City DopeNews

Commissioner Says Athens Residents Don’t Trust Local Government

District 5 commissioner Dexter Fisher.

The Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission gathered at City Hall Mar. 19 ostensibly to discuss next year’s county budget, but Commissioner Dexter Fisher had other things on his mind.

Toward the end of the work session, Fisher made a motion to add a discussion about “community engagement and civility” to the agenda, which passed. He then proceeded to give his colleagues a come-to-Jesus talk about divisions within the city and the unpopularity of Athens’ elected officials—mainly driven by the murder of college student Laken Riley, allegedly by Venezuelan national Jose Antonio Ibarra, which triggered a political firestorm around federal border policy as well as the local government’s stance on immigration.

“I’m very disturbed by how divided this particular community is right now over things that have happened in our community,” Fisher said. “We as leaders and elected officials need to start the healing process.

“When I talk to people, my constituents… they don’t trust our government. They don’t trust us,” he said.

The commission’s Mar. 5 meeting featured dueling rallies outside City Hall, with one side expressing support for immigrants and the other accusing Athens-Clarke County of being a “sanctuary city” (which local officials contend is false). Pro-Palestine activists have also been urging the commission to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza—another hot-button issue.

“I went home after that meeting feeling defeated, and I actually thought about resigning,” Fisher said. “Because I thought about, how can we continue to operate in this environment when we have a community who don’t trust us?

“On both sides, they don’t trust us,” he said. “We can’t be perfect, but we are not well liked by our community, and we’ve got to do something about that.”

Comparing his work on the commission to his days playing college football, Fisher said the commission should be working as one. Commissioner Carol Myers gently pushed back against that notion.

“We’re not quite a team, because we do represent different points of view at times,” she said. “I think the challenge there is to do so respectfully and thoughtfully.”

Myers asked Fisher for specifics. He cited an email Girtz sent to commissioners regarding the Palestine resolution that one commissioner forwarded to an activist group, as well as disagreements regarding revenue splits within tax allocation districts and Girtz’s discussions with an organization relocating refugees to Athens.

Girtz said the reason he put the TAD revenue splits on the agenda for a commission vote was so the commission could weigh in. And the commission ultimately voted on a 70/30 revenue-sharing agreement that tilted toward East Athens over downtown that was the opposite of what Girtz proposed.

As for refugee resettling, Girtz said that a U.S. State Department-backed group wanted to resettle “a few dozen families” in Athens, and he sent them a letter of reference. The number of people is small compared to the 1,000 or so who move to Athens every year, and the refugees are vetted by the Department of State and have skills that local employers need, he said.

Still, “I truly believe this will create a problem for us,” Fisher said, asking where the refugees will be housed. “When we bring people in from war-torn countries, we’re dealing with mental health issues, we’re dealing with language issues, we’re dealing with a lot of stuff,” he said. “It’s more than just adding to the people who are coming in.”

Commissioner Jesse Houle owned up to forwarding Girtz’s email about the Gaza resolution. “Anytime someone asks me for something that’s in my inbox, I just forward it, if it’s not attorney-client privilege,” they said. “I don’t feel like that needs to be an open records request.” 

Houle added that they felt the mayor acted appropriately in the situations raised by Fisher, noting the 2019 resolution that has caused such a furor lately among conservatives who didn’t notice it at the time. “We formally said we want to be a welcoming community for people from all over,” Houle said.

Commissioner Ovita Thornton defended Fisher and called for better communication. “I think he was just suggesting ways that we can do better, because people are talking,” she said.  

‘Big Rocks’ Budget

Earlier, Manager Blaine Williams walked commissioners through the budget process during an annual “big rocks” meeting where officials discuss overarching trends and issues, as opposed to May hearings when they dig into minutia. “A budget, y’all, is really an expression of priorities,” he said. “You have a limited amount of resources. There are so many great things to do, and unfortunately you have to choose between them.”

Recruiting and retaining employees in a tight labor market is a top priority for Williams. Raises last year lowered the ACC government’s attrition rate, and Williams is recommending 4% raises in fiscal 2025 at a cost of $3.9 million. In addition, Williams wants to continue using leftover funds from last year’s budget to address a backlog of maintenance and capital projects like replacing vehicles. 

Overall, Williams is projecting a $191 million operating budget for the next fiscal year, up 2.6% from 2024. The property tax digest as of Jan. 1 had risen by 8%, according to early estimates, generating $7 million in additional revenue. Sales taxes that go into the general fund are projected at $37.4 million, up $3.7 million—a good sign for local retailers. Those are the two main sources of revenue for the local government, totaling about three-quarters of the budget.

Eastside Development Debate

Commissioners will vote next week on an Eastside townhouse development on a site where neighbors have been fighting proposals for more than a decade.

The oddly-shaped five-acre parcel in front of the Green Acres subdivision has been difficult to develop because it lacks access to Barnett Shoals Road. The most recent proposal was for a Kroger fuel center in 2016, according to ACC Planning Department documents.

Now, applicant Frank Pittman has filed plans for 28 two- and three-bedroom townhouses on a cul-de-sac and requested a rezoning from RS-25 (half-acre lots) to RM-1 (multifamily). The commission is expected to vote on the request Apr. 2. 

About two dozen residents spoke to commissioners about the development at their Mar. 19 agenda-setting meeting, with many raising concerns about traffic, runoff and students living there, but others in favor of it because of a housing shortage in Athens. Although the developer said the proposal would fill a need for “missing middle” housing—affordable townhouses and small apartment buildings—county planners said it doesn’t fit that label and recommended denial. However, the ACC Planning Commission did not buy the traffic and student-housing arguments and unanimously recommended approval.

Perhaps the decision would be easier, several county commissioners suggested, if the project had a better design. “Right now the Eastside business corridor is covered in fast-food restaurants, curb cuts and asphalt parking lots,” said Commissioner Carol Myers, who represents Green Acres. “Residents just off that corridor have the right to ask for something more than the same old for this property.” She noted that residents have suggested doctor’s offices, assisted living, senior housing or micro-cottages.

Myers said she doubts that increasing the supply of housing will actually lower prices. But Commissioner Jesse Houle said there is ample evidence that the main driver of Athens’ high housing costs is a lack of supply. “We’ve got to build it somewhere,” Houle said.

Commissioner Melissa Link said Green Acres residents shouldn’t fear a little more density. In neighborhoods like Normaltown and Five Points, “We have fairly dense multifamily garden apartment buildings and here and there a couple of townhome communities, and it fits into the neighborhood just perfectly,” she said. Link did raise environmental concerns, though, noting a lack of greenery and criticizing the development for having too much pavement.

Other items under consideration include requests to build a fraternity house on Wilkerson Street, in what’s left of the Potterytown neighborhood near downtown; a gas station and convenience store on Moss Road; funding for local nonprofits through the new Community Partnerships Program; an updated policy on crosswalk construction; and an additional $100,000 for Family Promise to run an eviction prevention program, which will keep an estimated 35 families in their homes.