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ACC commissioners get an overview of draft county budget

Athens-Clarke County is looking at a healthy financial picture, including some $16 million in new revenue, according to a presentation to ACC commissioners by the county’s manager.

Of that new revenue, around half will go towards staff salaries, County Manager Blaine Williams said. Another large chunk of the new revenue - about 25 percent - is proposed to be allocated for operating increases, and around 15 percent for what Williams called “current service enhancements,” citing needs like additional staffing in the county’s fire department.

At a Tuesday afternoon meeting, Williams gave commissioners a look at what lawmakers and budget writers call the “big rocks” - a major step in the process of developing the county’s annual budget.

“The big rocks is the point at which the manager proposes a draft budget, and it goes to the mayor,” Williams said.

The mayor then adjusts that draft budget to reflect his or her priorities before turning it over to the commission for additional tweaks and a vote in late spring. The annual budget takes effect on July 1. This part of the process gets its from the large budgetary areas - things like property tax rates and employee compensation - that make up the bulk of the county’s income and spending.

“If the commissioners want to make a substantive change [from previous years’ budgets], it really lends itself to some of the bigger pieces of the budget,” Williams told lawmakers.

Raises for ACC employees proposed

Finding and holding onto qualified employees has been a problem for Athens-Clarke County in recent years, and commissioners have routinely made adjustments to employee salaries, including a comprehensive wage study and a $15 per hour minimum wage for county workers.

“Just like anybody else in America, it’s a battle for talent, and we want to be competitive,” Williams said.

This year, Williams is proposing a four percent pay hike across the board for county employees, along with one percent more for performance-based pay increases and a three percent hike in starting salaries for new employees.

Public safety employees, like police officers and firefighters are paid under a different system and would, under the current proposal, receive a three percent salary bump. Sheriff’s Department employees would get the three percent raise on top of an eight percent raise provided under separate commission action earlier this year.

Williams urged commissioners to avoid future piecemeal changes to the county’s pay plan, but District 5’s Dexter Fisher disagreed. Saying more needs to be done.

“I think we do need to look at our pay plan,” Fisher said, noting that nearby counties still pay higher salaries than Athens-Clarke. “We can’t match those salaries, and again I think that handicaps us for retaining and also when we bring in new talent.” Fisher pushed commissioners to give department heads more autonomy in offering raises and higher starting salaries.

Fire department seeks additional funding for EMS and ladder trucks

Some of the new revenue could go towards increasing staffing levels in ACC’s Fire Department. Williams’ draft budget recommends $200,000 dollars to add three new positions on the county’s ladder trucks and an additional $148,000 over six months to hire three EMS captains.

Jail medical services could see major budget boost

In addition to increases in pay for county employees, Williams is also recommending an additional $2.1 million in funding to enhance and expand medical services at the Clarke County Jail. Sheriff’s officials say the increase is necessary to address deficiencies in the current health services contract. Commissioners approved a midyear increase in jail medical services last month.

Other new spending items include a suggested $200,000 additional appropriation for the ACC Library and the public defender’s office.

Property values will grow, say county officials

The spending initiatives suggested by Williams can be funded, at least in part, by continuing growth in property tax revenues. Without raising the rate, growth in property values and the resulting higher tax payments are expected to grow by about 10 percent, or $4.5 million, for a total of around $87.5 million. While commissioners have the option to raise the property tax rate, in recent years, lawmakers have shown little appetite for an increase, instead allowing rising property values to add revenue to the budget.

Sales tax revenue is also expected to grow, Williams said.

“Sales taxes continue to amaze, and so keeping what we’ve seen this past year, that’s an extra $4 million for the budget as well,” Williams told commissioners.

Williams’ draft budget now goes to Mayor Kelly Girtz for adjustments, before it is presented to commissioners later this spring.

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.