Virus relief funds fall short of earlier expectations
At least six metro Atlanta cities have learned that the American Rescue Plan won’t be rescuing them nearly as much as they had expected.
When Congress passed President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, it included $350 billion to be provided to local governments across the country to reimburse pandemic-related budget losses, pay essential workers and help hard-hit communities.
Most Georgia cities — based on estimates from the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee — were set to receive triple what they did last year as part of the CARES Act.
But the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which has the final say on how much each local government receives, applied a different formula for allocating the money. One city official suggested the change in numbers involved the way the federal government determined need in certain communities.
In some cases, it’s a huge difference. The hit to Johns Creek amounts to a loss of 73%, from $26.6 million to $7.1 million.
The estimate was off by 69% for Alpharetta, 64% for South Fulton, 55% for Smyrna, 52% for Brookhaven and 44% for Stonecrest.
Some metro Atlanta cities did not fare as badly, including Atlanta itself. It will receive $170.9 million, only 4% less than the House panel’s estimate of $178.4 million.
Roswell will receive only 9% less than estimated, followed by Sandy Springs at 15% and Marietta at 17%.
The transition from estimate to reality will likely mean big headaches for some city leaders, especially those who have already built their budgets using the larger numbers.
Tom Harris, the finance director for Alpharetta, believes the change in his city’s funding is a result of Treasury Department classification.
When the House panel released its estimates in March, it grouped Alpharetta and the other large cities with smaller Georgia cities and calculated the amounts to be given based on population.
Harris said the Treasury Department considers cities such as Alpharetta as “metropolitan cities,” meaning they have populations in excess of 50,000 residents. The calculation for funding for those cities is based on community needs such as poverty. Some cities receive this classification because they directly or indirectly receive U.S. Housing and Urban Development funding, Harris said.
Within the $350 billion that the American Rescue Plan set aside for local governments is a smaller pot of $45.6 billion to be divided among 142 metropolitan cities across the nation.
Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC
Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC
Georgia GOP eyes crime as issue of 2022
Republicans have apparently picked the turf they want to fight on during next year’s elections: crime.
More specifically, violent crime in Atlanta, a very Democratic city.
The city saw its deadliest year in decades in 2020, although most serious crime fell over those 12 months.
Recent moves by top officials in the state GOP have highlighted the problem:
- Gov. Brian Kemp made $5 million in emergency funds available for state law enforcement efforts targeting criminal activity as part of a broader effort including a crackdown on street gangs.
- Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr promised to help “fill the void created by Atlanta officials’ failure to lead” on the subject.
- State Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller spoke about the crime rate in announcing his campaign for lieutenant governor.
The Georgia House was the site of perhaps the most significant activity, opening a series of hearings this past week to explore state House Speaker David Ralston’s suggestion to give state troopers new powers to step in and help Atlanta police.
Democrats agree that crime is a problem in metro Atlanta, but their approach is to consider a range of factors, including gun violence and the coronavirus pandemic. They also say attention is needed in other parts of the state.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a prominent Democrat, has taken a lot of heat for the increased homicide rate. She points to similar problems in other major U.S. cities that experienced a violent crime surge during the pandemic and protests for social justice.
She’s called on Republicans to address the “historic increase in gun violence” by tightening firearms restrictions. And, more recently, she’s tasked local residents and experts with developing recommendations to reduce gun violence and other crime plaguing the city.
The chairman of the House Committee of Public Safety and Homeland Security, state Rep. J. Collins, R-Villa Rica, recognizes the hearings’ potential for campaign fodder but said the panel “wants to dig down and look at the facts.”
“There’s going to be a lot of politics in this, and we want to sidestep that,” Collins said.
State Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta — a member of the committee — said he will be on the alert against campaign rhetoric in the hearings, saying he doesn’t want the them to be a “grandstanding exercise.”
Board takes ‘first step’ of change for Stone Mountain
Change is coming to Stone Mountain, including an exhibit to “tell the truth” about the ugly history behind the world’s largest monument to the Confederacy.
The Stone Mountain Memorial Association board put its stamp on a number of proposals to help soften the image of the park and possibly help it avoid some financial difficulties on its horizon.
The exhibit’s aim is to tell the story of the park, including the massive carving into the mountainside of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
Work on the carving began in the Jim Crow era, and it was meant to glorify white supremacy, historians recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Members of the second Ku Klux Klan, which was reborn on Stone Mountain in 1915, had a role in the carving’s conception.
A combination of financial issues and personal spats forced a stall in the work in the late 1920s. It did not resume until after the state of Georgia bought the mountain in 1958.
Historians said that purchase was largely a reaction to federally mandated school integration and the civil rights movement.
The board also approved a plan to relocate a Confederate flag plaza from the mountain’s walk-up trail to an area that sees less foot traffic.
Georgia law prohibits removal of the flags entirely.
The association will also change its logo, which currently includes a rendering of the carving.
“We’re just taking our first step today, to get where we need to go,” the Rev. Abraham Mosley — whom Gov. Brian Kemp appointed last month, making him the association’s first Black chairman — said after the vote.
The board did not vote on other proposals that the association’s chief executive officer, Bill Stephens, had advanced, including renaming the park’s Confederate Hall. Stephens said those proposals have not been abandoned.
For years, activists have sought changes to the state’s most-visited tourist attraction.
