Will the latest round of SPLOST pass in November? It has, by wide margins, for decades, but the prospects seem iffy this year.
Athens GOP Chairman Gordon Rhoden spoke out against SPLOST at a very busy Athens-Clarke County Commission meeting last week—in particular, the Tallassee Forest project, raising concerns about opening up several hundred acres of pristine wilderness to the public. He also noted that the 1 percent sales tax would fall disproportionately on the poor.
In Bogart, “we get nothing from Clarke County,” said Angie McElhannon, who also complained about property assessments going up. (Bogart would receive $334,000, based on its population within Clarke County.)
Ross Watson questioned the debt associated with SPLOST 2020. On affordable housing, “whatever we do, I hope that service will be available to U.S. citizens only,” he said.
Diane Dunston, who lives in Oconee County but often speaks for the East Athens community where she grew up, echoed Rhoden’s comments. “We understand the impoverished will be impacted by the SPLOST, and there is not a lot in the SPLOST for the community,” she said.
While it’s true that sales taxes are regressive, that’s only part of the story. Thirty thousand people commute to Athens from outside the county for work every day. Another 10,000 live in UGA dorms. Countless thousands of others visit Athens as tourists, for conventions, to shop or eat, or just to go to the park. Sales taxes are the only way ACC can get those people to contribute to the construction and upkeep of the amenities they use. Without them, those costs would be borne solely by property owners and their tenants. (Yes, renters pay property taxes, too.)
Commissioner Mariah Parker called the list of projects recommended by a citizens advisory committee “fabulous” and said it does address equity concerns. Projects that would benefit low-income Athenians include $44 million in funding for affordable housing, an Eastside library, a “youth development complex” at the old Gaines School site, high-speed wireless internet, the Beech Haven park, a sidewalk on Vinson Drive and improvements to Holland Park, all of which are located near primarily black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
“It’s a really good list,” said Commissioner Melissa Link. “It’s a fair list, and it addresses the charge [of equity] we gave [the committee].”
But poverty “primarily needs to be addressed by programming,” Link added. SPLOST can’t cover operating costs—only capital costs like construction and maintenance—but it can free up money in the more flexible general fund for programming.
Commissioner Jerry NeSmith defended the $21 million bond issue commissioners are planning if SPLOST 2020 passes. It will allow ACC to get started with projects earlier, saving money in the long run, because construction costs will rise if the county pays as it goes, he said.
Of course, a handful of speakers at a commission meeting are not exactly a representative sample, and when it looked like anger over the Classic Center expansion could derail SPLOST 2011 nine years ago, it passed by 22 points.
The commission is expected to finalize the $278 million project list in July, and the approximately 10-year tax extension will be on the ballot in November.
Equity came up again on two other issues the commission discussed at its May 21 meeting—sustainable energy and the county landfill.
The commission unanimously passed a resolution setting a goal of obtaining 100 percent of the city’s electricity from clean and sustainable sources by 2050. ACC joined Atlanta, Augusta, Clarkston and 128 other U.S. cities in taking that pledge.
Parker and Commissioner Tim Denson added an amendment to the resolution acknowledging that low-income people, minorities and seniors will be hardest hit by climate change.
Already, the ACC government obtains 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources, such as a solar-panel array at the Cedar Creek wastewater treatment plant and methane generated at the landfill, saving taxpayers $450,000 a year.
Reaching the 100 percent threshold will be difficult—it’s not just a matter of throwing up more solar panels. Based on a December discussion among the environmental group 100% Athens, it will require cooperation from Georgia Power and could also involve retrofitting older buildings to make them more energy efficient, partnering with rural counties on solar farms, land use changes to encourage denser development, and buying clean energy credits from solar and wind farms.
Commissioners also approved a $4.8 million construction loan for a new phase of the county landfill off Lexington Road on the Oglethorpe County line. But in doing so, they also wanted to know more about what’s being done to help nearby residents whose wells were poisoned decades ago by leakage from the old, unlined portion of the landfill.
Landfills are much safer now, with linings and drainage systems, but prior to environmental legislation in the 1970s, trash was simply dumped in a hole in the ground and covered with dirt. During a previous expansion in the 1990s, ACC discovered that leakage had contaminated several wells. The county set up test wells to monitor the contamination and extended water service to 23 households free of charge.
But some people continue to drink from the contaminated wells. “Unfortunately, some of them don’t want that ACC water bill,” said Commissioner Patrick Davenport. Commissioners asked for more information about how far the contamination has spread and whether they should offer more assistance to residents in the Dunlap Road area. Assistant manager Jestin Johnson promised to follow up.
Inequity is also reflected in the rents nonprofits pay to use ACC facilities. It’s time for four organizations—the East Athens Development Corporation, Athens Neighborhood Health Center, Clarke County Health Department and Athens Tutorial Program—to renew their leases at the Miriam Moore Community Center. Since 1999, they’ve paid $3.06 per square foot per year—an amount ranging from $290 to $1,300 per month.
Dunston, the former chief medical officer at the sliding-scale health clinic, and others criticized the lease agreements. Other organizations, such as the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation and the Junior League, pay $1 to rent ACC-owned buildings (the Prince Avenue firehall and the Taylor-Grady House, respectively). “To me, this is what racism looks like,” Parker said.
Other commissioners agreed, and said those four groups should be paying $1 as well until a policy is put in place. Mayor Kelly Girtz said ACC shouldn’t be charging rent on an “ad hoc basis” without regard for what the tenants do for the community, and he’s ordering a comprehensive review of the county’s leasing policy.
In other business, the ACC Transportation and Public Works Department is seeking permission to apply for a $6 million grant from the state Department of Transportation to build three roundabouts on Chase Street. The roundabouts—at Oneta Street and on either side of the Loop—are part of a 2017 plan to calm traffic on Chase, where vehicles coming off the freeway often speed through Boulevard past Chase Street Elementary.
“It definitely needs some help,” Link said. “You’ve got high-speed traffic going into the neighborhood, and we’re about to see a whole lot of development.” Renovations of an old mill off Bryan Street are underway, and a major mixed-use project with an amphitheater is planned for the old General Time watch factory property.
Link’s previous effort to calm traffic by three-laning industrial Newton Bridge Road met with opposition from business owners and was reversed. “We’ve done it again,” NeSmith said. “We’ve gotten our merchants on that road very upset.” They’re skeptical of the roundabouts, he said, although according to TPW, they’ll be designed so 18-wheelers can navigate them.