City DopeNews

Commission Approves Monument Move, Votes Down Police Cuts

Protesters gathered at the Confederate monument downtown June 25 to demand that the ACC Commission remove it. Credit: Jessica Luton

The Confederate monument on Broad Street is on the march again.

The Athens-Clarke County Commission voted unanimously to approve a plan to move the obelisk from downtown to a site off Timothy Road near the Loop where Athens’ only Civil War action took place. And in its place will be a rainbow crosswalk requested by the LGBTQ organization Athens PRIDE.

Athens PRIDE board member Cameron Harrelson said in a letter to the mayor and commission that the group has collected 6,500 signatures in support of the rainbow crosswalk. Such a crosswalk “visually and intentionally communicates to the public, both residential and visiting, that Athens-Clarke County supports and protects their LGBTQ population,” he wrote.

While the Confederate memorial, first installed in 1872, has been moved before, state law now prohibits moving publicly owned monuments under most circumstances. County officials plan to get around the law by moving the monument for its own protection—it was covered in graffiti at a recent Black Lives Matter protest, and crowds have torn down similar monuments in other cities—and relocating it to a place of equal prominence. 

Commissioners Melissa Link and Allison Wright proposed including the crosswalk in the plans for the Broad Street-College Avenue intersection. The $500,000 plan involves closing College Square to traffic for six months—and perhaps permanently—to create a pedestrian plaza and outdoor dining area, moving the statue and widening the crosswalks between UGA and downtown. The idea of closing College Square to vehicles has been around for decades, but never implemented because of concerns about traffic flow losing parking.

Ovita Thornton, who is Black was the only commissioner to express any misgivings about the plan. “I don’t think moving a statue erases racist hearts,” she said. “It’s part of history.” Thornton said she would prefer to build a statue of the late local civil rights activist Ray MacNair or A.R. Killian.

Commissioner Tim Denson proposed a “walk of justice” with memorials built into the crosswalk, but Manager Blaine Williams said that could endanger pedestrians who stopped in the middle of the street to look at the memorials.

The commission also approved a fiscal 2021 budget that includes a $1.4 million package aimed at addressing law enforcement in the wake of massive protests in Athens and other cities nationwide over police violence against African Americans. The package includes funding for a third mental health response team that pairs a police officer with a mental health specialist to respond to calls involving people with mental health issues. It also includes funding for a social worker in the public defender’s office, raises for public defenders, a community liaison in the police department, a minority purchasing officer in the finance department, additional Leisure Services youth programs and citizen committees to study police reform, equity and the impact of Urban Renewal on Black communities. 

The package will be funded by raising the hourly parking rate downtown by 25 cents, delaying vehicle purchases and holding currently vacant positions open for 120 days. 

In addition, 911 calls will all be handled entirely by police dispatchers, rather than transferring medical calls to private ambulance service National EMS, which critics of National EMS say will improve response times. And Athens Transit will be fare-free on nights and weekends starting in January. (It’s currently fare-free because riders are boarding at the rear doors during the coronavirus pandemic, but that’s only temporary.)

The budget includes a 0.25-mill tax cut, which will save the average homeowner about $15, although some people’s taxes will still go up because their property values increased.

Some citizens had called on the commission to delay their vote and consider a “people’s budget” that shifted funding from police to social services. But with the new fiscal year starting in just six days, commissioners had no interest in further putting off the vote.

“I support a people’s budget and a public budgeting process, and I hope next year in the fall, when we begin these budget talks, we can incorporate that kind of process, but it’s certainly far too late to even think about that right now,” Commissioner Melissa Link said, “We’ve worked on this budget really hard. We’ve already delayed it three weeks.”

Delaying past July 1 would mean paying staff overtime to rewrite the budget and missing out on grant opportunities, Link said. “There’s a lot of good stuff in the budget that actually will move us forward toward those goals that folks who are calling to delay the budget actually hope to achieve,” she said.

Commissioner Mariah Parker continued to push her “50/10” plan to cut the number of police officers by 50 percent over 10 years and replace them with social workers and mental health professionals. She said she collected 1,300 surveys from residents, and 86% wanted to reduce funding for police. Their top priorities for the budget were public health and child care, she said.

But Thornton noted that even 1,300 is just a small percentage of Athens voters. A participatory budget process was included in the Prosperity Package commissioners approved last year as part of the 2020 budget, but the coronavirus pandemic scuttled those plans. She and other commissioners said they want to do more to include citizens in the budgeting process next year. 

“We don’t always get what we want, but hopefully we put in the budget what the community needs,” Commissioner Mike Hamby said.

Parker, Link and Commissioner Tim Denson voted to support the 50/10 plan, but it failed 6–3. Link then switched her vote to support the budget as presented, which passed 7–2 with Parker and Denson in opposition.

At a separate meeting June 25, the Clarke County Board of Education also adopted its 2021 budget. The $165 million budget is about the same as last year. CCSD officials anticipate a 10% cut in state funding, or about $9 million, but that will be offset by rising property values generating more tax revenue and funding from the CARES Act, the federal coronavirus relief package. The budget includes $1.7 million for mandated step increases in pay and $800,000 for raises for custodians.