Athens taxi drivers support Atlanta Uber lawsuit, cite safety concerns

By Evelyn Andrews

“It was hard to get a ride with Uber when they first came to Athens, but now it’s easier and cheaper than a taxi normally,” said Sydney Browning, who has ridden with the service several times.

Affordability and the easiness of getting a ride with Uber is often cited as a reason people choose the service over traditional taxis, but Uber’s lack of government oversight and background checks has led to some people to question the safeness of using them.

“I did not know that Uber doesn’t have some requirements that taxi drivers have and I do feel a little more worried getting a ride with them now,” Browning, a student at the University of Georgia, said.

Uber, a ride-sharing service, has been expanding across the globe since 2012 and debuted in Athens in August 2014. Uber, a part of the sharing economy such as Airbnb and bike rental services, operates in 55 countries and over 200 cities as of December 2014.

Uber has not been immune to mishaps, including being banned from India after allegations of rape and surge pricing during the hostage crisis in Sydney, Australia. Several taxi cab companies worldwide have sued Uber on the basis that they do not follow regulations. Athens Uber operations also have not been immune to these types of controversies, but no lawsuits have been filed.

“The real question should be is, ‘is it safe?’” said Ted Ledall, a dispatcher for United Taxi Cab in Athens, Georgia. “To be an Uber driver, there are no qualifications.”

Several taxi cab owners and drivers from Atlanta sued the ride-sharing service in September 2014, claiming Uber is operating a taxi service without a license. Many Athens taxi cab owners and drivers agree with their decision and are supporting them, Ledall said.

“We support them 110 percent,” he said.

But taxi companies in Athens are not planning their own lawsuit. Instead, they are relying on Mayor Nancy Denson.

“Everything is on the mayor’s table rights now,” Ledall said.

He said Mayor Denson should require all Uber drivers in Athens to adhere to the same regulation that taxi companies are required to follow. Athens ordinances require taxi cab drivers to receive a background check through the police department and to have a valid driver’s license with no points acquired in order to be issued a taxi license drivers are required to have.

“We check our drivers so much, there is no felonies, nothing in their background,” Ledall said.

However, one in five taxi drivers in Athens have accumulated a number of traffic or other violations within the last 10 years, according to The Red & Black.

No ordinances exist in Athens-Clarke County or state laws in Georgia that stipulate requirements for Uber, but city officials, according to The Red & Black, are reviewing ordinances that could be passed.

Hasan Ahmed, an Athens Uber driver, said the company does have stringent requirements for drivers. They do an internal background check, making sure the drivers have a valid license with a clean record.

“I don’t think you could make the argument that Uber is any less safe than taxis,” Ahmed said.

But some law makers argue that Uber still needs official government regulations, including Rep. Alan Powell (R-Hartwell) who is trying to pass legislation requiring Uber drivers to pass a government background check.

The government also requires taxi drivers to pass a drug test in order to obtain a license. Uber does not make drivers pass these tests, which Browning said is worrying.

Uber drivers are also required to have a car that is less than 10 years old, Ahmed said. Many people have said they feel safer riding with an Uber driver for that reason. Athens’ taxis are often in bad condition, older and poorly maintained, Browning said.

“I have ridden in a few taxis that do not even working gauges for speed and gas before,” she said.

Ledall deflected that argument by arguing that taxis still have more regulation than Uber. Additionally, Uber price gauges riders and charges them exorbitant prices for vomiting in the car, neither of which taxis do, Ledall said.

However, taxis in Athens do not have meters that measure the distant driven and assign a price for the riders. This makes the price taxis drivers tell riders seem arbitrary, Browning said.

No taxi drivers have harassed Ahmed, but he has been stopped by police several times, he said. However, he does not fault the officers, but rather the lack of awareness about the laws guiding Uber.

“Everything is so new and no one really knows what the rules are so sometimes the police just get confused,” Ahmed said.

According to an Athens-Clarke County police report, an Uber driver was stopped by a police officer on Jan. 9 and told to finish the ride and not take any more riders because Uber is not a licensed taxi.

Athens Uber operations has acquired several more drivers since beginning in the city in 2014 and will remain a competitive force against taxis, Ahmed said.

“I think everyone has noticed that they are many more Uber drivers,” Ahmed said.


The Denson versus Denson Athens-Clarke County Mayor Debate

By David Schick

The first official debate for the Athens-Clarke County mayoral race took place Wednesday night between the only two candidates running for office, incumbent Mayor Nancy Denson and her opponent Tim Denson (no relation).

The debate was sponsored by the University of Georgia Young Democrats and held inside the Zell Miller Learning Center and approximately 200 hundred people came out to watch.

Tim Denson, the challenger and local activist, said in his opening statement that he’s got a “21st century vision” for Athens and that the city currently isn’t doing enough for residents of ACC. In addition to his participation in Occupy Athens, Tim Denson has collaborated with the NAACP and Economic Justice Coalition.

Among the chief concerns for Tim Denson is poverty. He’s devoted a sizable amount of his platform to ambitious ideas that he believes will help cut down on the 40,000 people, according to U.S. Census data, who live below the poverty line in Athens.

“Crime and graduation rates can be connected to our poverty levels in Athens. Poverty is something we shouldn’t accept,” says Tim Denson.

One of the more controversial items on Tim Denson’s platform is to decriminalize minuscule amounts of marijuana at the local level, which stands in contrast to both state and federal law. Tim Denson added that criminal charges for marijuana impact minorities four times greater than non-minorities.

