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Athens Rising

If you’ve been hoping that Athens-Clarke County’s elected officials might soon get serious about planning for the future, rather than stumbling from crisis to crisis, now is the time to start bugging your commissioners. Last week, Mayor Nancy Denson pitched her proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2013, and it doesn’t have much to offer, leaving all of the planning-related budget goals the commission approved in February unfunded. Indeed, all of the issues that might be addressed by her specially appointed Economic Development Task Force are left alone, too; in the budget’s summary, it is noted again and again that “there are no funds designated in this budget to meet this objective.â€

The budget goal of supporting “the development of a comprehensive economic development strategy†for the community is a big one, and to set not a dollar aside in its pursuit raises questions about sincerity of the mayor’s efforts on economic development. Is her work done, now that Caterpillar’s here? If things go as planned, regardless of whether that task force recommends tax allocation districts for new infrastructure, or the establishment of opportunity zones for new job tax credits, there will be no money to study the issue and actually implement the necessary policy changes. The task force might as well wrap up now, because with no financial support for its conclusions from the mayor, any plan it produces will go straight to the same dusty shelf where all the past economic development plans sit unread and unimplemented.

While Athens is raking in accolades as a great place to live—in the last month being declared a great small city both for economic development and in which to retire—we are doing nothing to maintain, support, or grow those successes into something meaningful. There’s an opportunity to turn these things into the right kinds of growth, which ultimately increase tax revenue and make the sorts of budgetary maneuvers we currently face less necessary. If this community is going to weather the rest of this Great Recession and prepare for the next, investing in the future is critical.

Planning initiatives that are recognized as sorely needed are likewise unprovided for, despite the fact that the issues they would address occupy so much of the mayor and commission’s attention. Affordable housing, corridor studies and downtown master planning were major goals, and they remain ignored in the budget. Given how much time is already spent on these issues—on the back end, in a reactionary manner—it seems like investing now could save time and resources, and ultimately be a fiscally smart maneuver.

It’s also interesting to note that while the first objective on the list of budget goals is to reduce energy consumption by 15 percent—a recognition that environmental sustainability is a path towards financial sustainability through the reduction of operating costs—not only are there “no specific FY13 operating funds in the Central Services proposed budget identified for this goal,†but the Environmental Coordinator position is also going to be frozen for a year, ensuring that no one will give this important strategy for fiscal and environmental responsibility the consideration it deserves. That position has remained hard to fill, with a lack of support for it within the county government rumored to be the cause. This could simply be the next step in killing the position for good, and that would be a shame. For all the rhetoric about government waste that colors political debates these days, the notion that it ought to be someone’s job to watchdog the government and ensure it is using (expensive) natural resources wisely should receive more support than it does.

When the mayor and commission approved these goals and objectives a few short months ago, they were promising quite a bit to the community. Now, it’s time to see whether those promises will be kept. The mayor’s proposed budget is only the opening offer; it’s now up to the commission to review and revise it. Mayor Denson has clearly made it a priority to fund raises for all county employees, which those civil servants are certainly due. However, it’s an expensive proposition, and the cost and benefit to this community need to be weighed seriously. The desire to create competitive compensation to attract and retain quality employees is ultimately one goal out of many, and the satisfaction of that goal costs nearly a million dollars. Given, for instance, that figures in the $100,000–$200,000 range are tossed around as the potential cost of a downtown master plan, the amount of money set aside for raises could instead cover many of the more forward-thinking initiatives that the mayor and commission initially endorsed as critical to accomplish this year, setting up the whole community for a much more prosperous future.