If President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package is the American Jobs Plan, Mayor Kelly Girtz’s proposed 2022 budget could be called the Athens Jobs Plan for its focus on job training, especially for young people.
The budget includes funding to start, expand or continue a number of educational and mentorship programs for aspiring construction workers, youth counselors, artists, police officers and others. Young Urban Builders—a three-year pilot program that teaches trade skills to high-school students through repairing homes for residents of limited means—would be extended at a cost of $100,000. $60,000 is provided to train summer camp counselors ages 15-18. $190,000 in renovations to Lay Park and the East Athens Community Center would provide opportunities for youth to practice video production and editing, graphic design and robotics. $20,000 is earmarked for Athens’ first official Juneteenth celebration, which would include educational programming for local youth involved in visual and performing arts to mark the anniversary of slavery’s ending. The budget also continues funding for the Community Corps, a program that provides full-time jobs for nine people for 11 months while training them in a variety of skills.
Girtz is also proposing to spend $30,000 to expand a Department of Corrections transition program by 10 beds. In addition, he wants to restart the Police Youth Cadet Corps at a cost of $184,000 for two full-time and 10 part-time positions. The corps would “provide a pipeline to employment in the police department for local high school students” and help the department “to reflect our community,” according to Girtz.
“As we think about the continuum of skill preparation, one of the areas we can make a real impact is in that late-teen juncture as people are moving from high school toward careers,” Girtz said. “That benefits the entire community, and even the unified government has a bunch of needs that are challenging to fill. Programs like the cadet corps and the community corps that launched this year can help fill those holes.”
In contrast to accusations from Republicans like Athens state Rep. Houston Gaines that Athens-Clarke County officials want to “defund the police,” the budget actually boosts police funding from $25.2 million to $27.2 million. Most of that $2 million increase would go toward raises for public safety employees, which Girtz has argued will help attract and retain quality officers. $336,000 would add four new mental health co-responder teams, which pair a police officer with a mental health professional, bringing the total to seven.
The overall budget is $271.5 million, an increase of $4.9 million, and adds 12 employees, bringing the total to 1,741. That total includes salaries and other operating expenses, as well as capital projects like road paving and vehicle replacement. The county’s largest spending areas include public safety—police, courts, the sheriff’s office and firefighters—as well as water, sewer and public works.
While Manager Blaine Williams had proposed a small property tax hike, Girtz’s budget keeps the millage rate the same as this year at 13.7 mills. Instead, Girtz opted to use federal American Rescue Act funds to make up for a decline in revenue from service fees and fines related to the pandemic. However, many homeowners will still see a tax increase because assessed property values have risen an average of 7.8%. As the tax base continues to grow, Girtz said he hopes to lower the property tax rate in 2022.
Property taxes are the county’s second-largest source of revenue behind fees for services like trash and recycling pickup. Sales taxes are a significant source as well, along with other types of taxes like levies on insurance premiums and alcoholic beverages.
Federal funds will also allow Athens Transit to remain fare-free for at least another two years and pay to restore routes that were curtailed during the pandemic. By 2023, Girtz said he envisions a second round of TSPLOST—the voter-approved 1% local sales tax for transportation—keeping buses fare-free indefinitely, which has long been a goal of several commissioners. Of course, Girtz could have restored the full local share of Athens Transit funding and used the stimulus money to expand service, but he said that commissioners want to devote a quarter of TSPLOST 2022 funding to transit—about $7 million a year. At approximately $300,000 to run one hourly route for a year, that money would go a long way.
Other budget items also pave the way for bigger changes in the future. For instance, it funds a homeless coordinator, an affordable housing working group that will be recommending changes to the county code, and a study on a $15-an-hour minimum wage for county employees. (It’s currently set at $11.60 based on an MIT living wage estimate.) The study is needed to figure out how to avoid wage compression up and down the pay scale, Girtz said.
“We’re always on a journey and never quite at the destination, so a lot of these things are iterative,” he said. “I feel really good about this as a signpost along the way.”There are six opportunities for public comment on the budget: Tuesday, May 11 at 5:30 p.m.; Thursday, May 13 at 5:30 p.m.; Tuesday, May 18 at 6 p.m.; Thursday, May 20; Tuesday, May 25; and Tuesday, June 1 at 6 p.m. All five meetings will be held virtually, although input will be taken at City Hall for the May 13, May 18 and June 1 meetings. As usual, earlier is better—the closer it gets to June 1, when commissioners are expected to approve the final budget, the less likely that they’ll be willing or able to make changes.
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