Friday, September 21, 2007

On the Charter

I know that I am a broken record on this point, but so be it. This admittedly rambling post ties together a variety of things sharing a common theme, namely that the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County has, for the better part of two decades, conspicuously ignored the provisions and implications of its own Charter.

According to Ben Emanuel’s article in the current issue of Flagpole:

“Ahead-of-schedule construction of a small portion of the Sandy Creek line is being discussed now because a private developer has said he’s willing to pay for it. Typical ACC policy is to accept such offers to build infrastructure that’s already in its plans. At last week’s meeting, however, some commissioners and Mayor Davison expressed doubts about following through with the service delivery plan insofar as running a sewer line northward along Sandy Creek.”

In other words, the folks who live in the formerly unincorporated areas of the county are about to get screwed – again.

Grady Cornish writes in a letter to the Banner-Herald’s editor:

”The time has come to bring about the equity promised” at the time of city-county unification.

He is entirely correct and his comment brings to mind something someone wrote as a comment over at Jmac’s a while back (at least that is where I think it was – I can’t find the exact comment at the moment) concerning the provision of basic services to the peripheral areas of the county:

“Not because of the story that is told that it was supposedly promised in the unification charter, because it wasn't. That's just lore.”

I’m sure that the reference was to me, as I am the one who has been making that argument, and I beg to differ – emphatically so. Various sections of the Charter are obvious and unambiguous in their implications for extending government services into the formerly unincorporated areas of the county. Of specific note are:

Section 8-115. Provision of services.
When determining services to be provided, the unified government shall always attempt:
(1) To efficiently allocate resources to increase the quality of life for all citizens of Athens-Clarke County;
(2) To provide the highest quality services to all citizens of Athens-Clarke County;
(3) To ensure efficient utilization of community resources;
(4) To promote equity for all citizens in the delivery of governmental services throughout Athens-Clarke County; and
(5) To recognize and consider the advantages of the provision of services through contractual arrangements with other governments and private enterprises.

Section 9-103. Provision of services during transition.
In order to unify the two (2) governments and to assure the common and continued administration of services currently provided by both the City of Athens and Clarke County, the following procedures shall apply:
(1) On the effective date of the new unified government, all services currently provided by the county shall be provided through the general services area to all residents of the county and all services provided by the city shall be provided through the urban services area to the current residents of the City of Athens. Assuming the continued availability of state and federal funds, these service arrangements shall apply until modified as provided under the provisions cited below;
(2) Within one (1) year of the completion of the rate study provided for in this paragraph, the unified government shall adopt a uniform residential rate for water and sewer services throughout Athens-Clarke County. During the first six (6) months after the effective date of this Charter a rate study shall be made, and the equalization of water and sewer rates shall be completed within one (1) year of the completion of the rate study;
(3) Within four (4) years of the effective date of this Charter the unified government shall adopt a service delivery plan that includes, but is not limited to, the following:
(A) A capital improvements plan to provide water and sewer services to all residents of the county;
(B) An administrative mechanism with appropriate status and adequate budget to develop and implement a comprehensive program of human and economic development. The program shall be responsible for identifying problems and needs that exist in the community and for identifying and securing resources needed to effectively address these problems and needs. The program shall encourage efforts to enable, empower and involve the disadvantaged; address the causes of crime; work to enhance the quality of life of all citizens; and to help ensure that the unified government will be responsive to the needs of all citizens;
(C) An administrative mechanism with appropriate status and adequate budget to develop and implement adequate parks and recreation programs that will be available to all citizens of Athens-Clarke County;
(4) The unified government shall work with due speed to equalize the charges for all services throughout the county.

I contend that “all” means just that, the residents of the euphemistically named general services district just as much as the residents of in-town neighborhoods such as Five Points or Cobbham.

Once city-county unification became an established fact, however, the rules began to change. For about the first decade under the Unified Government, residents of the general services district were treated with what amounted to benign neglect. Some improvements have been made in terms of running water lines along a (precious) few main roads (after the Unified Government had been threatened with legal action) and the outlying areas of the county did get Fire Stations 8 and 9, but it took until now to accomplish that goal (the open house for Station 9 is this coming Sunday) – how many years after the new Stations 3 and 4 were built in areas that already had fire protection? And that has been about it.

It is important to note that even these improvements necessitated the imposition of additional taxes in the form of never-ending SPLOSTs, currently in their third iteration. Given the staggering amount of money we have blown on the Greenway, the Murmur trestle, the skate park, etc., it is shameful that large areas of the county still do not enjoy the basic services set forth in the Charter.

As indicated above, the Public Utilities Department drafted its original Service Delivery Plan in 1995. This plan was supposed to be updated every five years. Instead, the update of the Plan slated for 2000 was postponed until 2004. At that time, the Commission deleted more than 35 miles of sanitary sewer lines originally projected for the peripheral areas of the county, mainly in the Shoals Creek area. And, as noted above, that service delivery plan, designed to extend water and sanitary sewer lines out into the county is about to take another hit.

Which brings me to another point. In a recent story on the reactions of local politicians to the Glenn Tax, Blake Aued wrote:

“Athens-Clarke Mayor Heidi Davison quickly countered [Carnesville Mayor] Little, drawing applause for saying she won't be satisfied with providing only basic services. Athenians demand amenities like parks and a revamped Baxter Street from elected leaders, she said.

‘I don't want my citizens reduced to a medium level of service because you don't want to pay your property taxes,’ Davison said.”

