City DopeNews

Majority of Commissioners Support Raising the Position’s Pay

At least six of 10 Athens-Clarke County commissioners support a proposal to raise commissioners’ salaries to about $28,000 a year, the first such increase in 20 years.

Part-time commissioners have earned a base salary of $15,000 since 2001, which is currently $19,133 with automatic cost-of-living increases, plus another $1,200 if they complete certification training offered by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government. If approved, the new annual salary would be $28,693—the median for commissioners in similarly sized counties.

According to the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, Newton County (population 113,295) pays its commissioners $28,820; Lowndes County has 118,268 residents and pays commissioners $21,180; and Fayette County has 115,821 people and pays commissioners $29,352. Athens-Clarke County’s population in 2020 was 127,315, according to the U.S. Census.

Several commissioners say they spend at least 30 hours a week on county business. County business may encompass everything from responding to constituents with phone calls, emails and visits to attending various meetings like agenda-setting meetings, voting meetings, executive sessions, work sessions, committee meetings and monthly retreats. Commissioners evaluate and approve, among other matters, budgets—fiscal 2022’s operating and capital budget of more than $270 million, plus sales-tax programs for transportation and other capital projects and another $57 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. 

Becoming informed on issues takes time. Many of the issues are complex, such as trying to solve Athens’ homelessness problem, Commissioner Mariah Parker said. And the commission is more active than it’s been in the past.

“This commission has done more work the past three years under this administration than ever before, in my experience,” Commissioner Melissa Link said at the Feb. 15 agenda-setting meeting. “I’ll tell you, these meetings are later and longer than they’ve ever been, and it’s because we’re doing the work.”

Commissioners who spoke in support of the raise—Parker, Link, Tim Denson, Jesse Houle, Carol Myers and Patrick Davenport—expressed concern that some people are shut out of running for office due to financial reasons, or may not have enough time to devote to the job because they’re busy trying to make ends meet.

“We are changing our districts here to have more majority-minority population. We want more representation in Athens, and more involvement,” Myers said. “To increase that pool of Athenians who can afford to run for commissioner, we have to start addressing the salary and making it more equitable. This is not a job for the landed gentry and the House of Lords in old England.”

A new commission district map drawn by Athens’ Republican legislators over local objections and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp on Feb. 17 creates a fourth majority-minority district. But it also puts two-thirds of local voters in new districts and would prevent Link, Denson and Commissioner Russell Edwards from running for re-election by placing them in even-numbered districts that aren’t on the ballot until 2024. Denson noted that, barring a successful lawsuit allowing him to mount and win a re-election campaign, he himself is unlikely to receive the higher salary.

“There is a definite possibility that I will not be able to run for re-election and will get zero benefit from this,” Denson said.

As Link alluded to, the pay issue seems to have become another cudgel for Republicans to use against progressives as they seek to use the redistricting process to wrest control of the commission away from progressives. For instance, the proposed raise first surfaced in the Georgia Star News, part of a Trump-aligned chain of pseudo-local news websites. And a pro-police group called Athens Classic, which supports the GOP map, has been working with a Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene consultant to recruit and raise money for candidates in the three open seats through a political action committee called Athens Clean & Safe.

“Most of the emails we’re getting from people who oppose this salary increase don’t necessarily oppose the salary increase,” Link said. “They oppose this local government because they are part of the fascist conspiracy to overthrow this progressive local government.”

Commissioner Ovita Thornton was the lone commissioner to speak against the $8,000 pay raise. “I know I deserve a raise,” she said, but she complained that other commissioners put too much emphasis on the homeless and “condescend” to taxpayers, such as by using eminent domain to acquire easements for the Firefly Trail. “I’m not going to ask the taxpayers to pay us another penny until we do right by the property tax people who are carrying this load,” Thornton said. She suggested changing the city-county charter to make the job full-time, which Parker readily agreed with and urged her to spearhead.

Another commissioner, Allison Wright, told Flagpole that she is opposed because a majority of the commission voted down a 12% raise for all county employees last year, instead opting to bring the lowest-paid employees up to $15 an hour and do a wage compression study. Opponents argued that those at the top of the pay scale who make six figures didn’t need a $20,000 raise.

The commission is scheduled to vote on the pay raise at its Mar. 1 meeting. As for redistricting, now that Kemp has signed the map, “I do anticipate a lawsuit,” Mayor Kelly Girtz told Flagpole, adding that the Athens-Clarke County Democratic Committee is raising funds toward legal action.