Athens-Clarke County commissioners came down with a bad case of sticker shock last week when they learned how much county officials estimate it would cost to build a new judicial center to relieve overcrowding in the downtown courthouse: $93 million.
“We don’t need the Taj Mahal of courthouses,” Commissioner Mike Hamby said. “Y’all got to work on that number.”
Central Services Director David Fluck presented three options for new government office space the commission is considering building with funds from the next round of SPLOST, which is expected to raise about $160 million over six years if voters approve. The judicial center is the most expensive, but it would also best solve overcrowding and security problems at the courthouse, he said.
Manager Blaine Williams said the price tag is not set in stone. “I hope people won’t rush to judgment as we get this to where we want [it] to be.”
The judicial center would consist of a 142,000 square-foot building on 7–9 acres with a 550-space parking deck. If it’s built, judicial functions would be moved into the new building, the courthouse would be renovated into city government offices, and ACC would sell its buildings on Dougherty Street, Satula Avenue and Prince Avenue.
Another option is a $53 million municipal building. The tax commissioner and tax assessor’s offices would be relocated there from the courthouse, freeing up some additional space. Fluck also proposed a $68 million “hybrid” building that would also include municipal, juvenile and probate courts.
But those options have drawbacks: Providing security at the hybrid building would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and neither the hybrid nor the municipal building addresses judges’ security concerns at the existing courthouse. (They want a private entrance and elevator.)
In addition, the municipal building would not fully solve the space crunch at the courthouse. “They’ll grow out of that space in five to 10 years, if not sooner,” Fluck said.
Then there’s the question of where the new building would be located. Commissioner Melissa Link objected to the idea of moving judicial and civic functions away from downtown. She suggested building it on county-owned land near the Classic Center or redeveloping the courthouse parking deck.
A citizens advisory committee will make recommendations on which SPLOST proposals to fund early next year, but the commission could vote in December to make the new government building a “designated project,” meaning it would be on the project list regardless of what the committee recommends.
Commissioners also heard an update on Ben Epps Airport from new airport manager Mike Matthews. He said the airport averages over 100 flights per day—including private planes, corporate jets and charters for University of Georgia sports teams—creating a $20.6 million annual economic impact and 172 jobs. “A lot of folks don’t realize how busy we are,” he said.
The airport is funded primarily by fuel sales and ran a $40,000 deficit last year. Matthews said he is working to control expenses and lease out a vacant hanger, and may raise fees and lease rates.
Matthews also said he is talking to Athens Tech about starting a program to train airplane mechanics. There is a shortage of mechanics in the industry, he said.
Athens has lacked a commercial airline since Congress cut a federal subsidy in 2014, making commercial air service unprofitable. To recruit one, Matthews said the airport will try again to win a federal grant to fund incentives for an airline to fly into and out of Athens. Those incentives would include waiving certain fees and rent, marketing assistance and other benefits up to $250,000 for the first year.
Consolidation and a trend toward larger planes are impediments to drawing an airline, Matthews said. “It’s a challenge we’ll have to deal with, but it’s not a dealbreaker,” he said. “It can still happen.”
And Solid Waste Director Suki Janssen asked commissioners to make changes to a small fee that helps pay for recycling. ACC’s recycling program is supposed to pay for itself, but it’s currently being subsidized by the landfill. To make it self-sufficient, Janssen proposed replacing the waste minimization fee—which is only paid by Solid Waste customers, not private haulers’ customers—with a recycling education fee on residents’ water bills.
The waste minimization fee is 60 cents a month for residences and $1.60 for businesses. The recycling education fee would start out at $1.25–$1.40 per month for residences, $6.25–$7 for small businesses and $12.50–$14 for large businesses. But it would prevent hikes to the landfill tipping fee, holding down trash pickup bills.