Photo Credit: Joshua L. Jones/file
The Athens bus system—the state’s second-largest behind MARTA—is progressive in many ways, with real-time online bus tracking, bike racks on buses and new, efficient hybrid buses. Still, bus riders wait unsheltered in the sun and rain at many stops, and buses tend to be slow. A new 380-page consultant-produced “transit development plan,” two years in the works, recommends changes. Some would need additional money budgeted: new routes, more frequent service, wi-fi on buses, more marketing, better access for the disabled. But other changes would cost nothing and could be implemented quickly, such as simplifying some routes by changing loops to faster out-and-back routes while covering nearly the same territory.
Those changes will now be delayed as Athens-Clarke County commissioners agonize over whether the lack of public objections means there aren’t any—or whether people just haven’t heard about the changes. “We’ve had seven public meetings up to this point,” ACC Manager Blaine Williams told commissioners last week. But “I don’t think it’s really been discussed enough,” Commissioner Jerry NeSmith said. “The route changes kind of got buried as far as the public is concerned.”
NeSmith asked for a work session presentation with more details on the route changes. It will be held May 17, and other public hearings have also been scheduled this week, including one Wednesday, May 9 from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. and two more Thursday, May 10 from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. and 3–7 p.m. (See accgov.com/transit, where the route changes are also detailed.)
Several routes would be simplified, Eastside service expanded and service added to Whitehead Road. A little-used route through Forest Heights would be eliminated. The No. 9 night bus would be eliminated, adding an additional Eastside night bus instead. Routes through campus would diverted away from Sanford Drive, where a new bridge is being built. Buses would continue to serve “transit-dependent” citizens well, while speeding up service, the report says.
At the end of commissioners’ first-Tuesday voting meetings, citizens can speak on any subject for three minutes, and last week over a dozen did. A proposed Hancock Corridor historic district wasn’t on the agenda, but several citizens wanted to talk about it. “I’m confused why we’re about two weeks away from that demolition moratorium ending, and nothing’s happened at that neighborhood, and yet the Five Points neighborhood gets their historic district,” said Kristen Morales, who helped get the Buena Vista district approved five years ago. (A historic district for parts of Milledge Circle and Castilla Avenue cleared the Historic Preservation Commission last week.)
Several citizens asked for the moratorium to be extended, to give some protection to longtime and current neighborhood residents and prevent it from quickly transitioning to student housing. Jody Barber said he knows most of his Reese Street neighbors, but feels a “loss of the neighborhood” because people come and go so quickly in some houses.
Citizens also wanted to talk about Grand Slam, an after-hours recreation youth program that was discontinued in 2010. Kirrena Gallagher’s two sons, she said, “go to school with children who know or are part of gangs, or have access to guns, or who regularly get in fights. And those children are left with nothing to do during the summer.” Local donations and volunteers are available to run such a program, she said, if the county could provide facilities.
Imani Scott-Blackwell (who is running for school board) said such a program also addresses health and educational issues. “These are all things that ultimately cost our community, that could be rectified by just investing in our children,” she said.
A big reason Grand Slam was not continued, recalled Commissioner Jared Bailey, was the retirement of a dynamic leader. “Getting some more strong leadership would be important for a program like that,” he said.
Mayor Nancy Denson responded by appointing five commissioners (chaired by Commissioner Mike Hamby) to discuss how community groups can partner with the county to spend $2.8 million in sales-tax money earmarked for youth development. “It’s a very nice chunk of money sitting out there to do some of the things we were asked to do tonight.”
As for the Reese/Hancock neighborhood, Hamby said “there’s been some fits and starts” but $25,000 is budgeted to “to determine from residents what they want to happen.”
And cannabis: Several citizens wanted it decriminalized. “It’s going to do a lot of good for our community if we can keep people out of jail,” Aaron Gregory said. “I have over 800-plus names on this petition, and that’s me only going out for three days.”
Denson ran for re-election in 2014 saying that small amounts of pot should be decriminalized; but then in 2016 told The Red & Black that it’s a “firm no” on decriminalization while she is mayor. Even if pot were legal to possess, “you still have to go to somebody to buy it illegally,” Denson said.
Flagpole asked Denson to clarify her view. “I was disappointed that the recent FDA review did not remove marijuanna [sic] as a Schedule One drug, as I believe there are yet untapped medical uses, and this category makes even research difficult,” she wrote back. “However, they did not, and it is still illegal under both state and federal law to grow, possess or deal in marijuanna.
“We have no authority to [decriminalize]. The parallel ordinance many support simply creates a local ordinance governing possession of less than an ounce and allows our local police the discretion of citing under local ordinance or state law. UGA and other agencies are not bound by city ordinances. Many people don’t even realize when they have left the county.
“My objections are several: Young people coming into community will think they are not breaking any law possessing small amounts, when in fact they are in violation of both state and federal law. Possession with intent to sell would still be cited under state law.
“I believe we would entice some people into a false sense that marijuanna possession is legal. More unemployed young people will likely be drawn into the drug business and subject to arrest and jail time.
“With thousands of young people coming into our community every semester, I believe the potential problems far outweigh any benefit.”
Mayor Releases Proposed Budget
Denson’s proposed fiscal 2019 ACC budget is out, and there’s nothing terribly exciting in it. Although the property tax rate will stay the same at 13.95 mills, county officials expect about $4.3 million in addition revenue, mainly because the property tax digest rose 4.5 percent. Most of that money—$2.5 million—will go toward pay raises. A recent study found that ACC lags behind other governments and the private sector, so turnover has risen. The budget also includes additional funding for health care and retirement programs, greenway maintenance and four new positions, as well as a $300 monthly housing stipend for police officers who live within Athens-Clarke County. Budget deliberations are scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 10 and Monday, May 14 at Planning Department on Dougherty Street, and public comment will be taken at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 15 at City Hall. [Blake Aued]