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Pinching pennies at the kitchen table but not Athens City Hall

By Michael H. McLendon

Take these opportunities to give feedback to your elected officials about their FY25 budgets. ACC Commissioners will vote on the FY25 budget Wednesday, June 5th, after a public hearing at 6 PM (Clarke County School District Vernon Payne Meeting, 595 Prince Avenue). Approval of the FY25 budget is item 43 on the Commission agenda! The CCSD will hold their second budget hearing on 4 June and their final hearing on 12 June with a vote on 13 June.

Many Athenians sit at their kitchen table trying to figure out how to pay their bills and feed their families in a period of sustained inflation. That is not the case at City Hall and the Prince Ave Taj Mahal. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, while people are struggling, politicians continue to spend our tax $ like drunken sailors...in fact they give the sailors a bad name!

The cumulative inflation rate since 2020 has reached 21.15% with many literally pinching pennies to pay for the basics of life with many doing without. Many Athenians are living paycheck to paycheck struggling to pay a rent increase from last year with another rent increase one on the way if elected officials have their way to raise taxes. Another sign of stress is that 78% of Americans now think of fast-food meals as a luxury. Think about that.

As people make hard choices about what they must do without, City Hall and the Taj live in their own bubble believing all their dreams are affordable. They salivate over the continued growth in the tax digest believing the tax digest is their personal piggy bank to harvest. After all, “it’s just other people’s money.” For the FY budget periods of FY20 – FY 25, the cumulative ACC tax digest increase was 68%. Quite a large piggy bank!

At the kitchen table we need to be thrifty and figure out how to get the best value for fewer and fewer $. While they, on the other hand, spend more and more to get less and less measuring value by how much they spend, not on results.

That is why you need to show up and speak to power at the next City Hall budget hearing and the CCSD budget hearings.

Tax and Spend at City Hall

City Hall’s expenditures (operating and capital expenditures) in FY25 will increase from 301M to $350. Flagpole reported on an agreement by Commissioners Houle, Fisher, and Hamby to change the budget, but not reduce it. This is another example of the secretive nature of how they do business since City Hall has not released this alternative budget proposal for public review.

Further, City Hall provides no venue for citizens to ask questions and receive answers about the budget. I recently was forced to submit an open records request to clarify the statements of the City Manager about the budget only to be told it would cost me $561.94.

Georgia’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights demands local government hold three public hearings before voting on a tax increase. But ACC sets its their third hearing on the same night as their vote on their budget and property tax increase. Their vote is Item 43 on a 45 Item agenda to ensure citizens get the message to keep their nose out of their business. Both tactics demonstrate an extraordinary level of disrespect and arrogance toward citizens.

Our commissioners are willing partners in these tactics because they do not want to answer questions in public from citizens. In other words, they scheme the budget process to avoid public accountability. It is always interesting how they behave one way around their kitchen table about family or business finances, but then when it comes to other people’s money, they do act like drunken sailors.

City Hall’s 458-page budget tells a story of an out of control, ever expanding central office bureaucracy as the City Manager grows non-public safety, non-direct service delivery staffing to build his bureaucracy which just drives up the cost of government. The story is also about new initiatives and infrastructure backlogs creating a bow wave of future funding requirements while prioritizing social engineering above all. No part of the story is about achieving efficiency in government, more effective use of resources, and greater productivity for the $.

For example, City Hall’s intent to set aside $5 M for “affordable housing” is just the first step in a campaign to get voters to raise the sales tax from 8% to 9% to pay for his housing dream. Thus, Athens would join only a small group of tax jurisdictions in Georgia with a 9% sales tax rate. More on this at a later time.

City Hall says its strategic plans drives the budget but reading this “plan” is like trying to make sense of a social engineering dictionary of buzz words produced by a random word processor. Their January 2024 plan identified 11 priorities, but not one of those priorities included core/mission infrastructure. In its FY 25 budget, the words “Built and Natural Infrastructure” appear as the last of six strategic word salad goals. This word salad does not even recognize core infrastructure needs such as roads, water/sewer, impacts of aging residential septic systems, storm water, intersections, sidewalks/lights, and etc.

