The Athens-Clarke County Commission approved a new list of TSPLOST transportation projects and is calling for a referendum on continuing the 1% sales tax that would fund them. If voters support the measure on May 24, Clarke County sales taxes will remain at 8%, providing an estimated $150 million for transportation over the next five years.
The approved project list differs somewhat from the one created by the TSPLOST 2023 advisory committee, which endorsed 38 projects covering a wide range of transportation modes in different parts of the county. The advisory committee’s list focused heavily on bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure for people living on the edges of the county and in neighborhoods that traditionally have been underserved, such as in east and north Athens.
Lauren Blais, chair of the advisory committee, said the committee thought a lot about how to “remove barriers and gaps for Athenians who have been long waiting for the infrastructure they deserve.” Despite heading in the right direction, she admitted that this TSPLOST doesn’t fully solve equity issues across Athens. “It’s going to take a long time to make up for [past inequities],” she said.
The advisory committee favored resident-submitted projects over ACC staff-submitted ones, and declined to put any TSPLOST 2023 money towards maintaining or repaving roads throughout Athens. This caused the mayor and commission some difficulty, because they were planning to use TSPLOST money to fund Athens’ road repaving deficit. To solve this problem, commissioners crafted an alternate list based on the one recommended by the advisory committee. Commissioner Carol Myers, joined by commissioners Jesse Houle, Melissa Link, Tim Denson and Mariah Parker, proposed the new list, which puts $22 million towards pavement and bridge maintenance.
After deciding to fund pavement maintenance, Myers was faced with the task of cutting over $22 million worth of projects from the list. Fortunately, the TSPLOST revenue estimate from ACC financial staff was revised upwards by $6 million, making her task a bit easier. The remainder of the budget deficit was made up by reducing the amount earmarked for the Athens in Motion bicycle and pedestrian plan and shrinking the budgets of other bicycle and pedestrian projects.
Myers said that her plan “made a strong attempt… to honor the work of the advisory committee.” The final list is still heavily weighted towards alternative transportation, with almost half of the funding ($73 million) going towards projects like multi-use paths, bike lanes, sidewalks and crosswalk safety improvements. Another $29 million is going to Athens Transit, enough to improve bus stops in East Athens, buy electric buses and fully fund fare-free transit operations for the next five years.
Myers’ plan also retains the advisory committee’s focus on traditionally underserved areas. East Athens, Westchester, Stonehenge and Smokey Road will all receive pedestrian safety improvements, and a multi-use path will connect J.J. Harris Elementary School to U.S. Highway 29.
Speaking to these investments in historically underserved areas, Parker said that this “is the most equitable TSPLOST list that has been brought forward.”
The commission vote on approving Myers’ revised TSPLOST project list was unanimous.
Looking forward to the referendum’s approval in May, Blais said that TSPLOST funds could be leveraged to bring in even more federal dollars from the congressional infrastructure deal. “We have a once-in-a-lifetime investment through the federal infrastructure bill,” she said. “Because we have spent so much time looking at [transportation] plans, and because [with TSPLOST] we’ll have local dollars to put behind it, our dollars will go further than ever.”
Further tweaks were planned for a called meeting on Monday, Feb. 7, with the commission set to trim a number of projects to free up $991,000 for pedestrian improvements in East Athens.
The commission also approved the first cohort of Athens residents to serve on the Public Safety Oversight Board, a body intended to provide accountability for local law enforcement and improve community trust.
There were 45 applicants for the board, requiring a long interview process in which all commissioners were able to give their perspectives. As such, Mayor Kelly Girtz apparently thought the vote to approve the group would be unanimous. As he was calling for a voice vote, the process used for non-controversial items, Commissioner Allison Wright spoke up to object, saying there were inconsistencies in the interview process.
“The interviews, as well as the process to select the board, were not standard. They changed. They were ever evolving. Due to the inconsistency of how it was carried out, I will not support the vote,” she said.
Thornton agreed, saying she was “totally confused” by the process. Commissioner Mike Hamby also objected, implying that he thought the process was unfairly weighted towards commissioners who did not interview every candidate.
Other commissioners were enthusiastic about the group that was ultimately selected. “We had a fantastic pool of Athenians who really give a damn about their community and wanted to step up in a big way,” Denson exclaimed. “I think this board has some challenging work ahead of them, but I feel a lot of confidence because of how strong this board is.”
The nine citizens appointed to the board are: Jocelyn Crumpton, Timothy Pierce-Tomlin, Lane Pratt, Omar Reid, Felix Bell, Sarah Halstead, Devante Jones, Edward Robinson (not the former county commissioner) and Kiante Sims.
The vote on approving the board passed 8-1, with Wright voting no and Thornton abstaining.
Later in the meeting, Houle made a motion to notify the public that commissioners are considering raising their salaries by an as-of-yet unspecified amount. This is the first time commission salaries have been re-evaluated since 2001, although they’ve gone up from $15,000 to more than $18,000 due to cost-of-living increases. In support of the motion, Houle mentioned the increased cost of living and the increased workload the commission has taken on since that time.
“It seems fairly clear to most of us that 20 years since the last time [our salaries have] gone up is well out of accordance with the increased cost of living, the increased workload and the commitment to a living wage that we’ve made as a county government,” Houle said. Parker seconded the motion, saying that they welcomed the public conversation that their notice would generate.
The commission is required by the ACC Charter to give a month’s notice before they raise their salaries. They’ll discuss this question at next month’s voting meeting on Mar. 1. If approved, the salary hike won’t go into effect until a new commission is seated next year.
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