As I responded over on Jason Winder’s blog (and this is not meant as a slap at Heidi):

“This will be great news for we thousands of folks who live in the formerly unincorporated areas of the county and who still, nearly two decades after city-county unification, do not get the fore mentioned minimum level of services (and are not going to get them in the foreseeable future).

Despite paying the same millage rate as the folks in Five Points and Cobbham (just to pick on them again), being subject to the same capricious property tax reassessments year after year, paying the stormwater utility fee (despite not being connected to the county’s sewer system or living anywhere near a stormwater drain), etc., we might as well live in Oglethorpe County insofar as the provision of basic governmental services is concerned.”

When it comes to deriving revenue from us, the Unified Government regards we AR zone folks as being just as much a part of Clarke County as anyone else. When it comes to delivering the basic governmental services promised to us in the past is concerned, however, a very different standard applies.

And while we are at it, let’s consider these other provisions of the Charter that no one in local government ever wants to talk about: (straight out of my campaign platform of last year):

The Commission should consider a reduction in the property tax millage rate in the general services district as permitted in Part I, Section 1-105. This reduction would serve to partially compensate residents in the district for the increasingly restrictive zoning, dramatically increased stream buffers, and continuing absence of basic governmental services in the peripheral areas of the county. Any such millage rate reduction would be compensatory only. I realize that the limited extensions of basic services into the formerly unincorporated areas of the county do not currently rely on property taxes.

The Commission should convene the Overview Commission every five years. The Overview Commission was originally convened every four years as per Part I, Section 8-116 (i.e. in 1995 and 1999), but this schedule was changed to every ten years in 2001. I feel that convening the Overview Commission only once per decade is insufficient to effectively monitor the performance of county government.

The Commission should transfer control of Ben Epps Airport to the Clarke County Airport Authority as per Part II, Chapter 4, Section 23. The Authority passed a formal resolution requesting the Unified Government transfer control of the airport to it in 2000. In 2002, the Authority reaffirmed the resolution and submitted a proposed management agreement to the Unified Government. To date, no action has been taken on either.

Any takers?

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Adrian said...

The sewer lines may have been nixed to protect the aspirational "greenbelt."

But without looking up the law just yet, aren't rural areas which are not expected to grow precluded from being incorporated? If so, extending corporate territory across the territory but then promoting agricultural uses would be inconsistent. Incorporating an area presumes urban growth in that area, so restricting development to preserve agricultural use may be a violation of municipal law.

james said...

Incorporation is a meaningless concept when discussing the urban services district (the area of the old City of Athens) and the general services district (the formerly unincorporated area of the county); they are legally indistinguishable insofar as government is concerned. The zoning may differ and they constitute separate tax districts, but otherwise one is just the same as the other. The territory of Winterville and that part of Bogart that lies in Clarke County are incorporated in the traditional sense.

Yes, the sewer lines are being dropped to protect the hallowed Greenbelt. That is the problem. The Charter, the Service Delivery Plan, etc. predate the Greenbelt and the draconian down-zoning and land use restrictions that have been inflicted on the peripheral areas of the county over the past few years; the Unified Government changed the rules after the fact and in so doing has ignored the provisions and implications of the Charter.

Rick Stanziale said...

Sorry to continue on with the "sewer lines" and "greenbelt" but here I go....

Greenbelt?!?! What are people thinking - Athens-Clarke County is the smallest county by land area in the state. All this talk of "greenbelt" is just going to bring more retail development to counties contiguous to ACC - look at Oconee county on 316 (Lowes, Home Depot, Kohl's, Wal Mart, etc. etc.) and get ready to see the same thing happen in Jackson County on the newly expanding Highway 129. Stop talking "greenbelt" and start seriously considering Transferable Development Rights (and I don't mean just giving it lip service). Maybe it's time to disconnect property taxes from the "assumed" value of that property. Why not make taxes higher on undeveloped land in areas of the county we'd like to see developed (thereby offering incentive for the owners of said land to make it available to potential developers)?

Whew, too much coffee...thanks again JP for making me think.

Adrian said...

OK, here is what I figured out. When a municipal corporation annexes territory, then "the area to be
annexed must be developed for urban purposes." O.C.G.A. sec. 36-36-54. This would seem to express a policy that corporate powers of a municipality should not be exercised in a rural area. However, you can get around this through the merger of the municipality with the county; the county then exercises corporate powers throughout its territory with no urban requirement. O.C.G.A. sec. 36-68-1 et seq.

Chris said...

I live off of College Station in a neighborhood (past the research station) and Athens-Clarke County doesn't provide trash pickup services out here. Isn't trash pickup one of the services that should be provided to the entire county? Is there any way I can complain/bring legal action if this is true?

james said...

I live off Cherokee Road outside the Winterville city limits (dirt road, no water service, no sewer service, no trash pickup - nada).

The Commission discussed trash pickup a few years ago, in connection with regulating the private trash pickup services that operate out in the formerly unincorporated areas of the county as I recall. Someone inside the rail, a staffer the identity of whom I do not recall, remarked about how the folks in the general services district, who pay for trash pickup out of pocket to private services, really get a better deal than those in the urban services district, who get billed by the Unified Government for trash pickup.

That being the case, I immediately proposed that the Unified Government get out of the trash pickup business and let private industry provide in-town customers better service at a better price. Needless to say, no one connected with local government, then or since, has broached the subject (at least to the best of my knowledge).

Anonymous said...

What prevents disgruntled residents of the "greenbelt" areas from incorporating a new municipality?

Lord knows we have too much government in this state, but if ACC persists with their insane land use and school attendance policies, another municipality might be a good idea.