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Athens is looking at rezoning to create loft apartments in the upstairs of older buildings to encourage activity in the downtown area.
Daily photo by Emily Saunders
Athens is looking at rezoning to create loft apartments in the upstairs of older buildings to encourage activity in the downtown area.

Big influx would tax services

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com· 340-2445

ATHENS — Dark clouds are on the horizon, and they have nothing to do with the weather.

Athens Public Works Director James Rich recently warned the City Council that about 600 subdivision lots are in the planning stages or under development in the city.

It’s not that the new rooftops aren’t welcome, but more rooftops also bring more demand.

“We’ve got to plan for those dark clouds that Madison experienced when it hit a growth boom,” Rich said. “Right now, we are handicapped and couldn’t meet the service levels such growth would bring.”

First, look at the growth Athens is experiencing.

Rich said in each of the last two years, the city has seen a 4 percent residential growth, about equal to 200 new homes a year. U.S. Census Bureau figures from 2000-05 show Limestone County ranked No. 9 in the state in growth compared to Morgan County at No. 18, and new homes in Athens contributed to that.

BRAC’s impact

With the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission process that is bringing jobs and workers to Redstone Arsenal, that growth will only expand, Rich said. BRAC is contributing to part of those 600 proposed lots.

This month, the city rezoned 44.5 acres on Mooresville Road north of Newby Road at a developer’s request because the developer wanted to change from low density residential to high density residential to build more homes.

In February, the council will act on requests to annex 122 acres north of Nick Davis Road for a planned unit development and another 20 acres north of that road for medium density residential.

The city also is upgrading its 30-year-old zoning ordinance and looking at changes such as allowing loft apartments in downtown Athens to encourage more activity on the square.

Now, think about what those annexations, new homes and new families mean.

Those people want the same services as those already living in the city: good roads, garbage pickup, police and fire protection, water and sewer.

Rich said the city is handicapped at providing services for a growth boom for two reasons. First, property taxes don’t generate enough money, Rich said. Second, Athens isn’t charging high enough fees, such as building permits and impact fees, to keep up with the growth.

Rich said a building permit that would cost $500 in Athens would cost $2,000 in Madison.

“We’re much lower than any city around us,” Rich said.

The council asked Rich to create a proposal that includes raising impact and other fees and sanitation rates. Sanitation Manager Earl Glaze said his department now depends on revenue from commercial customers to cover the cost of providing residential pickup for garbage, trash, recycling and leaf collection.

More homes will mean the need for more garbage trucks and more employees to operate them.

Whereas sanitation can address the need for more revenue with rate adjustments, services like fire and police don’t generate revenue. They can issue citations, which result in fines, but the court system and state share in those funds. For fiscal 2007, the city expects to receive about $400,000 total in fines, traffic court costs, parking ticket payments and payments for wreck report copies.

It will cost the city more than $6 million for police and fire protection and to operate Municipal Court.

“When we get new subdivisions and annexed areas, it adds more area for us to patrol and generates more calls,” Athens police Capt. Marty Bruce said. “You want three officers per 1,000 people.”

The department divides the city into four zones. Each shift, there are one to two patrol officers for each zone. The bigger the zone, the more area to patrol.

Not only will growth increase the miles of road police travel, it will affect the condition of roads and number of roads. Rich said there are $2.6 million in paving needs over the next five years. As oil prices rise, so does the city’s cost to pave.

Rich said he’ll present the council with a “cafeteria plan” so it can pick and choose what rates and fees to increase.

Councilwoman Milly Caudle said it’s either take Rich’s advice or raise taxes and cut services.

“You can spread the pain as evenly as possible with the
rates and fees,” Rich told the council.

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