Pay-and-display parking meters a mixed success

By Briana Gerdeman

On a recent evening, Jim and Patty Lutz walked back to their car parked on Clayton Street to put the parking ticket they’d paid for in their windshield. Patty reminded Jim to make sure it was displayed prominently where it could be seen.

A year after new pay-and-display parking meters were activated in parts of downtown Athens, it’s still unclear whether the new meters are an improvement or not.

Jim and Patty Lutz said they like the new meters, because after they were installed, it has become easier to find an empty parking space downtown.

“For us, it’s easier to park downtown,” Jim Lutz said. “It just seemed that when they changed everything, it opened up some spots.”

But Patty Lutz noted that the new system also had drawbacks. Before, they used to sometimes find a meter that already had time paid for. Now, they might waste time they have paid for because the ticket can’t be taken with them.

The Athens Mayor and Commission voted in 2009 to install the new meters, which were installed in January and February 2010. The new meters went into use on March 29, 2010.

“They were chosen because they offer a variety of payment options,” said Laura Miller, director of parking operations for the Athens Downtown Development Authority. In addition to coins, drivers have the option to pay for parking with $1 bills or credit cards. The machine then issues a ticket, to be displayed in the car’s windshield, that can be used in any parking spot with a pay-and-display meter.

“The customers are very happy about that,” Miller said.

Miller said the ADDA tried to prevent confusion about how to use the new meters. The organization held clinics for local merchants to show them how to use the meters, and for the first month, issued warnings rather than citations for parking violations.

Although the paper tickets make paid parking time portable, they can be an inconvenience for motorcycle drivers, since the tickets can blow away in the wind. Motorcycle drivers are instead urged to park in motorcycle parking spaces with traditional meters.

Paper tickets also present the potential for litter, but Miller said she hasn’t seen the tickets littered on the ground.

In their first year, the pay-and-display meters have not increased revenue for downtown parking.

“Revenue this year is down overall,” Miller said. “There are fewer people parking this year, and that’s directly due to the economy. Less people are shopping and dining downtown.”

But, she said, the pay-and-display meters have brought in more money than the traditional meters, because people can no longer park in a space that still has some time left on the meter from the last person to use it.

The pay-and-display meters have not had an impact on the number of parking citations, and there are no plans to install them elsewhere in Athens, Miller said.

In a July 4, 2010 editorial in the Athens Banner-Herald, columnist Don Nelson questioned the efficiency of the new parking meters. He wrote that many people were confused on how to use them, and their confusion might deter them from visiting downtown Athens.

Employees at several downtown businesses said the new parking meters had not caused a decrease in customers, but they mentioned that fewer people now ask them for change to put in meters.

Olivia Shellman, an employee at The Grill, said she sometimes parks in metered spots when she’s in a hurry coming to work, and she wishes there were free parking for people who work downtown. But, she said she likes being able to use a credit card.

Imaan Rashied, an employee at Starbucks, also said he liked using a credit card to pay for parking. But he realized the pay-and-display meters could be confusing, and said he sometimes shows people how to use them.

Stuart Bryan, an employee at Flirt Fashions, said the meters haven’t affected the store’s business, but she considers them a nuisance.

“When I’m coming here as a shopper and not as an employee, it’s definitely annoying,” she said.

An employee of Prestige Parking in downtown Athens, who asked not to be named, said the new meters haven’t affected the number of customers parking in the lot he manages.

“It hasn’t really changed anything, because it’s limited the spaces on the street,” he said.

He’s only used the new meters twice himself, but thought they were okay.

“I don’t like coming downtown,” he said. “I just work down here. It’s too congested for me.”

 


Whatever It Takes hopes to bring community together to help children

By Briana Gerdeman

“At 1 p.m. on Wednesday July 1st, 2020,” the goal reads, “every child in Athens will be on course to graduate from a post-secondary education.”

It’s an ambitious goal, but Whatever It Takes Athens has made it their mission. WIT Athens is based off the Harlem Children’s Zone program, which has helped children living in a 97-city-block area in Harlem, New York further their education and escape poverty. A federal grant is enabling community organizations in 21 cities and towns throughout the country, including Athens, to do the same.

The Harlem Children’s Zone, according to its website, offers support to children and families from the child’s conception through college. Its services try to address all the problems of poverty, beginning with parenting workshops for expectant parents and continuing to college success workshops to help high school graduates adjust to the new environment of college. In between, there are preschools, charter schools, and summer and after-school programs.

