Athens-Clarke County commissioners informally agreed to add $4 million to Mayor Kelly Girtz’s proposed $136 million budget for fiscal 2020 last week for various anti-poverty initiatives.
The “Athens Prosperity Package” proposed by commissioners Mike Hamby and Ovita Thornton includes funding for health care navigators, child care vouchers, job training and placement for people getting out of prison, summer jobs and landscaping training for youth, small business assistance, neighborhood planning units, grant writers and other programs. See their Comment for more.
Finance Director David Boyd told commissioners at a May 8 work session that his department had found about $2 million from revenue sources that are exceeding projections, variously discretionary funds and capital expenses like vehicle replacement that could be redirected to SPLOST. But commissioners opted not to dip into those funds. Instead, they’ll spend leftover money from the current fiscal year that Girtz had intended to put into a rainy day fund. The county currently has about $18 million in reserves, but Girtz wanted to boost that to $22 million. Well-run local governments generally keep two months of operating expenses in reserves—about $22 million, in ACC’s case. But under Mayor Nancy Denson, the commission generally rolled leftover fund balances forward rather than save them.
Girtz warned commissioners that he wanted to build up reserves because a recession could be coming in the next year or two. Commissioners disagreed—the time for bold initiatives is now, when the economy is good and the tax base is growing. “If we don’t do it now, we’re never going to do it,” Commissioner Tim Denson said.
The package could be re-evaluated next year if it’s not working or the economy takes a downturn, Hamby said.
“Let’s try something,” Thornton said. “We’re not going to be worse off than we are now. Thirty-eight percent poverty is pretty doggone embarrassing.”
If commissioners approve the budget with the prosperity package June 4, they would decide in June and July exactly how to spend the money. Most likely, it would take the form of grants to existing agencies, rather than the government hiring employees to do the work themselves, said Mayor Pro Tem Jerry NeSmith, who presided over the budget hearing.
Commissioners also discussed spending smaller amounts on protected bike lanes, specifically on Riverbend Parkway; portable radar speed displays that have proven successful in getting drivers to slow down; and downtown events like AthFest. And Commissioner Melissa Link proposed giving small bars and music venues a discount on their alcohol licenses to help locally owned businesses downtown, which Girtz said he would assign to a committee later this summer.