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Athens-Clarke County Will Get $60 Million From Rescue Plan

Athens-Clarke County has spent about $25 million of its Biden Bucks so far. Credit: Gage Skidmore

Hundreds of millions of dollars will flow from Washington, D.C. into Athens from the recently passed American Rescue Plan.

The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package includes $65 billion for cities and $65 billion for counties. As a consolidated government, ACC is eligible for both, and its share is an estimated $60,034,155, according to the National Association of Counties.

Much of that funding comes with strings attached, according to Mayor Kelly Girtz. “It’s not unrestricted money,” he told Flagpole. “You can’t spend it on anything at any time.” The funding can be used for things like hazard pay for essential workers; assistance to households, small businesses and nonprofits; aid to affected industries like tourism and hospitality; and water, sewer and broadband internet projects.

Local governments will receive half their share of funds within 60 days of President Joe Biden signing the bill on Mar. 11, and the other half within 12 months. Governments will have until the end of 2024 to spend the money.

Girtz said he plans to spend part of ACC’s funding on immediate relief for residents and businesses, and some on “foundational support that will be felt decades from now.” For example, he said, he wants to buy a motel or apartment building and convert it into housing for the homeless as ACC pursues a “housing first” policy, because landlords are often reluctant to rent to the homeless.

Some of the funding can be used to backfill holes in the county budget. The Athens Downtown Development Authority recently reported that parking revenue is down $800,000 in fiscal 2021. ACC has also lost revenue from court fees and a tax on hotel and motel rooms as tourism dropped off and conventions virtually ceased during the pandemic.

The $60 million figure doesn’t include personal benefits like $1,400 checks to most individuals (which started hitting bank accounts last weekend), $300 weekly unemployment supplements, the expanded child tax credit and earned income tax credit, or additional subsidies for people buying health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Those benefits will pump tens of millions of dollars into the local economy. 

Nor does it include the estimated $5 billion that will go to the state government, some of which will trickle down to Athens. Gov. Brian Kemp has slammed the plan, saying Georgia isn’t getting its fair share. State Republicans have also floated the idea of using the windfall to cut taxes, but that’s prohibited by the legislation.

According to the Democratic Party of Georgia, the plan includes $5.1 billion for the state government, $3.6 billion for Georgia’s local governments and $4.3 billion for Georgia schools. More than 9 million Georgians will receive $1,400 checks. The expansion of the child tax credit from $2,000 to $3,600 applies to 2.3 million Georgia children. And a 60-year-old couple earning $75,000 a year will save $1,406 on their health insurance premiums.

In addition, the plan includes separate pots of money for mortgages, rent and utility assistance; for businesses like bars, restaurants and music venues; and for transit and other areas. Girtz said ACC will set up a dashboard to help individuals and businesses navigate the process of accessing those funds.

The transit funding should be enough to keep Athens buses fare-free “for quite some time,” Girtz said. And if voters extend a 1% sales tax for transportation in 2022, commissioners have agreed to devote a portion of it to covering farebox revenue. “It could be that the last quarter has been dropped into an Athens Transit farebox,” Girtz said. 

The Clarke County School District should be able to expect about the same amount of funding as ACC—$60 million—Girtz said, but school officials said last week that they didn’t know yet how much is allocated to CCSD. Previous funding from the 2020 CARES Act allowed CCSD to avoid laying off employees and paid for expenses related to meals, distance learning, facilities and equipment, supplemental learning and at-risk students. The American Rescue Plan contains $122 billion for K-12 public schools—almost 10 times as much as the CARES Act.

It’s unclear how much money will flow to UGA, but the American Rescue Plan set aside $40 billion for higher education to offset state-level cuts ($318 million in Georgia last year).

Of course, none of this would have happened had Georgia voters not put two Democrats in the U.S. Senate in January, giving the party a one-vote majority that allowed the Senate to pass the bill through the reconciliation process and avoid a Republican filibuster.

“Thanks to Georgians, the nation can finally see the light at the end of this dark tunnel,” Sen. Raphael Warnock said.