Having met for 70 hours over nearly five months with “good humor and mutual respect,” the 22-member SPLOST 2020 citizens advisory committee made its first presentation to the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission last week. The committee was appointed to vet 88 project proposals that had been submitted by county departments, citizens and local organizations, but most of that wish list cannot be funded even if voters approve continuation of the 1 percent sales tax in November.
The elected county commission will make the final decision in August as to which projects end up on the list for voters to consider, following public input and further recommendations by the citizens committee. Already there is some daylight between recommendations of the citizens committee and the commission, especially about the proposed new courthouse. Most commissioners seem to agree that a new, larger courthouse is needed, although they differ on where it should be built (and its location would be determined only if it makes the list and then is approved by voters). But despite touring the current 100-year-old courthouse and recognizing its deficiencies, the citizens committee did not reach a consensus about the project, and left it off their recommended list. They would like to have seen “a true alternative proposal” to the expensive new building, other than a proposed new municipal building to house the courthouse’s nonjudicial functions, chairwoman Shannon Wilder told commissioners.
“The opposition to [a new courthouse] went deep” she said, largely because of a criminal justice system that the committee “perceived as being unjust and unfair to many in our community.”
Some commissioners had reservations, too: Tim Denson saw “systemic racism in the criminal justice system." Athens, he said, needs “not just a new building, but a new vision about what justice is.”
The citizens committee prioritized projects that would serve Athens’ young people, and recommended building—in conjunction with the school district—an Eastside youth building to be staffed by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Athens. ACC commissioners also liked the idea of building the proposed Eastside library next door to the youth building on Gaines School Road, rather than at Southeast Clarke Park. The citizens group also tried to favor projects that would complete or support previously built facilities, that dovetail with community plans such as Envision Athens or the county’s land-use plan, that are equitably distributed across the county, and that benefit underserved citizens. “The people who are most hurt by this regressive tax don’t feel that they’re included in anything in Athens-Clarke County,” Denson said. (Commissioner Andy Herod pointed out that substantial portions of the tax will be paid by out-of-county shoppers.)
Ongoing operating costs were also considered; the recommended projects would add only $1.5 million a year in such costs.
Many “worthy and important” projects were left off for lack of funds, Wilder said. Nearly 1,000 comments from the public have been received on the various projects, and can still be made or read on the SPLOST page at accgov.com.
The Classic Center Authority’s 6,000-seat indoor arena did make the list. At $59 million, it’s nearly as expensive as the $70 million judicial center. Both commissioners and committee members are concerned about overlap with two planned privately-owned amphitheaters off Newton Bridge and Commerce roads, as well as the pay level of the jobs it would create. “We don’t really need more jobs. We need better-quality jobs,” said Commissioner Mariah Parker.
While the more expensive projects were the most discussed, 34 projects remain on the recommended list, which must still be trimmed further. The recommended list will cost some $299 million, but the sales tax is projected to produce only $248 million over nine years, though commissioners may extend it to 10 years and $278 million. If a new courthouse is added, $70 million less will be available for other projects.
Still on the recommended list are matching money for airport grants; a sidewalk along Vincent Drive; replacing the Whit Davis fire station; replacing aging stormwater infrastructure; providing broadband Wi-Fi downtown and to underserved areas throughout Clarke County; renovations at Holland, Bishop and Memorial parks and Bear Hollow Zoo; a new Westside park and community center (location to be determined); a public park on the county’s riverfront Beech Haven property on Atlanta Highway; parking areas and trail development to open Tallassee Forest Park publicly; a shared-use path along Tallassee Road; reconstruction of kennels at the animal shelter; Athens Welcome Center improvements; replacing the 911 system and building an emergency operations center; a new mental health/addiction residential treatment facility; “water trail” boat launches along the North and Middle Oconee rivers; an “art walk” on Jackson Street downtown; and a new facility for sorting recycling.