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Commission Work Session - Nov. 12, 2002

Highlights:
Infrastructure Element of Public Utilities Service Delivery Plan (Sewer lines)
Funding Alternatives for ACC Transit System

Service Delivery Plan
Public Utilities Director Gary Duck presented the department's plan for new sewer line infrastructure throughout ACC. The plan calls for building several new lines and upgrading a number of existing lines.

At the public hearing on this issue held on Nov. 7, there were numerous citizen comments that fell into three general categories: some of the proposed new lines would run adjacent to the area designated as greenbelt in our Land Use Plan, thus opening up huge tracts of the greenbelt to development, because once the sewer is there the Commission has traditionally granted rezonings for subdivisions (as with the Denny Hill rezoning in 2000). Because Public Utilities could not account for their population projection figures, there was skepticism that the magnitude of capacity increase to existing lines was really necessary. And finally, there was general agreement among the citizens at the meeting that it would be more sensible to wait for the results of the work of the Wastewater Advisory Committee, which will shortly be making recommendations about how best to improve our wastewater treatment capacity, before making a decision that will commit millions of dollars to building sewer lines that may turn out to be in the wrong place.

Several Commissioners expressed similar concerns. Mr. Duck attempted to refute these concerns. He said that it was not necessary to wait for the results of the Advisory Committee report, because if they delay approval of the plan any longer, we will be in the next budget cycle, and Public Utilities won't know how much of a rate increase to institute. This means that we will have gone 4 years without a rate increase, and when the increase comes it will be steep, rather than gradual (spread out over several years).

Regarding concerns about the line adjacent to the Greenbelt area (along Shoal Creek in the southeastern portion of the county) Mr. Duck and Manager Alan Reddish maintained that because of topography, it was the only reasonable place to locate a line to serve the southeastern part of the county that IS currently zoned Residential-Single Family. They suggested that it could be designed to have only enough capacity to serve that RS area, so that if greenbelt rezonings or "conservation" subdivision plans are brought to the Commission, they can deny them based on the lack of sewer capacity. Commissioners John Barrow and States McCarter expressed skepticism. Commissioner Tom Chasteen pointed out that the developed portions of the RS area near Shoal Creek are on septic tanks now, with no major failures, and wanted to know why not just continue to allow them to use septic tanks? Mr. Duck explained that in general, septic tanks are suspected of being a major source of high fecal coliform levels in area streams; and that the regulations for installing septic tanks are tighter than they were, and in his estimate, 33% of the land would not "perc" so sewer would be necessary to serve those lots. Mayor Doc Eldridge asked whether there was a regulation requiring that new developments within a certain distance of sewer lines had to tie in to the sewer, which would mean that if development occurred in the greenbelt it would have to be granted access to the sewer line. Manager Reddish said yes, but only if the line's capacity was designed to accommodate it; the decision would depend on the Commission's integrity. Commissioner Barrow said that he did not want to pay now for a future Commission's bad decisions about development.

Assistant Manager Bobby Snipes suggested that rather than delaying the vote, the Commissioners could just delete the Shoal Creek line from the plan if they are uncomfortable with it. Or they could leave it in and designate that it be built last; or they could leave it in and remove it later. If this line is left out, however, the Cedar Creek line would need to be expanded (currently the plans call for expanding only a portion of it).

Mayor Pro Tem Cardee Kilpatrick (Mayor Eldridge left soon after making his comments) asked whether there was consensus that the Commission would prefer to wait for the Advisory Committee report; there were general nods of agreement. I believe that this item will therefore not appear on the Agenda for the December voting meeting.

Transit Funding.
Transit Director Butch McDuffie presented a series of short-term, intermediate, and long-term funding options for the ACC Transit System. He explained that when ACC Transit had been asked to trim $100,000 from their budget by cutting the least profitable routes, the public outcry prompted the Commission to drop that request, and keep those routes running until the funding ran out. As it has turned out, the huge increase in UGA ridership has brought enough money into the budget to keep all routes running for the rest of the year. However, the system is at capacity now. To keep the system running, and to improve service, more funding will be needed in the future. Director McDuffie presented the following funding options:

Short-term:

  1. Increase regular fares and monthly passes. This would generate some additional revenue ($187,436) but would also cause a loss of about 30,000 riders per year. Mr. McDuffie pointed out that these would be Athens residents, not UGA students.
  2. Renegotiate the contract with UGA. The current contract was based on a much lower level of ridership by UGA students. With the new campus parking plan there is a huge increase in student riders, as well as faculty and staff. Mr. McDuffie proposed several different options, all of which would bring in significantly more than the fare increase (from $332,500 to $800,000). He also pointed out that UGA wants to renegotiate the contract.

Intermediate:

  1. A property tax increase to be designated for transit. A 1 mil increase would generate $2.2 million.
  2. A transit fee on vehicle license plates. A $10 fee would generate $750,000. This would require state legislation.

Long-term:

  1. Creation of a Metropolitan Transit Authority and establishment of a .025% transit sales tax. This would raise approximately $4.5 million annually.
  2. Lobby for a change in state law to allow fuel tax to be allocated to transit, for GDOT to provide transit operating assistance, etc., and to pursue competitive federal grants.

Other: Advertising in bus shelters and on buses. Neither of these would generate much revenue compared to the previous options ($125,000 to $175,000).

Commission Discussion:

Commissioner Linda Ford asked whether the Sales Tax idea would require a referendum; it would.

Commissioner Barrow suggested that we should be providing incentives to get people out of their cars. He didn't like the fee for license plate idea because it wouldn't reach all our road users. The Sales Tax option would. In fact, with the Sales Tax funding, we could possibly get rid of the fare box altogether, as well as what we pay from the general fund.

Commissioner Sims liked the idea of raising fares, but suggested that if they were raised incrementally it would not lead to a loss of ridership. He also suggested extending the hours of service to 9 pm.

Commissioner McCarter said that the least attractive option was the advertising; Mr. McDuffie agreed.

Commissioner Carter said we should look at all options for raising money; and that while the Sales Tax sounds good, it's pie in the sky.

Commissioner Barrow also suggested that when the contract is renegotiated with UGA, it should include allowing non-UGA-affiliated residents to ride UGA buses. He was against the idea of increasing the fare, since that would push the cost onto those who can least afford to pay, when the benefit would be to all Athens residents and in fact all Athens road users. It would be better to get all road users to understand that they have ownership of the transit system (that they already pay for it) to encourage them to use it.

Commissioner Kilpatrick pointed out that in Portland, OR the property tax bills spell out how much of the bill goes to transit, among other things, which gives people the sense that they're already paying for it.

Commissioner Sims and Commissioner Chasteen were in favor of increasing the fares. Commissioner Chasteen said that we don't want to train people to expect to get things for free.

Manager Reddish cautioned that in renegotiating the contract with UGA we had to be careful not to put so high a price on service that we drove them away. Commissioner Chasteen said he thought it would be good if we drove some UGA business away from our transit system.

There was general agreement not to pursue a millage increase or license plate fee. Most were in favor of looking into the metropolitan transit idea. Commissioner Carter warned that it might not be as attractive as it sounds to go in with surrounding counties; Commissioner Barrow agreed and suggested asking the Legislative Delegation to have unified governments included in the definition of a multi-jurisdictional Metropolitan area.

Mr. McDuffie further stated that to truly make transit a viable alternative to the automobile, the system has to get people anywhere in the county in 30 minutes or less, as a car does. We're soon going to be declared a non-attainment area for air quality; we have to get people out of their cars. We can have the best transit system in the country.