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Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz takes notes at a Mayor and Commission meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Photo/Jason Born)

In a Wednesday address to a community struggling with housing, economic opportunity and public safety, Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz touched on the past struggles and future plans to help Athenians.

Police pay raise

In his address, Girtz recognized that the county places several responsibilities on its police force, and discussed what ACC can do to help relieve the burden on officers.

“Our society has saddled the police with the responsibility to be first responders for all of society's ills, including homelessness, poverty, mental health crises and substance abuse,” Girtz said.

In 2021, ACC will be introducing a team of behavioral health professionals to aid police in certain situations. This team is intended to relieve the police department of unnecessary workload, Girtz said.

In addition to adding the new team to aid the police, ACC is introducing “an enhanced public safety officer pay scale” for police officers, firefighters and probation officers. This pay scale aims to attract more people to apply and raise the retention rate of these departments.

“It's important that we not artificially paint a zero sum all-or-nothing portrait of public safety, bringing a more complete set of tools to the job of a strong community benefits each of us, alongside benefiting the police department,” Girtz said.

Housing crisis

Girtz acknowledged a housing crisis in Athens, noting that more than 40,000 people commute to Athens for work because they cannot afford to live in the city.

The ACC Planning Commission put forth a set of draft recommendations in order to address the housing shortage. The recommendations include increasing density in areas that can support growth and providing new opportunities for smaller home sizes. The recommendations have not officially been passed, but the drafts will go on to be refined and made into new codes in order to be considered by the county commission.

The county’s affordable housing fund of $39 million, created through a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, will provide a renewal for the north downtown area of Athens, including Bethel Midtown Village. Girtz said this neighborhood will not lose any of its affordable homes, but will receive a range of new “workforce and market rate homes, along with inviting public spaces, support services and amenities.”

Some of the areas targeted for higher density development include inactive commercial sites such as the Georgia Square Mall, the former Kmart on Barnett Shoals Road and the one-time Kroger location on West Broad Street.

“We’ll create more walkable environments, as well as ones that will benefit the retail and restaurant sectors nearby,” Girtz said.

Girtz said that ACC will “dramatically” ramp up the county’s Housing First approach to helping Athens’ population of people experiencing homelessness.

Environment and parks

A SPLOST package that voters approved two years ago has ensured that more than $15 million will be used to promote energy efficiency and clean energy production over the next decade, Girtz said. ACC has reached its initial goal of providing 20% of the county landmass as protected greenspace areas.

In addition to purchasing a quarry to use as a new water reservoir, Girtz said the county will implement an effort to make industrial processes and cooling systems use recycled non-drinkable water instead of drinkable water.

ACC will also continue to work and enhance connectivity through trails and sidewalk networks. The Firefly Trail will extend past the loop to Hancock Industrial Boulevard by the end of 2021, Girtz said.

Public safety

Crime in Athens decreased by more than 6% in 2020, continuing a 25-year trend. The murder rate saw a historic low point along with a reduction in robberies and burglaries, Girtz said. However, the county saw an increase in family violence and aggravated assault among people who know each other.

Next week, Girtz will be naming a Safety and Justice Advisory Committee. This committee will expand recognition of safety enhancements to include collective physical and behavioral health, neighborhood quality, education and workforce development.

“This office will seek data-driven, high-yield crime prevention efforts that can be sustained, drawing upon resources and partnerships throughout the Athens community and beyond,” Girtz said.

Girtz ended his address on a note calling for unity and peace.

“We live in a time in which small divides between us can be amplified and weaponized in a way that makes us less able to work in common cause. We will not always come to agreement over every matter, but sharing a cup of coffee and a conversation will mean we recognize what we do share and deepen our own individual humanity,” Girtz said.