Athens-Clarke County commissioners spent a day-long retreat at the Lyndon House Arts Center Feb. 8 working on budget priorities for the upcoming fiscal year, with initiatives to alleviate poverty and reform the criminal justice system topping the list.
Some commissioners complained that the session, which involved placing stickers next to priorities presented by county staff and each commissioner, was frustrating, with too many overlapping or repetitive ideas to choose from and not enough detail. County officials will come up with timelines and cost estimates for some of the more popular ideas before a half-day retreat on Feb. 25. More budget talks will be held in May, after the proposed budget is released.
Perhaps the most popular topic was criminal justice reform, which drew the highest possible ranking of 10 from seven commissioners. That broad category includes marijuana decriminalization, deprioritizing low-level crimes, expanded programs for youth and people with mental health problems and behavioral disorders, ending unpaid inmate labor and more accountability courts, which divert certain offenders away from prison if they get treatment for the underlying issue that led to the crime, such as drinking or drug use.
Redeveloping run-down corridors, especially in North Athens and on the Eastside, also drew strong support. So did another poverty-related suggestion: to draw upon recommendations from existing studies (which often sit on a shelf) to focus on areas with the highest concentrations of poverty.
Other areas that at least some commissioners felt deserve more attention included affordable housing—the topic of a Feb. 12 work session—sustainable building, the airport, the bike/pedestrian master plan and bus-stop improvements.
Commissioners Mike Hamby and Ovita Thornton presented a plan to alleviate poverty called LiftAthens. It calls for modernizing government services; more and better affordable housing; facilities that support education, entrepreneurship and economic development; addressing mental health and indigent care; fare-free bus service; child-care scholarships; job training, especially for the formerly incarcerated; promoting a living wage; incentives for small businesses to create jobs, particularly in the creative and food industries; minority set-asides; and hiring a grant writer to find funding. Some funding could come from SPLOST 2020 and bonds, in addition to grants.