Budget in the books; COVID-19 relief funds for Albany sewage project still divisive

·4 min read

Jun. 26—ALBANY — With another budget year wrapped up for the Albany City Commission, there are, depending on which elected official one speaks with, 10 million or 20 million unanswered questions.

While expressing relief that the $291 million spending package has been approved, the issue of spending federal COVID-19 funds on the city's aging sewage infrastructure was a contentious one.

The 2020-2021 budget, which goes into effect on Thursday, earmarks spending the first of two $10 million installments of American Rescue Plan funds on the ongoing stormwater/sewage separation project. The city is under a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandate to achieve 85 percent separation in five years.

Ward I Commissioner Jon Howard and Ward VI's Demetrius Young both voted against approval of the budget. On Tuesday, a group of protesters made their disapproval known, shouting chants outside the city/county Government Center for the removal of Commissioners B.J. Fletcher, Matt Fuller, Bob Langstaff and Chad Warbington and Mayor Bo Dorough during discussion of the budget, which gained final approval on Thursday.

Because the necessity of sewer repairs and funding for that work has been known for decades, Young said, there was no need to use money sent for COVID relief on the project. During the Tuesday commission meeting Young, read from President Biden's signing statement, which referenced assisting communities of color and addressing disparities.

"Before COVID, how were we going to pay for that?" Young said of the separation project during a Friday telephone interview. "That money was meant to heal the communities. It's in there (signing statement).

"This money (would) not address all the ills, but you can start to invest the money that will address these things."

More than 310 Dougherty County residents who tested positive for the novel coronavirus have died during the pandemic, and the majority of those who died were black.

Among the issues raised by protesters is violence. After a relatively calm period in the first weeks of the pandemic lockdown, shootings skyrocketed in Albany. And while the budget contains funding for a gunshot detection system, Young said a key component is providing recreational activities for the community.

"When are we going to invest in our community?" he said. "When are we going to invest in recreation? That's how you address violence.

"Going to the data, we need to be living healthier so we don't have scores of people dropping dead during a pandemic because they have diabetes, because they have high blood pressure."

During Tuesday's meeting, Young requested that members of the audience be given an opportunity to address the commission. That request was denied by the same 5-2 vote. It was after the vote that a group filed outside and began chanting and at times banging on the windows of the meeting room.

On Tuesday, Warbington suggested forming a committee with the Dougherty County Commission and Dougherty County School Board to discuss the federal COVID relief funds. That would allow the entities to coordinate their efforts.

Dorough, in a Friday telephone interview, said he supports such an effort. He also supports using the second $10 million installment on community recovery.

Earlier in the year, commissioners were grappling with how to pay for the sewage system improvements, with the consensus that it would require a 5 percent increase for five years in residents' rates, the mayor said. In addition, the city was looking at spending much of the next five-year special-purpose local-option sales tax initiative on the project — money that would not have been available for recreation improvements or other community needs.

The $10 million in American Rescue Plan funds earmarked for sewage/stormwater project is meant to blunt those drastic measures.

"We are undertaking the first phase of 85 percent separation that's got to be accomplished by June 2025," Dorough said.

The $10 million in federal funds plus $4 million in state money and $2 million in local sales tax funds are expected to pay for the first year's work.

"We'll also have another $10 million in Rescue Plan funds that will be allocated to us," Dorough said. "Those funds will be used for different purposes."

That's where coordinating with the county and school board comes into play, he said.

"If you put all three of those entities together, you can utilize those (funds) to have the greatest possible impact on the community," Dorough said.

The mayor also pointed to some accomplishments achieved with the budget that contains no tax increase, including a 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment for all city employees and a $3.8 million renovation project for Driscoll Sports Park, formerly known as the Carver Teen Center.

In addition, he said that the sewer project benefits some of the city's poorest areas as parts of south Albany have been prone to localized flooding and sewage leaks for years.

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