The mayor believes he can create a new reality out of this word salad to justify prioritizing his progressive agenda. Trying to make sense of the word salad in concrete terms and figuring out what it means makes one question the sanity of the process, but when it is other people’s money there is no need for sanity.

Just as aside, I reviewed City Hall’s budget and identified $15M in cuts that could be made without impact to the core mission and infrastructure. More reductions could likely be identified based on an objective analysis. These reductions are adequate to offset critical public safety needs not funded by the mayor, begin to right size government, address some infrastructure needs, and still provide some relief to taxpayers. This information was provided to a number of the Commissioners. Not one responded.

How Much is Enough at the Taj?

The Taj’s budget is also egregious and merits more attention than space will allow today. The Taj budget increases General Fund expenditures 9.9% to $240M in FY25 which includes a $50M operating reserve and $34M in capital projects reserve. But taxpayers get no rollback!

CCSD is a story of declining student enrollment coupled with ever increasing spending per capita with a very problematic record of academic improvement. Enrollment has decreased about 1400 students since its peak in 2018 while per capita spending has increased from about $11K to about $19K.

The Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) 2022-23 Georgia Milestones test scores do not paint a good picture. Students are not making enough progress to regain academic achievement losses from the COVID-19 pandemic. Recall CCSD went all in on remote learning while surrounding counties kept their schools open. In addition, students scored 10 or more points below statewide averages on most tests, and just over 50% of students in grades 3-8 were reading at or above grade level.

The Taj’s plan has its own word salad. Statements such as “Connected Culture, Optimized Talent, Thriving Student” and “ We create educational journeys that empower all students to fulfill their potential” leave much to the imagination. Rather than babel, one would hope an educational institution would be able to communicate in unambiguous, easy to comprehend, and concrete terms. It is almost as if its strategic plan is shaped to conform to some ideological agenda rather than be practical and actionable to achieve better results.

The Taj’s budget, like City Hall’s, continues its growth in staffing. Further, both budgets convert staff positions that were funded using on-time American Rescue Plan Act pandemic $ to be enshrined in the Taj operating budget.

The Taj is also loath to allow public engagement and Q/A regarding their budget. The Taj must also comply with the Geogia Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but they demonstrated their brand of arrogance by holding a vote to give preliminary approval of the budget on 9 May even before they were to hold three budget hearings in June. What message does that send to taxpayers!

No one is arguing for defunding CCSD schools like local progressives advocate to defund the police. However, citizens have a legitimate concern about CCSD spending and the quality of the product it produces. Some may argue that there is a need to always spend more $ on schools. But this argument stumbles on the fact that public education spending has been at all-time highs with no sustained improvement in educational outcomes. It is reasonable to ask, how much is enough?

Summary

Our politicians like to say “we” did not increase your property taxes because “we” did not vote to raise the millage rate. They then lapse into amnesia forgetting they harvest the increase in the tax digest when they could have voted to roll back taxes to give relief to taxpayers when the tax digest has increased 68%!

They remind me of a famous line, now part of our culture, from a favorite comedian of mine, Flip Wilson. One of his characters always used the excuse “The devil made me do it.”

The actions of our elected officials do not provide any evidence of a commitment to making government affordable, efficient, and effective. Or for that matter government transparency and meaningful citizen engagement.

They are more interested in advertising a word salad of goals that are indecipherable and spreading $ around to serve special interest which is like throwing $ against the wall to see what sticks. In their minds, approving the budget to spend $ is success, but “do not expect me to be accountable for results.”

They truly are acting like drunken sailors.

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2 Comments


Excellent informational details. Thank you!

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If UGA paid property taxes, we wouldn’t have to worry about how to fix the housing crisis.


I have lived in other cities in Georgia, and Athens is one of the two most tolerable. Try living somewhere like Greene’s district…potholes every 5 feet, deteriorating infrastructure like Athens has NEVER seen, poor healthcare access, higher poverty rates, overall less resources for their exceptionally high tax rates. We have it pretty damn good here.

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