Athens-Clarke County commissioners have plenty of things they’d like to add to the county’s fiscal 2022 budget. Figuring out what to cut to free up money to pay for them is another matter.
The commission has reached consensus on about $3 million worth of new expenses, according to Manager Blaine Williams, and has also decided not to raise taxes. One potential solution is to use some of the approximately $58 million ACC is receiving from the federal COVID-19 stimulus package approved in March.
A vote on the $271 million budget was pushed back from June 1 to June 15, Mayor Kelly Girtz said. “That will give us two weeks to digest some of the possibilities around American Rescue Plan funding and how that may overlay or dovetail with our general budget,” he said.
A five-hour work session has been scheduled for the afternoon of June 3 at Bishop Park. “At that meeting, we’ll be talking about the American Rescue Plan and beginning to outline, with everybody’s input, a trajectory for how we’re going to determine the use of those funds,” Girtz said.
One major sticking point is how and when to raise the wages of 27 county employees who make less than $15 an hour. The issue is complicated by a desire to avoid wage compression by looking at wages up the ladder, as well as those at the very bottom, so that someone with years of experience isn’t suddenly making the same amount as a new hire. A detailed study has yet to be done, but the estimated cost is around $700,000.
There is broad support for setting a $15 minimum wage for all full- and part-time ACC employees. The debate is whether to do it now, then settle the wage compression issue, or do the study first, then hand out raises mid-year or in next year’s budget. Commissioner Melissa Link suggested using ARP funding for COVID bonuses while the study is underway.
“I question the wisdom of moving to $15 an hour without a wage study,” Girtz said. “I would recommend that, while we do this quickly, we do it well, and we kind of work up the ladder.” But Commissioner Russell Edwards said he’s not concerned about wage compression.
At least one commissioner also disagrees with including seasonal employees like summer camp workers. “I have a really hard time supporting our seasonal workers at the camps when we haven’t addressed retirees at all,” said Carol Myers, noting that retired ACC employees have only received four cost-of-living increases since 1998, totaling just $175 a month.
While perhaps those $9-an-hour jobs are mainly going to teenagers, adults might be willing to apply for them if they paid $15, Commissioner Jesse Houle said. Houle said workers should be the top priority over other items commissioners want added, like $6,000 to study a train “quiet zone” in Boulevard, “a very privileged part of town.”
Other spending commissioners want to add includes $100,000 to fund two positions in the district attorney’s office, $28,000 for raises for public defenders, $19,000 for streetlights, a “bucket of funds” for youth development and “some level of funding” for the Athens Area Homeless Shelter, Girtz said. They also agreed to Myers’ proposal to raise the $55,000 salary of a new energy and conservation coordinator by $50,000 to draw more qualified applicants. That would more than pay for itself through energy cost savings, she said.
In exchange, commissioners so far have agreed to cut $24,000 for “civic dinners” for residents to discuss community issues and $184,000 for a police cadet training program.
Commissioner Mariah Parker proposed ending the take-home car perk for police officers who live outside of Clarke County, which would save $80,000. Commissioner Patrick Davenport disagreed, saying the two-year-old program improved morale.
Link said she wants to find a way to bring in more revenue from student housing development, which is driving up rents for non-students, to “make sure this community is livable for the people who work here and actually want to raise their families here.”
Commissioner Ovita Thornton said she wants to see money put into cameras to stop dumping in rural North Athens and addressing gang violence and homeless encampments, but “I have no plan,” she said. “I have no suggestions.”
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