November 22, 2017

Commissioners' Priorities for State Legislators Include Moving Elections

City Dope

State Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens).

Meetings between ACC commissioners and the county’s delegation to Atlanta—which usually occur twice a year—are typically polite tug-of-wars over “local control” of issues. Commissioners want to be allowed to make their own decisions on matters like scheduling elections or local taxes; state lawmakers talk about “local control” as a great thing, but on specific issues often treat the local officials as children who need adult supervision by the legislature.

So it was at last week’s commission work session, although the usually Republican-heavy legislative delegation was augmented this time by the presence of Deborah Gonzalez and Jonathan Wallace, the two Democratic newcomers freshly elected in local upsets that made national news. Wallace and Gonzalez mostly just listened as commissioners discussed their wish list for the upcoming legislative session with state Sens. Frank Ginn (R-Danielsville) and Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) and Rep. Spencer Frye (D-Athens).

Local elections should be held in November when turnout is highest, and not in May as the state requires for ACC’s consolidated government, Commissioner Jared Bailey argued. “It’s a more democratic process,” he said.

But changes to local elections won’t fly in the legislature—which has not only gerrymandered federal and state districts but rejected locally proposed commission districts—the Republican reps told commissioners. “That’s a heavy lift,” said Cowsert. “You’re asking us to change state law on all these things.”

Commissioners are also asking to be allowed to move the county’s sole Confederate monument on Broad Street downtown, but that would also violate state law. When Georgia removed the rebel emblem from its state flag in 2003, the same law mandated that Confederate monuments not be moved in the future. “I don’t have any desire to abuse our forefathers and the things they’ve done, right or wrong,” said Ginn. “Those were controversial times.”

But “political deals change over time,” Commissioner Andy Herod said, and the prominent monument “probably does not reflect Athens’ community values.”

Frye agreed. “I would be in favor of putting it in a more appropriate location,” Frye said. “I think this is something that the legislature will definitely look at.”

In addition, commissioners want the state to share information (confidentially) with local government on sales tax collections, partly to help catch businesses that don’t report it, and to close loopholes and sales tax exemptions, like buying e-books and music online, online sellers that don’t collect tax at all, and for services that are not now taxed. And with “franchise fees”—money paid to the county by utilities like electric, cable and phone companies for using public right-of-ways to string wires—going down as new technologies supplant older ones, commissioners are asking instead for a 3.5 percent cut of utility bills to replace franchise fees.

On affordable housing, “it’s state laws that stand in the way” of inclusionary zoning requiring developers to build affordable homes along with market-rate ones, Commissioner Melissa Link said. “We’ve got to get ahead of the ball,” she said, to avoid Atlanta and Savannah’s problems where gentrifying neighborhoods leave longtime homeowners unable to afford rising taxes.  

And by limiting the use of radar on many local streets, the state makes it hard to enforce speed limits in neighborhoods—an issue on which “we get calls every day,” Link said. “Apparently speed limits are set based on how fast cars are already going,” she added, referring to the common practice of traffic engineers to set speed limits at a rate below which 85 percent of traffic is moving.

If local and state legislators agreed on anything, it was the need for better rural internet access. “I hear from constituents all the time” about it, Cowsert said, and lack of broadband internet stymies economic development. “There are parts of Clarke County where you cannot get on the internet,” Herod agreed.