Although the HCZ has been criticized for spending more money than the program’s results justify, the Children’s Zone has been praised as “literally saving a generation of children,” as President Obama said.

The federal Promise Neighborhoods Initiative provides towns and cities with grants from the U.S. Department of Education to spend a year planning “cradle-to-career services” for children, similar to the Harlem Children’s Zone. Athens was one of 21 communities chosen out of more than 300 applicants, along with Little Rock, Ark.; Boston; the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Mont.; and several neighborhoods in New York City and Los Angeles.

“We believe that the only way we can truly improve our children’s success rate is thinking holistically,” said Erica Gilbertson, program director for Whatever It Takes. Athens’ Whatever It Takes program is an initiative of Family Connection/Communities in Schools, a partnership of 90 organizations working together to meet the needs of children and families.

Terris Thomas, resident engagement facilitator for WIT Athens, said Whatever It Takes aims to ensure that every child is healthy, safe, engaged, involved in the community and educated. The way to do this, she said, is by involving everyone in the community, including parents, neighbors, teachers, doctors and religious leaders.

That’s one important way that Whatever It Takes differs from other programs, she said. It makes residents “not just recipients, but contributors,” Thomas said, by “building a strong sense of community where we are all responsible for each other.”

“We facilitate collaboration among all the different organizations in town that care about children,” said Tim Johnson, executive director of WIT.

At a monthly partners meeting in March, the leaders of Whatever It Takes invited parents, educators, religious leaders and other members of the community to meet at Classic City High School to discuss the program’s goals. The meeting opened with a short video about the Harlem Children’s Zone and its founder, Geoffrey Canada.

Gilbertson, whose job includes organizing focus groups to work on different goals to help children, shared insights from some of the focus groups. The focus group participants wanted to see more child care options and recreational and after-school activities, Gilbertson said, and they wanted faith leaders, Athens Housing Authority staff and public health nurses to get involved in working for children’s success.

Several parents, who serve as resident leaders for WIT in their neighborhoods, spoke at the meeting about what they had learned from having “living room conversations” with their neighbors.

Marcia Dotson, a resident leader and a board member of WIT, said the neighbors she talked with were concerned about helping children stay healthy. Dotson, whose child is experiencing health problems, met another mother in the same situation.

Sonya Freeman, also a resident leader and board member, said the neighbors she talked to were focused on education. They wanted to strengthen early childhood learning programs, and teach kids foreign languages at an early age so they won’t be left behind, but also let children learn at their own pace. Freeman told about one mother who attended the meeting who didn’t know how to read, and said that Whatever It Takes needs to help illiterate parents so they can help their children.

Since WIT Athens is still in the early stages of planning, it doesn’t have many specific goals or plans to achieve them yet. But Thomas said the program’s goals will be closely based on what parents and residents say is important.

“It doesn’t matter what their family situation is, all parents want their children to succeed,” Thomas said. “It’s an awesome opportunity to empower and create advocacy among community leaders.”

Whatever It Takes is applying for an additional grant to fund its efforts over the next decade. Whether it gets the money depends on whether Congress approves any more money for the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, Johnson said, and if so, whether Athens is chosen for another grant.

If Athens doesn’t get the grant, WIT will continue to look for other funding sources, including donations, but the leaders of WIT said community involvement and making connections with existing resources were more important than money.

So will Whatever It Takes be able to achieve its goal? Let’s break it down.

“At 1 p.m. on Wednesday July 1st, 2020…”

2020 is far off, but when you’re talking about supporting a child through every stage of development, nine years goes by quickly. Although the leaders of WIT aren’t ready to announce specific steps, they said the time period will be enough to make a difference.

“It’s hard to imagine how exactly we get there in 10 years,” Gilbertson said, “but I think it’s possible.”

“…every child in Athens…”

Will WIT be able to reach every child in Athens? For now, the program is focusing on the Alps Road attendance zone, which includes Alps Road Elementary School, Clarke Middle School and Clarke Central High School. But once its work starts to gain momentum and show results, Whatever It Takes plans to expand to other neighborhoods.

“We’re taking a geographically focused approach, going neighborhood by neighborhood,” Johnson said. “You change the culture of the neighborhood to be pro-education.”

“…will be on course to graduate from a post-secondary education.”

