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Catch Up on the News From Over the Summer

Don’t fall on me. Credit: Chris Dowd

The pandemic got better, and then it got worse again (way worse), but that’s not the only thing that happened in Athens the past few months. Here are some of the stories you may have missed.

Living Wages: Athens-Clarke County passed a $271 million budget in June that, for the first time, includes a $15 minimum wage for all 1,700-plus ACC employees. It also continues fare-free Athens Transit, adds unarmed crisis responders for mental health emergencies and funds a study on racial disparities, pay raises for public defenders, youth development programs and other progressive goals without raising property taxes. At the Clarke County School District, though, 188 employees still make less than $12.50 an hour. Those employees received an extra $500 COVID-19 bonus, in addition to the $2,000 given to all employees. 

Construction Is Poppin’: Downtown continues to push westward. The Varsity closed at Broad Street and Milledge Avenue, to be replaced by a grocery store and apartments built by notorious Atlanta developer Jeff Fuqua. A few blocks away, where the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house and Courtyard by Marriott now stand, another mixed-use development with 340 student apartments is proposed. Another similar building is under construction a block up Finley Street, where the Days Inn used to be. Still awaiting an ACC Commission decision is a high-rise tower on Mitchell Street southeast of downtown, originally senior housing but now for students. On the north side of downtown, bulldozers are set to raze a portion of Bethel Homes to begin a massive public-private redevelopment project. (And yes, we know the Clayton Street trees are gone, victims of a major infrastructure improvement project, but rest assured they will be replaced.) Meanwhile, a new dorm just across Lumpkin Street from the UGA campus, owned by the Episcopal Church’s Atlanta archdiocese, is also under construction.

The Brain Train Lives (Kinda): The Georgia Department of Transportation announced in July that Athens is along the chosen route for a proposed high-speed rail line between Atlanta and Charlotte. It would be a longer, faster version of the “Brain Train” connecting UGA with universities in Atlanta—an Athens dream dating back 30 years. But the project currently has no funding and is likely decades away, if it’s ever built at all. In other transportation news, what’s left of the “Murmur Trestle,” made famous by its depiction on the back cover of R.E.M.’s 1983 album, was demolished to make way for a new pedestrian bridge. Engineering studies found that the deteriorating structure was unstable, and it will be replaced by a new bridge along the Firefly Trail that mimics the old trestle’s appearance, bolstered by modern steel arches on either side. In addition, ACC is soliciting ideas through Aug. 15 for projects to fund with an extension of a 1% sales tax for transportation. T-SPLOST 2023 is expected to raise $140 million over five years and is slated for a vote next May.

What’s Up With the Auditor?: Internal Auditor Stephanie Maddox, whose job is to examine the operations and efficiency of ACC government departments at the direction of the mayor and commission, publicly accused Mayor Kelly Girtz and Manager Blaine Williams of discrimination and retaliation after she filed an open records request seeking information about a wage study. On the other hand, commissioners have criticized Maddox for not filling two open positions in her office and completing just three audits in her five years on the job. Maddox was reappointed for another two-year term by a 9-1 vote, but this issue seems far from resolved. Stay tuned.

State Stuff: Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill making it harder for local governments to “defund the police”—not that ACC is doing any such thing, as the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Houston Gaines (R-Athens), claims. Other bills Kemp signed restricted absentee voting, reformed citizen’s arrest and loosened campaign fundraising restrictions. In addition, Kemp gave an Athens pastor, the Rev. Abraham Mosely of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, the unpleasant task of mediating the dispute over Confederate symbols at Stone Mountain. Oh yeah, and he also barred state agencies from requiring COVID vaccines or vaccine “passports.” Delta Delta Delta, can we help ya, help ya, help ya?