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Having heard from a task force appointed by Mayor Nancy Denson that Athens-Clarke County must spend more to successfully attract new businesses, four ACC commissioners charged with vetting the recommendations seem willing to raise taxes slightly for that purpose.  

“We’re going to have to do some kind of incentives for almost any company that comes here,” Denson told commissioners Harry Sims, Andy Herod and Kathy Hoard last week (Kelly Girtz is also on the vetting committee).  To get Caterpillar to move here, Athens-Clarke and Oconee counties bought the land and are building roads and infrastructure for the factory and will also forgive some property taxes in Caterpillar’s early years—a package worth $45 million.

Such tax exemptions and other incentives are not unusual, here or elsewhere, in competitions for new jobs between different communities.  Incentives may not decide the winner, but industries expect them nonetheless.  Paying for more effective efforts might cost an additional half-million dollars a year, county Manager Alan Reddish told commissioners—equivalent to a tax increase of less than $10 on a $150,000 home.

The task force—made up of citizens and businesspeople who finished their report in September—didn’t advise extensive changes in how ACC tries to lure new employers, but rather stronger leadership, better funding and better communication between the various authorities and departments who are already doing  economic development.  It also suggested taking a broader view to see Athens as a music and cultural venue, health-services provider, and retirement town. 

 But such niceties can come later, commissioners suggested last week. First will come an organization, likely to be “in-house”—basically a new county department.  Unlike the current Economic Development Foundation, which has its own independent board, the new department would be overseen directly by the commission through the county manager.  That wasn’t the recommendation of the Task Force, and it’s not what’s done in most places, but the commissioners present felt that if they are going to fund economic development, they need to be able to make decisions about it. 

“I think [voters] elected me to do it,” Commissioner Harry Sims told Flagpole.  “You know Athens-Clarke County… We do stuff totally different than everybody else anyway.”

 Attracting Caterpillar “taught us the value of having somebody that can say, ‘stop what you’re doing and work on this,'” Reddish told commissioners.   But he acknowledged not having “a lot of experience” in reaching out to prospective industries.   Reddish provided the commissioners with comparisons of what other comparable cities spend on economic development. Most spend more, and many own shovel-ready land or industrial parks where industries can locate (ACC doesn’t). 

 He also took a stab at a possible budget for the new department:  $670,000 to cover three employees, additional marketing and incentives, which is more than double the funding of the present EDF.  The difference, commissioners suggested, could come from slightly higher taxes, probably less than one-fifth mill (or $10 more for a typical home). 

“A modest commitment to a millage rate increase will be necessary if we’re going to keep our economic goals,” Commissioner Hoard said. 

In many places, private donations and fundraising from businesses help support economic development efforts. An in-house department could also accept such donations, county Attorney Bill Berryman told Flagpole. (An earlier Oconee county study suggested that private funding for a credible jobs effort could bring in $3 million.)

 More good-paying jobs (like industrial, health care or biotech jobs) are seen as a prime solution to Athens’ high poverty rate, and ACC’s commissioners have grown impatient with Athens’ oft-criticized failings in economic development. 

“It’s time to do the people’s business of economic development differently,” Hoard said.

Denson said she will put the plan on the commission’s agenda for discussion Nov. 15 and a vote Dec. 4. The agenda-setting meeting has been moved up a week due to the Thanksgiving holiday.

The committee didn’t discuss other task force recommendations, such as an ombudsman to help business owners negotiate the zoning and permitting processes, but said they are interested in forming a council to coordinate among various economic development groups.