When a student is still in elementary or middle school, how can you tell if they will later graduate from college? WIT Athens plans to track reading skills, the teen pregnancy rate, graduation rates and the general crime rate as indicators of its progress. And “post-secondary education doesn’t mean a four-year university for every student.

“A young person with a learning disability is not going to go to a four-year institution,” Johnson said. Instead, that person might receive on-the-job training. Other students’ post-secondary education might take the form of community college or military service.

It’s too early to know if Whatever It Takes will achieve its ambitious goal, but Gilbertson said the fact that it was chosen out of over 300 cities for an initial Promise Neighborhoods grant means it has a good chance.

“This community is really positioned well to make this happen,” she said. “This is our moment.”

 


Creek recovers from contamination following chemical spill

By Briana Gerdeman

 

On a recent sunny Saturday, the Oconee River drew a small crowd of people to enjoy the water and the weather. Kids and preteens waded in the river, climbing from rock to rock, while their parents watched from the side. Students lounged in groups or played frisbee. Pet owners let their dogs run free.

No one seemed concerned about a chemical spill last summer that contaminated Trail Creek, a tributary of the Oconee River. Now, as the weather warms up and people begin to use Trail Creek and the North Oconee River again, it’s still not certain whether water quality is back to normal.

Government officials say the water is clean again, but others who have examined the creek say the effects of the spill are still present. The answer may depend on how the creek’s health is measured.

A fire at J&J Chemical Company in July 2010 spilled blue dye and several toxic chemicals into Trail Creek, which flows into the North Oconee River at Dudley Park. The chemical plant produced restroom deodorizers, graffiti removers, and other products, according to published reports. A representative from J&J Chemical Company said the owner was out of town and could not comment.

The dye was harmless, but the chemicals were not. They included possible cancer-causing substances and a highly toxic substance that attacks the central nervous system, according to published reports. The contamination killed an unknown number of fish and other aquatic life, and J&J Chemical Company paid a $15,000 settlement to the state of Georgia. Although the Oconee River didn’t suffer much contamination, because the water flowing into it from Trail Creek was diluted, the creek was more severely affected.

After testing the water in November 2010, the Georgia EPD determined that all chemicals are gone from Trail Creek, said Kevin Chambers, a representative from the Environmental Protection Division. The EPD recommended that caution signs warning people and pets to stay out of Trail Creek could be taken down.

Mike Rodock, stormwater supervisor for the Athens EPD, also said the creek is no longer toxic.

“There definitely was an impact to the stream,” after the fire, he said. But “since that time, sampling has shown no further contamination.”

But others who have worked with the creek had a different assessment than government officials.

“It’s not back to normal yet,” said Ben Emanuel, the Oconee River project director for the Altamaha Riverkeeper. Contamination levels are acceptable by state water quality standards, he said, but organisms living in the stream have not recovered. He said he wouldn’t recommend eating fish caught from the creek.

So far, most of the improvement in water quality has come through natural processes, he said. The creek was also cleaned through human interventions – pumping water through carbon filters to remove chemicals, and a process known as “air sparging” in which the water is oxygenated to break down the chemicals.

Marsha Black, an associate professor in the department of environmental health science and assistant dean in the College of Public Health, also said the creek had not fully recovered. She took sediment samples from Trail Creek with her Water Pollution class and some graduate students. In December 2010, they still found “significant toxicity” in Trail Creek.

The samples still had a blue color and a characteristic odor, Black said. When water fleas were placed in samples of running water from the creek, the water wasn’t toxic, but when the water fleas were placed in water gathered from the sediments of the creek, they were killed by the water. She said the chemicals may linger in the sediments until they are broken down by normal processes or removed by cleanup efforts.

“The question of recovery depends what measure of recovery you’re looking at,” Emanuel said. “It still smells a little bit, and sometimes it looks a little blue.”

Rodock said the EPD’s sampling tested for water to meet quality standards, not whether or not it harmed aquatic life.

As for human safety in the creek, Black said people would still be exposed to chemicals that remain in the sediments, but exposure to skin would probably not be harmful.

But contamination in the sediments could affect aquatic life in the creek, she said. Fish and invertebrates lay eggs in the sediments, and invertebrates often live in the sediments.

“For the life of the stream, sediments are where things happen,” she said.

Black said she hopes spring will help fish and other aquatic life reestablish themselves as tributaries bring them back into the creek.

