Backyard Chickens: Last week, the Cobb County Commission passed a law allowing residents to keep chickens, as long as their neighbors say it's OK. That's right: Cobb County is now officially more progressive than Athens.
So, where do backyard chickens stand in Athens-Clarke County? All over the place—the Community Protection Division doesn't seem to be doing much to enforce ACC's ban on chickens in residential neighborhoods. As far as legalizing them goes, pro-chicken forces have hardly scratched the surface.
ACC Commissioner Kelly Girtz pushed to bring backyard hens—not louder, more aggressive roosters—out of the shadows in 2008, but his colleagues about laid an egg. The current commission might be willing to peck away, Girtz says. Mayor Nancy Denson, however, opposes backyard fowl, and Girtz doesn't seem willing to spend political capital on a potentially divisive issue like poultry with other pressing issues on the table, such as downtown development.
"The chances of it happening this year? Eh, kind of slim," he says.
As I was talking to Girtz, Commissioner Jerry NeSmith—who lives in an agricultural zone where farm animals are allowed—walked over to show off the fingernail he bruised nailing together a chicken coop.
Classic Center: The things we do in the name of journalism. Your faithful political correspondent, who is ordinarily more comfortable at a Late BP Helium show than the Boston Pops, donned a suit and rubbed elbows with the rich and powerful last Wednesday at the Classic Center expansion grand opening gala. The new space looks great; it'll bring those sexy, sexy visitor dollars to our community, yadda yadda yadda... You've heard it before.
Classic Center Executive Director Paul Cramer and the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau made a pitch to the ACC Commission last Thursday for a combined $1.7 million in local hotel/motel tax revenue, a 5.3 percent increase over last year. (The county has a bit of extra hotel/motel money available because $150,000 was previously given to the soon-to-be-defunct Economic Development Foundation.)
Jones and Cramer argued that taxpayers are getting a great return on their investment. The CVB's activities generate a $45 million economic impact and $1.5 million in tax revenue. The Classic Center brings $20 million to the community, and hotel room-nights are expected to double to 60,000 because of 24 new conventions the expansion made possible.
While making it clear that they support the Classic Center and the CVB, some commissioners questioned those figures. They're "a little misleading," Commissioner Jared Bailey said, because they don't include revenue from leasing space at the Classic Center or other tax investments, such as the $24 million in sales tax revenue that paid for the expansion.
"In my business life, I never would have used this [figure] as a return on investment, because it's not," NeSmith said.
Anyone who was downtown last week and noticed the hordes of high-school kids wandering around can see that tourism and hospitality are big business, supporting stores, bars and restaurants downtown and all over the city. But will we ever know—can we ever know—exactly what return we're actually getting on our (substantial) investment?
Cuts, Cuts and More Cuts: The commission's Thursday meeting was an opportunity for so-called "independent agencies"—about a dozen nonprofits, state-local partnerships and quasi-governmental groups—to ask for a slice of the 3 percent of ACC's budget, or about $3.3 million, set aside for them. It's an annual ritual, and every year, as governments at all levels slice deeper and deeper through muscle and bone, it gets more and more depressing.
For example, did you know that a Department of Family and Children Services caseworker with a master's degree makes $34,000 per year, and one with a mere bachelor's degree starts out at $24,000? Combine the financial stress with the stress of the job, and it's no wonder they turn over every two years, on average.
"We have maybe 20 positions that are vacant that we cannot fill, that we may never get to fill again," director Dawn Criss told the commission.
The Athens-Clarke County Library has a beautiful new expansion that's almost complete, but now it must staff a 30 percent larger space with the same number of employees. The library system's executive director, Kathy Ames, and board chairman, Dennis Hopper, came hat in hand to ask for $104,536 to fund employees' health insurance and retirement, pay higher utility bills and give the woefully underpaid staff meager raises of $500 a year or a nickel an hour.
The Athens Community Council on Aging has lost 32 percent of its state funding since 2008, according to Executive Director Jennie Deese. At the same time, it's serving 49 percent more clients (7,295 last year), food costs are up 41 percent, utilities are up 55 percent, and on and on. And that doesn't even count the impact of sequestration, which will slash $1.3 million this year from Meals on Wheels programs in Georgia.
The Council on Aging has tried to bring in more money by charging for parking on game days and fundraisers like Ms. Senior Athens, Deese said. But the demand will only grow as our population continues to age. "We see a need for basic services that we cannot meet," Deese said.
The lone positive news came from the Athens Neighborhood Health Center, two low-income clinics that received a $650,000 federal grant through the Affordable Care Act last year to hire more doctors and expand its hours. The health center was competing with the Georgia Regents University-UGA medical school partnership for the grant, though, which created some ill will, ANHC Executive Director Diane Dunston said.
Apparently both institutions have put it behind them. "I was a little taken aback," Dunston said. "I was not surprised, because I know that business is business. But I am looking forward to a good future for the medical community."
The medical partnership is exploring a pediatric clinical rotation at ANHC, but nothing has been finalized yet, spokeswoman Alison McCullick said.