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ACC Commission passes budget, resolutions honoring Juneteenth and Pride Month

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Commissioners Ovita Thornton (left) and Mike Hamby (right) authored one of two budget proposals evaluated by commissioners on June 7.

Athens-Clarke County Commissioners passed the county’s budget after some discussion at a lengthy Tuesday night meeting.

Many of the details that had bedeviled commissioners in the weeks they have been working on the budget were resolved before Tuesday’s vote. A pay hike for county employees has been largely noncontroversial, and after significant public input, commissioners were able to agree on additional pay raises for Athens-Clarke County Library employees to get them up to the $15 per hour minimum for other county employees.

In the end, commissioners were presented with two slightly different budget options, one spearheaded by Commissioners Carol Myers and Tim Denson, and a second one created by Commissioners Ovita Thornton and Mike Hamby. The plans were similar in scope but differed over a proposed reduction in the county’s property tax rate.

Both plans called for a larger millage rate deduction than originally suggested by Mayor Kelly Girtz. The Myers/Denson option calls for a .6 mil decrease to 13.1 mils, while the Thornton/Hamby proposal would have further dropped the millage rate to 12.95 mils.

Commissioner Carol Myers characterized the difference in millage rate proposals as negligible.

"That's a difference of$11.00 a year for a house that has an appraised value of $220,000," said Myers.

Not so, said Hamby, citing rising inflation.

"$11.00 a year can be significant and pay somebody's medication for a month" Hamby retorted.

Commissioners also differed over the need for a new master plan for the county’s Leisure Services Department. Hamby left the master plan out of the budget proposal he co-authored.

"Each Tuesday meeting we get award after award," Hamby said. "If there's anybody that knows how to do leisure services in this country it's Athens-Clarke County. A leisure services plan is probably going to tell us how many pickleball courts we need and we probably need more. But is this the year to do that?"

The Hamby/Thornton proposal failed 7 – 3. After that vote, both Hamby and Thornton voted yes on the Myers/Denson plan. District 4 Commissioner Allison Wright voted no on both budget proposals.

In that same sometimes testy meeting that also saw extensive debate over the county’s budget, Athens-Clarke County Commissioners also passed two resolutions relating to special commemorations.

Normally, resolutions like the ones recognizing Pride Month and Juneteenth that were in front of Commissioners on Tuesday, are non-controversial measures that more often than not pass unanimously. That wasn’t the case however, and the two resolutions sparked controversy and frustration among lawmakers.

Commissioner Jesse Houle said the resolution, as well as a second one honoring Juneteenth, were more than just symbolic.

"It's important to recognize that there's a gravity behind making statements as a community," they said.

Commissioner Ovita Thornton expressed reservations about the Pride Month resolution, and her worry that it would set a difficult precedent.

"We've got to be aware that that opens it up for everybody and anybody, and I am not comfortable, if a certain group comes and I don't like them, I would vote against something." Thornton told colleagues. "I think that Athens Pride month is significant. I think it's important."

A frustrated Houle responded, saying, "I am dismayed, though not entirely surprised, that this may not pass unanimously. I would like to read the following and ask my colleagues to consider whether they are a yes or a no on the following."

Houle then proceeded to read the resolution to their colleagues.

The resolution passed 9 – 1, with Thornton voting against.

The Juneteenth resolution also passed 9 – 1 with Thornton dissenting.

Commissioners also differed sharply over a proposed development on Oglethorpe Avenue.

Residents in the Knottingham Drive neighborhood turned out in force to oppose the 1010 Oglethorpe proposal, which would take a 1.85 acre parcel with a single large house and turn it into a planned development with a mix of duplexes, fourplexes, and two and three bedroom cottages, while preserving the existing building.

Concerns from residents who live on Knottingham Drive and the adjacent Davis Place revolved around increased traffic and the possibility of skyrocketing property values. Developers and supporters of the project say it will help ease the city’s affordable housing woes.

But, to build the project, those developers need the ACC Commission to grant them a series of waivers to existing zoning laws that control things like the minimum width of a residential lot.

Commissioner Tim Denson’s 5th district includes the proposed development, and Denson voted for the plan.

"The only way we get out of this housing crisis is by building housing and it has to be built though not just student housing, not just luxury housing - we've been been getting quite a bit of that," Denson said. "What we haven't been getting has been workforce housing and affordable housing."

District 10’s Mike Hamby acknowledged the housing problem, but said, "the answer is not doing on the backs of the people who are going to be most impacted by this by this development."

The vote on Tuesday comes just one day after commissioners heard the results of a study that finds a need for what study authors call “missing middle” housing in the county – housing that fits in between large-scale apartment complexes and single-family residential homes. Supporters of the 1010 Oglethorpe project say that it represents that type of development.

Commissioners approved the project by a narrow 6- 4 margin.

Nabo Realty, a business owned in part by one of the 1010 Oglethorpe project’s developers, is a financial supporter of WUGA.

Martin Matheny is WUGA's Program Director and a host and producer of our local news program 'Athens News Matters.' He started at WUGA in 2012 as a part-time classical music host and still hosts WUGA's longest-running local program 'Night Music' which is heard on WUGA and GPB Classical. He lives in Normaltown with his wife, Shaye and dog, Murphy.
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