taylor switched their votes, and Hamby’s revised budget passed 6–4. 

While Houle had expressed concern that Hamby’s budget relied too heavily on one-time federal funds, neglected maintenance and did not leave enough cash in reserves for an emergency, in the end, the main sticking points were about $30 for the average homeowner and $1.7 million to purchase a fire truck. Despite the seemingly minor details at issue, rarely, if ever, has a budget vote been so divisive. Generally, commissioners hash out their differences in work sessions, and by the time the final vote comes around, it’s unanimous, or perhaps with one dissenter. 

The new fiscal year doesn’t start until July 1, so ordinarily commissioners could have taken another week or two to come up with a compromise. But Girtz had already canceled their June 13 work session, June 20 agenda-setting meeting and July 5 voting meeting to give them a month-long break.

In contrast to previous public comment opportunities on the budget, where homeowners complained about their taxes, most speakers at the June 6 meeting favored the Houle/Myers budget and a smaller tax cut, arguing that it would put the government on sound financial footing for a possible economic downturn.

Baxter Street Frat House: The Phi Kappa Tau fraternity withdrew a proposal to turn the Red & Black newspaper’s office at 540 Baxter St. into a fraternity house—a zoning request that had been opposed by nearby residents. In a note to Red & Black alumni and supporters, publisher Charlotte Norsworthy Varnum said that the organization had decided not to sell the building.

Olympic Drive: Commissioners voted unanimously to turn down a previously rejected rezoning request for a townhouse subdivision on industrial property off Olympic Drive. The homes would have been marketed to the 1,700 employees at the Meissner biotech equipment plant coming to the area. East Athens residents said the community would not benefit from such a development, and that it would lead to gentrification. Developers argued that it would prevent gentrification by creating new housing for workers moving into the area.

Firefighters’ Union: The commission voted 9–1 to recognize the Professional Firefighters of Athens-Clarke County Local 2795, with Commissioner Allison Wright opposed. Firefighters have been pressing commissioners to recognize the union for months, saying it would improve morale, but Manager Blaine Williams opposed the union, arguing that the fire department would be getting special treatment over other ACC employees. (Under state law, firefighters are the only government employees allowed to collectively bargain.) Mayor Kelly Girtz vetoed union recognition earlier this year, but he said he would accept the commission’s decision this time, and even if he did veto it, only seven votes would be needed to override the veto.

Barber Street: The commission unanimously approved Link and Fisher’s alternative plan for a bike and pedestrian path along Barber Street. The Boulevard Neighborhood Association, BikeAthens and the Athens in Motion advisory group supported county staff’s plan for a separated bike facility along the entire corridor, but Link’s proposal replaced it with a multi-use path between Boulevard and Prince Avenue to preserve on-street parking. 

Bishop Park: Commissioners rejected a $7.6 million bid to replace the pool at Bishop Park because the bid was $3.5 million over the $4.3 million in SPLOST funds earmarked for the project. The pool will remain closed in 2023 because some equipment has already been salvaged for other pools, county officials said, but it could reopen in 2024 in a limited capacity.