Athens-Clarke County budgets have struggled along with many others since the economic downturn. Reduced retail spending means lower tax revenues, and lowered property values have also meant lower property taxes. As a result, ACC government officials have struggled with tough choices for the past few years—even reducing services slightly, and downsizing the county workforce (despite the county's continuing growth). One service cut (which several commissioners said last week they'd like to restore) reduced the frequency of curbside leaf-and-limb pickups, while a proposal several years ago to cut the number of streetlights brought such an outcry that commissioners soon dropped it. But such austerity may be ending, county manager Alan Reddish told ACC commissioners last week: "We are beginning to see a little bit of turnaround in property values and the economy in our community." Some land and home values are up, but others down, he said, making for zero growth so far. But building permits are up, more land sales are being recorded and income is up from meters and parking decks. User fees (for various permits, recreational fees, etc.) are increasing as the county moves towards a policy of charging true costs rather than subsidizing them. Water rates will also rise in the coming year—an average of $1.44 per month, or nearly $4 with sewer, Reddish said.
Still, the county faces increasing costs in various areas, and department heads were again asked to submit two proposed budgets—one no larger than last year's and one 2 percent smaller. From these proposals and projected costs and trends, county staffers and Mayor Nancy Denson proposed a budget to commissioners which (likely with minor changes, and after several opportunities for public comment) they will vote on June 3. The budget proposes no tax hike, despite the state-required, somewhat misleading newspaper ads which refer to the slightly increased tax digest, not a higher millage rate.
In recent years, ACC has largely held the line on property taxes, comparing favorably with other cities and counties in the region, Reddish said. The only comparable city with lower taxes than Athens is Watkinsville, he said. The proposed budget includes cost-of-living and merit increases for employees, covers increased medical and building maintenance costs at the jail (which has seen a "severe deficit" of maintenance), and will fund over $700,000 worth of programs formerly paid by grants, including five "full-time temporary" investigators of domestic violence and 11 police officers.
Other costs are going up, or soon will: "We are being hit with new software maintenance contracts," he said, and county government depends heavily on computers. "Franchise fees" paid by utilities to string wires along publicly-owned roads, are down, because fewer people use landline phones, and are also conserving electricity. Landfill revenue is down too, and 600 miles of county-owned streets and roads really need more maintenance than they've been getting. "Every year we're falling a little bit behind," and roadwork costs go up every year, he said.
Commissioners offered few quibbles once Reddish finished his presentation. How about adding $30,000 to formulate development strategies for Lexington Road, asked Commissioner Andy Herod. Such an initiative is "really making a difference" on Atlanta Highway, Commissioner Kathy Hoard noted. And Commissioner Allison Wright urged an update of the seemingly dormant Bicycle Master Plan, as requested by Tyler Dewey of BikeAthens, the only citizen who addressed commissioners at last week's budget meeting.