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ACC Commissioners approve $133K for homelessness plan

Commissioner Ovita Thornton questioned the need for a strategic plan to tackle homelessness at a commission meeting on Tuesday.
Commissioner Ovita Thornton questioned the need for a strategic plan to tackle homelessness at a commission meeting on Tuesday.

Athens-Clarke County Commissioners voted to spend $133,000 on a strategic plan to address the county’s growing homelessness problem at their monthly meeting on Tuesday.

The strategic plan, which will be produced in the coming months by a consulting firm based in the Washington, DC area, was characterized by some critics as just another study without action accompanying it. One of those critics was District 9 Commissioner Ovita Thornton, who said, “We do too many studies and surveys and we still have a problem … we’ve got to get out of planning stages and into action stages.”

Proponents of the plan say that it’s not just another study but a way to convene and better organize the array of resources Athens has to combat homelessness – both in terms of money and in terms of organizations working on the problem.

District 1’s Patrick Davenport said, “We’ve got to do something, and this is not necessarily a study. We’ve got one group doing this, one group doing that, let’s just get together. And what they’re going to do is make recommendations.”.

Thornton remained skeptical, saying, “So we’ve got to bring somebody here to show us how to work together? I don’t get that. We’ve got to pay somebody to show us how to have some coffee and some juice to talk over issues?”.

District 8’s Carol Myers noted that the plan would guide the county on how to spend millions in federal aid money, and that it included a significant amount of public engagement.

“There’s actually considerable public interaction here,” Myers said. “With stakeholders, with homeless individuals themselves, and with the providers.”

Commissioners voted to move ahead with work on the plan by a vote of 8 to 1, with Thornton voting against. The plan itself will take several months to complete.

Some relief for displaced renters 

Commissioners also tackled another issue related to homelessness - the fate of residents in several neighborhoods who are facing sudden rent hikes or the danger of losing their homes after an outside investor bought their homes and refused to accept Section 8 and VA housing assistance vouchers.

Commissioners approved a restructured deal with several non-profits to use Community Development Block Grant funds to to assist displaced renters with utility payments and moving expenses.

District 5 Commissioner Tim Denson said that there was very little local government could do to prevent situations like those in Lexington Heights and Hidden Pines, and that state action was needed.

“We do need to work with our state legislature to ensure that we have a housing income discrimination ban, so that these landlords cannot refuse Veterans’ Affairs housing vouchers and Section 8 housing vouchers, but that work has to be done on the state level,” Denson said.

Transit funding opens larger discussion on future of fare-free buses

A discussion to move $225,000 to Athens Transit to fill a gap of a few months before it receives additional federal funding turned into a larger discussion about bus stop shelters, empty buses, quality of service, and the future of fare-free transit, in a preview of an issue likely to come up before commissioners next year.

Fare free transit has been funded by TSPLOST through at least June of next year, but County manager Blaine Williams said that the funding isn’t the end of the story.

“Maybe some voters and some elected officials felt like, ‘well TSPLOST passes, no problems,’” Williams told commissioners. “That’s not the case. So we’ve got to revisit this, and we’ve talked about staff maybe coming to y’all at a work session and kind of talking you through - certainly as we lead up to the budget - what some of the mechanics and the challenges of the funding are.”

Williams told commissioners that the government would soon be starting work on a transit development plan, required by the federal government in order to receive funding. Work starts next month on that plan.

“We hope that engagement will start in the next month or so, certainly get going by the end of the calendar year, and finish the entire plan by June of next year,” Williams said.

Russell Edwards, a critic of Athens Transit at a meeting last month, took an opportunity to again talk about his frustrations with the system.

“I think fare-free has been a program with a good intent,” Edwards said. “I look at it as an anti-poverty program. I think that’s what I see it accomplishing, but I’m really interested, when we’re talking about transit, how do we enhance the quality of service of transit?”

District 5’s Denson said the solution to service improvements is more funding, but not from the fare box.

“The amount of money that we would actually recoup from the local fares, the farebox, again less than $500,000 - that’s basically the cost to operate one additional bus per year.” Denson said. “The fare box is not what’s stopping us from expanding service. What’s stopping us from being able to expand service is that we’re not investing enough in this.”

The issue in front of Commissioners on Tuesday, the $225,000 for Athens Transit, passed unanimously but the larger discussion on the future path of Athens Transit is likely to dominate commission meetings in the months to come.

Commissioners spar over changes to voting rules

Commissioners differed sharply over a proposal to reduce the number of commissioners needed to form a quorum and pass legislation from 7 to 6. The discussion turned into a larger, and sometimes contentious, one about commissioners missing meetings, and whether there are too many commission meetings.

Because the change to the voting rule is a change to the charter, commissioners have to approve at two consecutive voting meetings. District 4’s Allison Wright moved to kill the proposed change.

“I did check with the clerk and she confirmed that we have had no regular scheduled voting meetings that did not have a quorum,” said Wright.

District 5’s Denson acknowledged that, but argued that wasn’t the case with special called sessions.

“I do know for a fact that we have had called executive meetings that have not had a quorum, that we were not able to hold those meetings,” Denson said.”

Commissioners meet in executive sessions to discuss and vote on potentially sensitive issues like legal proceedings, personnel matters, and land purchases and sales. Those meetings are held behind closed doors.

Mike Hamby made the point that often, those executive sessions were scheduled at the last minute.

“When we get a notice that there’s an executive session 24 hours before, [a meeting] the next day … if there are decisions being made in executive session or a vote being determined in an executive session, that should not be happening,” Hamby said.

District 6’s Jesse Houle said that commissioners missing meetings wasn’t just limited to voting meetings and executive sessions however, and that a change to the quorum requirement wouldn’t change that dynamic.

“I think it’s important for this body to really reckon with the attendance issues we’ve had,” Houle said. “This is across the board and many of these things do not require a quorum of the full body, which is why I don’t think this is an appropriate solution to the problem.”

A frustrated Houle also tied commissioner absences to unhappiness among county staff, who put significant amounts of work into presentations for commissioners at work sessions and other non-voting meetings.

“Part of our staff morale issues is that they get us together for a work session or a retreat, and there’s three of us there,” Houle said. “And I’m tired of hearing our staff get praised in these meetings while the cameras are rolling, but have no one in the retreat or in the work session to hear them out.”

Houle’s comments drew protest from Mike Hamby, who characterized Houle’s remarks as “lecturing,” and said that many of the items showing up on work sessions were requested by Houle.

After more discussion, commissioners voted 6 - 3 to postpone the first of the two necessary votes until October 4. Hamby, Thornton, and Wright voted against the postponement.

Two controversial zoning issues withdrawn before a vote

Two zoning issues that have been in front of commissioners in recent weeks were withdrawn before a scheduled vote on Tuesday. A proposed large townhome development on Olympic Drive could appear before commissioners later, however. David Ellison, representing the applicant, said that they wanted a chance to “reassess the project,” but that they would resubmit the plans at a later date.

Another request to use a building on Hancock Avenue as a temporary fraternity house that had sparked protests from neighbors was also withdrawn.

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.