The Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission Legislative Review Committee expressed both positive and negative concerns over the minimum drink price increase item and motioned to expand the legislation to the entire county. (Photo/Jason Born)

The Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission heard a strategic plan proposal for the county’s Animal Services Department during a Feb. 11 work session. The local government has begun overhauling the department after its management of Animal Services was subject to backlash in 2019.

The local government faced allegations of poor shelter conditions and came under fire after euthanizing more than 30 cats due to concerns of feline parvovirus exposure last summer. Testing later determined the euthanized cats were “unlikely” to have been infected.

ACC assistant manager Josh Edwards and interim Animal Services Department director Selah Gardiner proposed the plan at the work session. The strategic plan’s goals include creating a caring environment for animals, reducing the number of homeless animals and maximizing “positive and safe” outcomes for all the animals, according to the plan.

The most important aspects of the proposed plan include increasing accountability, transparency, staffing and training, Edwards said during the presentation. He added that stakeholders and Animal Services employees both had meetings to develop the proposed plan.

The shelter has already begun separating dogs and cats upon intake to minimize the spread of disease, Gardiner said. Animal Services is in the “early stages” of implementing PetPoint, an animal shelter management software to help “streamline” shelter operations.

Gardiner also noted the software could help track sickness in the animals, allowing staff to more easily schedule treatments and “trace and track” disease outbreaks.

The department drafted protocols on handling disease outbreaks, animal intake, vaccinations and cleaning, Gardiner said. Protocols on medical care, disease quarantines and updated volunteer handbooks are being drafted, according to the presentation.

Gardiner said Animal Services has done “a ton” of work implementing play groups and socialization for the animals, as well as training staff on “tactical” animal handling, shelter safety and euthanasia. They have worked with the ACC Police Department to train employees on de-escalation with aggressive people in the field, ACC spokesperson Jeff Montgomery said in an email.

“I, personally, would like to see us be a revered shelter,” Gardiner said. “I would like to see us as the people who help people with their animals … who get animals out into the community and to families.”

The Mayor and Commission will hear more from Animal Services about implementing the plan in the future, Gardiner said, though she did not give a specific time frame. Kristall Barber was recently appointed as full-time Animal Services director and will start on March 2.

In addition to Edwards’ and Gardiner’s Animal Services presentation, ACC sustainability officer Andrew Saunders presented a proposal for a community energy fund to the Mayor and Commission.

The fund would be used to work toward ACC’s goal of transitioning to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2050, which the Mayor and Commission adopted in May, Saunders said.

Saunders suggested the funds could be used to create incentives such as granting loans for businesses to add renewable energy sources, such as solar panels. The businesses would then pay back the loans over time through extra taxes.

Under the proposed plan, ACC would collect franchise fees from utility providers for use of public space based on the volume of services the providers deliver, Saunders said. These franchise fees would likely cause costs to increase for consumers, according to the presentation.

Athens residents currently spend an average of 11.06% of their income on electricity and natural gas, while the national average is 3.23%, according to data compiled by the Greenlink Group, a self-proclaimed “Clean Energy Technology and Consulting Powerhouse.” Georgia’s average is 6.91%, according to the presentation. Saunders said this is due to Athens’s lower incomes and energy-inefficient homes.

District 5 Commissioner Tim Denson and District 3 Commissioner Melissa Link said they supported the idea of the community energy fund.

District 4 Commissioner Allison Wright, District 9 Commissioner Ovita Thornton and District 10 Commissioner Mike Hamby were not present at the meeting.

District 1 Commissioner Patrick Davenport, District 2 Commissioner Mariah Parker, District 6 Commissioner Jerry NeSmith, District 7 Commissioner Russell Edwards and District 8 Commissioner Andy Herod did not respond to the proposal.

Mayor Kelly Girtz said he was interested to see how the idea would connect to other renovation projects in the county.

The Mayor and Commission will vote on establishing the community energy fund in March, according to the presentation.

The Mayor and Commission also received the results of a required financial audit for the 2019 fiscal year from Joel Black of Mauldin & Jenkins, a private accounting firm. Black called the audit results “very clean,” noting that ACC employees had been fully cooperative in the audit.

Black also said ACC’s finances were in generally good shape, with revenues being consistent with the budget and expenditures being less than anticipated.

The Mayor and Commission will hold an agenda-setting session on Feb. 18.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that ACC Police Department train Animal Services employees on de-escalation with aggressive animals. In an email, ACC spokesperson Jeff Montgomery said ACCPD trained Animal Services employees on de-escalation tactics with aggressive people in the field. The Red & Black regrets this error, and it has since been fixed.