City DopeNews

Commissioners Are Talking About Splitting Up Leisure Services

The East Athens Little League season started Mar. 28, and Satterfield Park was nowhere near ready.

The small park off Cherokee Road is undergoing some much-needed repairs. But as of last week, it remained “a full-blown construction site, hazards and all,” with cables, wires and chunks of concrete lying around, according to one parent, Caroline Kelly. The concession stand, a major source of revenue for the league, was closed, scoreboards didn’t work, and bleachers were missing.

The $661,000 SPLOST project—which includes new water lines, a larger concession stand, new scoreboards and dugout renovations—is scheduled for completion within two weeks, Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services Director Pam Reidy said. She was unsure if construction was behind schedule or not, and project manager Keith Sanders with the SPLOST office was not available for comment.

Even if Satterfield Park is up and running soon, Little League parents’ concerns dredge up larger, long-standing issues with Leisure Service. Just in the past couple of years, citizens have expressed frustration with the limitations of a master-planning process; criticized the department for privatizing tennis instruction and dragging its feet on repaving Bishop Park courts; raised (somewhat vague) concerns about the future of the Lyndon House Arts Center; and fought with officials over access to fields for football games.

This has been going on for a long time, spanning multiple directors. Eastsiders wonder why the Westside seems to get all the love. Westsiders wonder why the Eastside got two big, new parks in the past decade while they got bupkis. (Westsiders outside the Loop are particularly screwed in this regard.) Youth sports leagues periodically feud with Leisure Services. Yet advocates for arts and nature programs often feel ignored in favor of athletics.

Reidy’s 2011 department reorganization may have made things worse. She eliminated the natural resources and athletics divisions and reassigned popular administrator Mike Wharton, raising the hackles of outdoorsy types who wondered what the changes would mean for the current and future trails and greenways Wharton was overseeing.

“I still have those same concerns” about the reorganization, ACC Commissioner Jared Bailey said at the Tuesday, Apr. 7 commission voting meeting. “I don’t think it’s organized in an effective manner, and I’d like to see us resolve those issues.”

Bailey’s comments came after Commissioner Mike Hamby floated a proposal to split Leisure Services into separate recreation, arts and nature departments. “I believe we’d get better service,” he said.

Hamby said he wants to consider the plan—which should be revenue neutral—in fiscal 2016 budget talks next month. Seven other commissioners said they’re at least open to discussing the idea.

The idea of breaking up Leisure Services dates back at least to 2010, when the Overview Commission—a citizen board appointed once a decade to examine local government operations—recommended it in a report (which was promptly shelved). “They’re usually coming from an athletics point of view,” Overview Commission Chairwoman Jill Jayne Read told me in 2011. Read headed up Clarke County’s arts and nature department when it was separate from sports prior to city-county unification in 1991.

Harry Sims, who took office in 1993, is the only commissioner left who’s been around long enough to remember unification. There was a “firestorm” during unification when people involved with Sandy Creek Nature Center thought it would cease to exist. “If you look out there, it’s thriving, it’s growing,” he said.

Sims raised doubts about whether the department could be split up without becoming less efficient. People would need to be hired to coordinate across departments. “All of a sudden, we start talking about a lot of people being added to the employment of Athens-Clarke County,” he said.

Reidy, likewise, pointed out that Leisure Services’ responsibilities are intertwined. “From where I sit, when I look at the mission of this department, all the programs and services we offer fit really well into it,” she said. “But if that’s the will of the Mayor and Commission, let’s take a look at it.”

Caroline Kelly, for one, questioned whether breaking up Leisure Services would make any difference. And ACC has more important things to worry about, she added, like poverty, transportation and economic development.

I’d agree. An effective Leisure Services Department, though, could be an essential component of solutions to those problems. Parks improve quality of life, which draws employers to Athens. Expanded after-school programs and summer camps could keep kids out of trouble and encourage them to graduate.

Normaltown Parking Deck: It’s unclear if Athens-Clarke County commissioners can do anything about a parking deck (with a medical office attached) in Normaltown that would triple the traffic on narrow, winding, residential Yonah Avenue. But several of them are pushing to revise zoning and building codes so that the situation doesn’t happen again.

About a half-dozen Normaltown and Boulevard residents turned out last Tuesday to ask commissioners to do something to revise plans for the deck, to redirect at least some traffic onto Prince Avenue. They asked that county officials consider how 800 cars a day exiting the deck onto Yonah will affect not only that street but also Park Avenue, with its wonky intersection, and Satula Avenue, which is narrow, often backed up and crowded with parked cars already.

“I don’t understand how we can do a traffic impact analysis and not consider the impact of traffic on neighborhoods. It doesn’t make sense to me,” Commissioner Jerry NeSmith said. “It’s unfortunate we don’t have the building codes, the zoning codes in place to protect against this sort of thing.

“I wonder, why won’t the developer listen and collaborate? Why can’t we as elected officials and staff cause the development to proceed in a way that considers its traffic impact on its neighbors?”

Neither residents nor commissioners (nor Flagpole) have been able to get in touch with Barrett Development Group. “I have great sympathy for the people on Yonah, and I think it’s outrageous the developer will not speak to the residents,” said Commissioner Andy Herod.

Barrett is under no obligation to negotiate with the neighborhood, since they can build the project by right under the current zoning code. “If there’s nothing in our code to prevent something like this from moving forward as is, then we need to change our code,” Commissioner Melissa Link said.

Residents filed an appeal to the ACC Hearings Board on Friday arguing that, because the 142-space parking deck is larger than the 39,000 square-foot office building, it’s not an “accessory use” under county law and so isn’t allowed in a Commercial-Neighborhood zone. The appeal also challenges the developer’s traffic study, which appears to have been almost literally written on the back of a cocktail napkin. However, planners ruled later that day that staff’s administrative decisions can’t be appealed.

Parking Revenue: The commission also approved a new parking-services contract with the Athens Downtown Development Authority that will pay the ADDA 20 percent of parking revenue to enforce parking laws and run two city-owned decks, up from 15 percent.

The additional $55,000 will be earmarked for revolving loans for small businesses, grants to improve building facades, landscaping, wayfinding signs and public art, said Commissioner Mike Hamby, who also serves on the ADDA board.

Airport Expansion: And, the commission approved a new commercial terminal at Athens-Ben Epps Airport. The $4.5 million SPLOST-funded terminal was originally supposed to be located off Lexington Road, but was moved to a less visible location on the north side of the airport due to lack of funding and the loss of commercial air service last year.

County officials said they’re in talks with several airlines. If enplanements top 10,000 per year, federal funding will allow ACC to build another commercial terminal on the south side of the airport, with the new terminal repurposed, according to the Airport Authority.

Crosswalk Clarification: Athens Rep. Spencer Frye’s measure requiring motorists to stop at crosswalks when beacons are flashing passed the legislature overwhelmingly earlier this month. Rep. Chuck Williams (R-Watkinsville) was one of five “no” votes in the House—but not because he opposed Frye’s bill, he explained. In fact, he co-sponsored it. Williams said he had an issue with Senate Bill 76, to which Frye’s HB 417 was attached. That bill allows bicycles and motorcycles to run red lights if their vehicles are too light to trip the wire that changes the signal.