Rejecting last-minute appeals by some 20 supporters of the Classic Center and Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau, Athens-Clarke County commissioners last week passed a 2018 budget that includes a cap on funding for both entities.
Citizens who spoke—mostly employees and representatives of Athens’ hospitality industry—were enthusiastic in praising the successes of the CVB and the Classic Center in bringing conventions downtown and growing the hotel industry here. Three new hotels totaling 500 rooms will open in the coming year, speakers said, but if occupancy rates (typically 60 percent) drop to only 50 percent, hotels will be losing money, warned Mike Waldrip, a hotel operator and president of the Athens Area Hotel Association. “We’ve got to sell those rooms,” Waldrip told commissioners.
Past budgets have allotted the Classic Center and CVB sixth-sevenths of the 7 percent hotel/motel tax collected in the county. This year, commissioners proposed to change that, allotting them only a flat amount (which would not automatically increase if collections go up in future years). Any additional money, commissioners suggested, could go toward trying to secure scheduled air service to Athens, which commissioners consider a priority to encourage new industry to locate here. $200,000 was included in the new budget for that purpose.
“This isn’t a cut at all,” Commissioner Jerry NeSmith pointed out, but merely a cap on automatic increases. Most other commissioners agreed—other departments don’t get “a blank check,” said Commissioner Sharyn Dickerson—and voted 7-2 to include the change in the 2018 budget, which goes into effect in July. Commissioners Harry Sims and Diane Bell opposed the funding change.
That budget gives all county employees a pay raise of 1 percent plus $300, costing taxpayers $1.5 million but helping employees cover higher health insurance premiums. It also:
• continues night bus service despite very light usage, and will add a new “flex route” van (service on request) covering Commerce Road to Winterville and the eastside Walmart.
• adds six new county employees in various positions and transfers four county employees into the manager’s office: two for a new “sustainability office” to work across departments to implement “a long-term sustainability plan” for green space, and two for a “geographic information office” to centralize mapping data.
• adds a revolving loan program to employ high-school students to fix up historic properties.
Water rates will go up slightly, typically $2 per month. The property tax rate remains unchanged, although increasing property values will raise many homeowners’ tax bills. Street parking downtown will go up to $1.25 an hour, while decks will remain $1 an hour.
Members of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement asked commissioners to set up a civil rights committee, a longstanding request of the group that has been echoed also by the local NAACP, ACLU, Athens Immigrant Rights Coalition, Al-Huda Islamic Center and Congregation Children of Israel. In response, Commissioner Melissa Link said that “some kind of framework” for such a committee will be brought forward later this month by the manager.