 

Chemicals that contaminated the Trail Creek after the fire included:

  • Methanol, which can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, confusion or death due to its effects on the central nervous system when it is inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin.
  • Paradichlorobenzene, a pesticide and disinfectant that can cause vomiting and may cause cancer.
  • Formaldehyde, used as a disinfectant and in making plastics and resins, that can cause allergies and is known to cause cancer.

Simpler recycling program will benefit collection companies, customers

By Briana Gerdeman

 

By the end of this year, Athens residents will be able to recycle more items with less hassle.

The Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission approved $1.5 million to switch Athens from dual-stream to single-stream recycling. The ACC Solid Waste Division will update the recycling facilities and add new processing equipment by the end of 2011.

“Single-stream, over the last four to five years in the state of Georgia, has made a resurgence,” said Suki Janssen, waste reduction administrator with the Athens-Clarke County Solid Waste Department. “Just like fashion, recycling has its trends.”

A Solid Waste Task Force of 17 Athens citizens and two commissioners recommended in 2009 that Athens switch to single-stream recycling. Nationwide trends are shifting toward single-stream, especially on the East Coast and West Coast, said Lori Scozzafava, deputy executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

After the switch, Athens-Clarke County will also accept additional plastics for recycling – #4, #5, some #6, and #7 plastics. These include yogurt containers, margarine tubs and 6 pack rings. Athens already recycles #1 and #2 plastics, which make up 90 percent of plastics, Janssen said.

The difference between single-stream and dual-stream recycling lies in the number of containers used for collection. Dual-stream recycling requires that citizens separate different types of recyclables into two bins before collection, but in single-stream recycling, haulers collect all items together and separate them at the recycling center.

Single-stream recycling is cheaper and more efficient for companies who haul recyclables because they don’t have to sort the items in the truck like they do with dual-stream recycling. They can save on fuel, since they can pick up all recyclables at the same time, and in the case of Athens, they save a trip to Gwinnett County and back – the nearest single-stream recycler.

For customers, single-stream recycling offers simplicity.

“The biggest benefit for the customer, instead of having two bins, you have one roll cart that you can throw everything in,” said Jim Corley, director of the ACC Solid Waste Department. “The downside is more processing at the recycling facility.”

That’s because different types of recycling can contaminate each other, Janssen said. Broken glass dust contaminates paper pulp and damages recycling equipment, and food remnants that cling to cans or plastics can contaminate paper.

Helping the environment is usually not the reason for changing to single-stream, but because customers often recycle more and haulers often drive fewer miles or use more efficient trucks, it usually has some environmental benefits.

Because it makes recycling simpler, the switch to single-stream is expected to increase the amount of items recycled.

“What we’re finding is that because it becomes easier for people to participate, they collect up to 30 percent more materials,” Scozzafava said.

In Athens-Clarke County, where 14,752.19 tons of materials were recycled in fiscal year 2010, experts have slightly lower expectations. Janssen said the Solid Waste Department hopes to see a 20 percent increase in tonnage, and Corley predicted a 10 to 15 percent increase.

Recycling more materials sounds good, but sometimes it’s not all good. In a “Single Stream Recycling Best Practices Implementation Guide,” Susan Kinsella, executive director of Conservatree, a source of information on paper choices, and Richard Gertman, president of Environmental Planing Consultants, a meteorological and air pollution consulting company, wrote that contamination poses a serious challenge for single-stream recycling. Materials are poorly sorted and increasingly contaminated, which increases manufacturing costs and reduces the amount and types of products that can be made with the recycled material.

The switch to single-stream will require buying new roll carts for the ACC Solid Waste Department’s 10,000 customers, Corley said. The carts cost $40 each, as opposed to the 18-gallon bins now in use, which cost $6.

The department is applying for a Coke grant, which aims to promote recycling of bottles and cans, to pay for the wheeled carts, which encourage people to recycle more because they have more space and are easier to carry out to the curb.

They will find out in a few months whether they will receive the grant. If not, they have $150,000 set aside to buy the carts, but the process of switching to roll carts would be more gradual, Corley said. The department is also considering selling advertising on the sides of carts to pay for them.

The switch to single-stream may also result in changes in jobs. Some haulers may choose to use automated trucks, Janssen said, which would mean fewer jobs in recycling collection. But on the processing side, more sorting and new equipment may require more employees, Corley said.