Financial issues have given those efforts a boost.
Marriott purportedly plans to end its role as the operator of the park’s primary hotel and convention center. And Herschend Family Entertainment, which has run the park’s revenue-generating attractions since they were privatized in 1998, is planning an exit next summer.
Norcross-based Herschend has said it’s ending its partnership with park because of both COVID-19 and frequent clashes between Confederate groups, far-right extremists and counterprotesters.
Stephens said he has spoken with several companies about taking over for Herschend. All told him they would not get involved until the park addresses “the Confederacy issue.”
Greene’s Holocaust comments about masks spur criticism
U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene drew criticism from fellow Republicans for her comments comparing masks used as protection against the coronavirus to the Holocaust.
Greene wrote on Twitter that businesses that require their employees to prove they’ve been vaccinated are no different than when Nazi Germany forced Jewish people to wear gold stars. (She also made similar comments in other forums.)
The criticism quickly followed.
“Marjorie is wrong, and her intentional decision to compare the horrors of the Holocaust with wearing masks is appalling,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy wrote in a statement. “The Holocaust is the greatest atrocity committed in history. The fact that this needs to be stated today is deeply troubling.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell offered similar criticism but added that it was up to McCarthy to decide whether Greene should be punished. McCarthy remained silent on that point.
A couple of other members of the GOP’s House leadership —Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the newly installed conference chair — also issued statements distancing themselves from Greene.
Democrats, who took Greene’s committee assignments away from her earlier this year over comments she made before taking office, appeared ready to pursue another motion to censure the congresswoman from Rome.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Illinois U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider is drafting what would be the second resolution to censure Greene. U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Atlanta, has already introduced a measure to censure her fellow Georgia congresswoman, but it has not received a vote.
Dov Wilker, director of the American Jewish Committee’s regional office in Atlanta, also weighed in on Greene’s comments, saying they dishonor the memories of those who died during the Nazi-led genocide.
“Masks and vaccinations are about supporting and keeping people safe — the greater good,” Wilker said. “Whereas the Holocaust was about the intentional destruction and murder of 6 million Jews and anyone who was not a part of the Aryan race.”
State’s holds onto its AAA bond rating
All three rating agencies once again awarded Georgia a AAA bond rating, a financial grade the state has maintained for decades, allowing it to borrow money at relatively low rates.
Georgia officials often brag about the high rating, and some, if they could, would probably carry pictures of it in their wallets.
But earlier this year, State Auditor Greg Griffin warned that the rating could be in jeopardy because his office had not received complete financial data from the state Department of Labor while that agency was dealing with a torrent of unemployment claims in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic recession.
Griffin in January sent a letter to state Labor Commissioner Mark Butler saying his office would be unable to complete the state’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report without information it was waiting on from the Department of Labor. The report is usually completed by Dec. 31.
Some of that missing information, Griffin said, dealt with unemployment payments, cases of overpayments, fraud inquiries and appeals of the Labor Department’s initial decision to turn down claims. Not being able to provide a full accounting, he said, could cause the bond rating to slip.
In the end, though, the state once again got its top rating. In its report, Fitch Ratings noted that state tax revenue is up more than 13% for the first 10 months of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, and the state is expecting a hefty surplus. The state is also just beginning to figure out how to spend about $4.8 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds it started to receive last week.
The state is preparing to put its AAA rating to use in a few weeks by selling $1.1 billion in construction bonds.
Much of the money raised through the sale will go toward school and college buildings.
Ossoff, Warnock take aim at shortage of semiconductor chips
Georgia U.S. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are pushing for quick passage of legislation aimed at easing a shortage of semiconductor chips.
The $52 billion plan — bearing the tortured title of the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors for America Act, or CHIPS for America Act — seeks to reduce U.S. dependence on the Chinese supply chain.
The shortage has hit Georgia.
Plans to temporarily close the Kia assembly plant in West Point were underway this past week because there were not enough chips available to manufacture new vehicles.
“American dependence on foreign suppliers of semiconductors is a strategic vulnerability for both our national and economic security, and ongoing shortages of this vital technology are directly harming workers and businesses in Georgia by disrupting operations of the Kia plant in West Point,” Ossoff and Warnock wrote in a letter to Senate leaders shortly after the auto manufacturer announced its plans for the shutdown.
Candidates, endorsements, etc.:
— State Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller of Gainesville has launched his campaign for lieutenant governor. Miller is the second Republican to enter the race to replace Republican Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, following Jeanne Seaver, an activist from Savannah. Two Democrats are also running, state Rep. Erick Allen of Smyrna and state Rep. Derrick Jackson of Tyrone.
— The Albany Herald reports that Tracy Taylor, a firefighter and chairman of the Dougherty County Republican Party, is running against U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, in the 2nd Congressional District.
— Matt Richards, the owner of a demolition firm, has launched a bid in the 10th Congressional District for the GOP nomination to succeed U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Greensboro. Others in the race are former U.S. Rep. Paul Broun and state Rep. Timothy Barr of Lawrenceville. Hice is giving up the seat to run for secretary of state.
— Republican Shelly Echols, a Hall County commissioner, announced that she will run for the seat state Senate President Pro Tem Butch Miller is giving up to run for lieutenant governor.
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Credit: Jess Rapfogel/AP