ACC Budget: Of all the spending cuts and tax and fee hikes in Athens-Clarke County’s 2014 budget, one of the smallest is getting the most attention.
Mayor Nancy Denson’s $106 million proposed budget—a statement of community values as well as a spending plan—would eliminate guided tours at the Lyndon House Arts Center, saving $8,200. Commissioner Kathy Hoard said she’s already received “several inquiries” about the cut, which, at a budget hearing Thursday, May 9, led to a broader discussion of how to make the most of the Lyndon House, a beautiful but underused space.
“We envisioned there would be wedding receptions, meetings and other activities at night and on weekends,” Hoard said, but no one seems to know it’s available. ACC Manager Alan Reddish promised that staff will “explore ways for the Lyndon House to be used more widely for events it hasn’t been used for in the past.” And the same goes for the Morton Theatre.
The proposed budget includes a total of $488,000 in cuts, in addition to $2.2 million in new spending. Denson proposed a quarter-mill tax hike ($12.50 on the average $150,000 home) to fund a 2 percent raise for employees and operating costs for new SPLOST facilities like the expanded Clarke County Jail and the tennis center at Southeast Clarke Park.
$93,000 included in the budget to staff the tennis center, in particular, riled up Commissioner Jerry NeSmith, who wondered why so much money was being devoted to something that benefits only a few, especially when many of those few are from other counties. He said that money could be better spent helping the Athens-Clarke County Library pay utility bills at its recently expanded building.
NeSmith also floated the idea of raising bus fares (for the second year in a row) to extend Athens Transit service to the westside Stonehenge neighborhood and the Caterpillar plant. Not a bad idea, but as Assistant Manager Blaine Williams explained, raising fares leads to a drop in ridership, so it may not bring in more money. And while Caterpillar’s eventual 1,400 employees should be able to take the bus to work, service to Stonehenge was dropped, not because of the cost, but because hardly anyone was using it. “We decided in some situations it’d be cheaper to buy folks a car,” Hoard said.
Commissioners regrouped Tuesday, May 14 to continue budget talks. (See Flagpole.com for an update.) They’ll take public comment Tuesday, May 21 at 5:30 p.m. and Thursday, May 23 at 6:30 p.m. in the commission chamber at City Hall.
Oh, and by the way, the Clarke County School District is finalizing its budget, too, and plans to eliminate 32.5 jobs, including 15 teachers and 14 Office of Early Learning employees, the latter due to an expired grant. Public hearings on the school budget are Thursday, May 16 at Alps Road Elementary School and May 21 at the central office on Mitchell Bridge Road; both are at 6 p.m.
Occupy Ordinance: Opposition seems to be growing to the “Occupy ordinance” aimed at shutting down protests on public property by setting hours for public spaces like the City Hall grounds.
About a dozen people spoke out against the ordinance—first proposed by Denson last year—during the open mic time at the Tuesday, May 7 Athens-Clarke Commission meeting. In addition to First Amendment concerns, speakers wondered how the law would affect the homeless. “If you are using (Occupy Athens) to kick out the homeless people, that’s really despicable, so I’m assuming it’s not that,” Chris Dowd said.
A curfew is in conflict with the downtown master plan’s emphasis on public gathering spaces like a new park and plaza outside of City Hall, Maureen McLaughlin said. Nor does it fit with plans to extend the greenway and build the Firefly Trail, Lauren Blais said. “It doesn’t make sense to me to take an avenue people use in the morning and afternoon and deprive them of it at night,” she said.
Denson called their comments a “total mischaracterization.”
“We do not have curfew legislation before the committee,” she said, even though three members of the commission’s Legislative Review Committee—Kelly Girtz, George Maxwell and Doug Lowry—asked ACC Attorney Bill Berryman last month to draft language allowing officials to set hours of operation for public spaces. They’re scheduled to discuss the draft at another meeting Tuesday, May 21.
“I assure everybody out there there’s no intention to disenfranchise or eject homeless people or infringe on anybody’s First Amendment rights,” Denson said. “What we’re trying to do is make sure our laws on the books are clear and understandable by everyone.”
Girtz said he is “specifically disinterested” in an urban camping law like Atlanta’s.
As Commissioner Jerry NeSmith, who’s not on the LRC, put it: “I haven’t perceived a problem to be solved.” This is a solution looking for a problem. Just drop it.
Dissing Denson: The last commission meeting also included a sign that, as we approach campaign season, the frosty relationship between Denson and the commission is about to break out into open warfare.
In an almost unheard-of move, commissioners unanimously voted to override the mayor and force an item onto the agenda that she had blocked. Commissioner Jared Bailey wants the planning commission to start reviewing the pre-Internet law regulating what types of businesses people can operate out of their homes, which he said will encourage entrepreneurship. Denson refused to let that review move forward because it initially grew out of a request to allow dog-boarding in residential neighborhoods, which she opposes. But, of course, just because that’s what started the discussion doesn’t mean you’ll have a kennel full of yapping Yorkies next door.
GOP Convention: The number of Republicans in Athens will about double this weekend, when the state GOP ventures behind enemy lines and holds its biannual convention at the Classic Center. The two-day convention is expected to draw more than 3,000 delegates who will spend about $750,000 while they’re here. Sure, two-thirds of us voted for Obama, but their money is as good as anyone’s.
Unfortunately, Flagpole might not be able to cover it. Brian Keahl, executive director of the Georgia Republican Party, says they’re “extending press credentials to television, radio and print media with daily distribution,” which apparently ain’t us. Scared of a lil’ ol’ lefty rag, guys?
But Wait! There’s More: As usual, too much is going on to talk about it all in one print column. Check out the In the Loop blog at Flagpole.com, where you can find out how Clarke County public schools scored on the state’s new College and Career Ready Performance Index and read a League of American Bicyclists report that ranks Georgia a surprisingly not-terrible 24th among the bike-friendliest states.
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