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ACC Plan for Federal Funds Addresses Housing, Youth, Businesses and More

Commissioner Mariah Parker introduced the "framework" for American Rescue Plan Act funds.

The ACC Commission has developed a framework for how to spend funding from the American Rescue Plan, the federal pandemic recovery package that brought over $57 million to Athens’ local government. The commission’s framework will address a variety of community needs over the next five years, including youth development, violence prevention, affordable housing, homelessness, behavioral health, business development and workforce support.

The commission has already allocated $22 million of the $57 million package to fund immediate needs like eviction prevention and an official homeless encampment. The commission also authorized $8 million for ACC staff in the form of a retention bonus and premium pay for hours worked during the pandemic. 

Most of the remaining funds have been apportioned into five “buckets,” or general categories of expenditure. Each bucket will have an advisory committee consisting of various community partners. These partners, in collaboration with the public and outside consultants, will help develop a plan of action to decide on a more granular level how the money will ultimately be spent.

The framework includes $11 million for affordable housing, $7 million for youth development and violence prevention, $5 million for homelessness, $4 million for business development and workforce support, $4 million for behavioral health and $4.5 million reserved for other needs.

After the action plans for each category are finalized with community input, ACC staff will seek to contract out most of the work to nonprofits or other agencies. Each plan will be funded to at least the tune listed above, but the plans will be much more ambitious than that and will require additional funding if they are to be completed. Commissioners are hopeful that more money can be identified by pursuing federal or state grants.

$2.35 million will be spent on administration over the plan’s five-year period. If commissioners had instead decided to invest most of the money in something like stormwater infrastructure, an ongoing need in Athens, this overhead cost could have been reduced. However, commissioners saw the American Rescue Plan as a unique opportunity to invest in programs of social uplift that would normally be prohibited by the state government.

“This is a gift in our laps that comes along once in a lifetime,” Commissioner Melissa Link said. “The state is very restrictive on how we spend our own public dollars. The federal government is giving us some leeway to actually spend money on people.”

While this framework may have been long discussed, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any disagreement among commissioners at their meeting Mar. 1. A majority of commissioners voted to accept the general framework for how to spend American Rescue Plan funding, but four commissioners—Patrick Davenport, Allison Wright, Ovita Thornton and Mike Hamby—opposed it. After Commissioner Mariah Parker proposed the plan detailed above that eventually passed (which she co-wrote with commissioners Carol Myers, Jesse Houle and Tim Denson), Thornton spoke up with an alternate plan based on Parker’s that took most of the reserve funds and funding for homelessness and spread them among public health, stormwater, broadband access and youth summer programs. 

Beyond these spending adjustments, Thornton wanted to speed up the process for getting money to the people who need it but did not fully explain how that would be accomplished. She also wanted to cap spending on outside consultants for each category at $10,000. 

When Houle asked for clarity on some inconsistencies, Thornton withdrew her motion and instead made a motion to delay the decision for another month so she could work out the details. But before the commission could vote on her motion to postpone, she had already changed her mind and decided to stick with her original plan despite knowing it didn’t have the votes to pass.

Wright seconded all of Thornton’s motions, saying that she wanted more money spent on infrastructure like broadband and water and sewer connections in low-income areas of the county. Wright voted for Thornton’s proposal but against Parker’s.

Hamby spoke more directly than Wright in opposition to Parker’s plan, saying that there were “very specific guidelines” built into the proposal that “the community ought to look at and weigh in on.” He urged for a delay in passing the framework, but later changed his mind and voted for Thornton’s motion, which included all of the same specifics, although he voted against Parker’s plan.

Commissioner Patrick Davenport, on the other hand, voted no on both proposals because he objected to spending money on things like fighting homelessness and youth programs without a strategic plan, saying that “we need to be responsible to the taxpayers.” He wanted to “slow down” and gather more community input before deciding on a general framework for how to allocate the funding. 

All the other commissioners voted no on Thornton’s plan but yes on Parker’s proposal, which passed 6-4.

Commissioners voted 6-4 along the exact same lines to raise salaries for their own positions at this meeting as well. Commissioner salaries haven’t been re-evaluated since 2001, although they have received regular cost of living adjustments, bringing their current annual salaries to $19,100, with an extra $1,200 available once they complete their certification with UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute. Proponents argue that commissioners’ workloads have increased and that a higher salary will enable lower-income individuals to run for office.

Starting next year, commission salaries will be set at $28,693. This specific number was chosen because it is the average commissioner salary for comparably-sized counties in Georgia.

This article originally appeared at Athens Politics Nerd.

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