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Fact-Checking Mayor Nancy Denson and Tim Denson at the Federation of Neighborhoods Forum

Candidates for Athens-Clarke County mayor and commission faced off at a Federation of Neighborhoods-sponsored forum Monday night at the Melting Point. While there weren’t any fireworks, and there wasn’t much that folks who’ve been following the races haven’t heard already, a few statements caught my ear. So I’ve spent the day finding out whether they’re true. Here’s what I came up with:

Claim: Mayor Nancy Denson said that she has only refused to put two items on the commission’s agenda, one of which, the Complete Streets: Prince Avenue road diet demonstration project, was put in front of her just “10 days before a public meeting.” At another point, she said she was given “a two-week notice.”

Facts: Nancy’s timeline is a bit off. Supporters of the demonstration project initially met with her on Jan. 31 and asked for a vote at the Mar. 4 or Apr. 1 commission meeting. That means she was asked to put it on the agenda for discussion at either the Feb. 20 or Mar. 20 agenda-setting meeting—20 or 50 days away.

Claim: Nancy also said that a proposal to move the crosswalk on Prince from The Grit to a safer location would cost $10,000.

Facts: According to Transportation and Public Works Director David Clark, “there would be approximately $10,000 in material cost incurred by staff to move the crosswalk, including removing the current crosswalk and [Americans with Disabilities Act] ramp in front of The Grit, installing new ADA ramps [including relocating a water meter], relocating the flashing beacon posts and applying the necessary thermoplastic pavement and crosswalk markings.”

However, it’s also noteworthy that ACC has $25,000 in its budget that’s already earmarked for crosswalk improvements and hasn’t been spent. In addition, Clark’s department recommended moving the crosswalk to the other side of Newton Street because it would be safer.

Claim: There was a lot of discussion about how the commission can override the mayor and put something on the agenda for discussion. Everyone was under the impression it takes seven votes, except lawyer and District 3 candidate Dustin Kirby, who said he read the charter, and the mayor’s power to set the agenda is “absolute.”

Facts: EHHHHHH. Sorry. County Attorney Bill Berryman directed me to Section 2-104(e) of the ACC code, which gives five (5) commissioners the power to call a special meeting with no less than 24 hours’ written notice. Commissioners have threatened to do this a handful of times but, as best I can recollect, in each instance the mayor has acquiesced and put said item on the agenda. [Update: Commissioner Jared Bailey just reminded me that the mayor refused to put a discussion of the home occupation ordinance on the agenda—even after he brought her a letter signed by all 10 commissioners saying they supported it.]

Claim: Mayoral challenger Tim Denson said it would only cost $600,000 to make Athens Transit free.

Facts: Non-UGA farebox revenue is expected to be about $650,000 next year, so that figure is pretty close to accurate. However, it’s unclear whether UGA would still be willing to contribute to Athens Transit’s budget when its students and employees could hop on a city bus for free regardless of whether UGA reimbursed Athens Transit or not. File this one under… maybe.

Claim: Nancy said that Clemson’s bus system isn’t comparable to Athens’ because Clemson is much smaller and has more students than full-time residents. “Free buses have never been achieved in a city like ours,” she said.

Facts: Clemson Area Transit doesn’t just serve Clemson; it serves Anderson County and the cities of Seneca, Central and Pendleton as well. That area has a total population of about 210,000 people, compared to Athens’ 115,452. Clemson University’s enrollment is 21,303, compared to UGA’s 34,475.

Chapel Hill, NC, another city with free bus service, is home to the University of North Carolina and, along with next-door neighbor Carrboro, has a population of 77,000.

Nancy’s figures don’t add up. Clemson and Chapel Hill are both fairly similar to Athens.

Claim: Nancy addressed a vague call for a “progressive property tax” that Tim had made during another forum, calling it “absolutely wrong,” “devastating,” and “illegal.” It would require a change to the state constitution, and she’d be surprised if Tim could muster one vote to do so, she said.

Facts: That was kind of dirty pool, since Nancy said it during her closing statement and Tim didn’t have a chance to respond. But I caught up with him later so he could elaborate on his plan. 

Essentially, Tim wants a higher homestead exemption for low-income homeowners, so a family with a household income below the poverty line would get an additional tax break. 

While Tim isn’t aware of any city or county in Georgia with a homestead exemption for low-income homeowners, there’s some precedent. Some local governments in the Northeast do it, and here in Georgia, many cities and counties have tax exemptions for seniors and veterans.

Such a plan would not require changing the state constitution. However, it would require the approval of a majority of legislators and a local referendum, according to Clint Mueller of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia. That’s still a high hurdle, but much less difficult than getting  the two-thirds vote in the legislature plus statewide voter approval needed to change the constitution.