Mayor Nancy Denson, for the first time publicly, concurred with her opponent and endorsed decriminalizing and deprioritizing the arrests for “small amounts of marijuana.” She added that a marijuana arrest shouldn’t affect someone for the rest of his or her life by creating a criminal record.

Free buss service is another one of Tim Denson’s platform points that he is vehemently pushing for. He has plans to combine UGA’s and Athens’ transit system. “When you increase bus fares, you lose ridership. We need to recent reverse the fare hikes,” he says.

Mayor Denson says that Tim Denson is a “nice young man” with ambitious ideas, but a mayor has to set priorities. “It’s wonderful to have great ideas, but you have to have a way to do it and everything comes down to dollars,” says Mayor Denson. She argues against Denson’s platform items that call for increased public transit service and for governmental help with childcare saying that you’d have to take those tax dollars from somewhere else.

She adds that a tax increase for people already living here would make things worse for those living below the poverty line and could cause people to move away from Athens. “Everything comes down to money,” says Mayor Denson.

One of the major differences between Mayor Denson and her opponent is that she puts an emphasis bringing in big business from out of town to develop in Athens.

“My emphasis always has been and will be on economic development, because that’s the real answer to fighting poverty,” says Mayor Denson.

The mayor emphasized bringing the Caterpillar manufacturing plant to Athens as one of the highest achievements of her administration, which she says will ultimately bring 1,400 jobs to the community.

“We can’t just be relying on businesses and corporations coming from out of state to bring jobs to us,” contends Tim Denson.  He supports the idea of investing more in local tech startups, like the local non-profit company Four Athens. He adds that the director tells him the city “is not doing enough” to support local entrepreneurs.

Tim Denson also took a bold stand against the Board of Regents at the University System of Georgia by claiming that they were discriminating against undocumented students with their policies that prevent them from attending Georgia’s top-tier public universities.

Another difference between the candidates is the creation of a fee for the use of plastic grocery bags. Tim Denson supports it as a way to cut down on the waste in rivers and streams, but Mayor Denson says it would be bad for those already struggling financially. 

The mayor, arguing such a fee might disproportionately affect the poor, a constituency that is a focus of Tim Denson’s campaign, said whoever might be affected by the bag fee, it’s “not going to be the little yuppies who climb into their SUVs and go to Earth Fare” with their canvas grocery bags.

Tim Denson reiterated his plan for a “21st century” Athens in his closing remarks, saying that we need ambitious ideas and an “ambitious mayor” in office. Mayor Denson said in her closing statement that if you vote for her, “you will get more of the same. You will get more of what you’ve been getting for 35 years.”


Tax allocation district could provide financial assistance downtown

By David Schick

Once Athens-Clarke County officials approve a master plan for downtown Athens, the question becomes: How do we pay for it? The plan’s chief architect believes a tax allocation district (TAD) is the answer.

When a TAD is created, a baseline property value is established, and additional property taxes collected from new development in the district go toward infrastructure in that district. Cities can either pay as they go or sell bonds and use TAD revenue to pay them back.

Jack Crowley, a professor in the University of Georgia College of Environment and Design, has been working on a downtown master plan since 2012. The plan—set for Athens Downtown Development Authority approval in March—includes new parks and greenways, commuter rail, streetscape improvements and pedestrian paths, such as rebuilding the famous Murmur Trestle in Dudley Park as part of a rails-to-trails conversion from downtown running east.

Such projects cost money, and a TAD could raise up to $20 million, according to Crowley. It could also encourage diverse infill development in the eastern part of downtown, which is dominated by student apartments but still contains considerable vacant land.

Building those types of projects will stimulate the area and attract other private enterprises, Crowley says. Developers also would stand to benefit within a TAD because they would get public improvements more quickly. “You could negate your ability to do a TAD if the district is demonstrating that it’s already going to go by itself,” he says.

Sales tax revenue from the next SPLOST (which wouldn’t start before 2020) is another option, but a TAD would raise money faster, even if Athens-Clarke County doesn’t raise money up front through bonds. “If you don’t sell a bond, and you say, ‘When I get $5 million, I’m going to build this trestle,’ maybe it takes me two years… which is faster than the SPLOST,” Crowley says.

Tulsa—where Crowley also wrote the city’s downtown master plan—has five tax increment financing districts, or TIFs, which are identical to TADs. Atlanta has created 10 TADs, including one to redevelop an industrial brownfield into Atlantic Station and another to help fund the BeltLine, a 22-mile bike, pedestrian and light-rail corridor looping around the city.

ACC could have raised even more money had it approved a TAD last year, but property values for all the buildings under construction on the east side of downtown were reset Jan. 1, bringing down the amount of tax revenue that could be earmarked for infrastructure in the district. Crowley started asking the ADDA to recommend a TAD last June.

“Ultimately, it’s up to [the commission] to do any sort of tax district,” ADDA Chairman Bill Overend says. “All we can do is ask them nicely or give them lots of good information about why that would be a good idea. As a board, we don’t really have that information yet. We’re all really interested in it.”

Initially, when the Selig Enterprises development between Oconee and East Broad streets was still on the table, Mayor Nancy Denson said she couldn’t support a TAD. She echoed Crowley’s point that it would’ve been “counter-productive” to a project already on the books and ready to go.

But with the death of the Selig project and stores like Best Buy and Pier One moving from Atlanta Highway to Oconee County, Athens-Clarke County is facing an erosion of its existing tax base. “This tax allocation district may be needed to offset that [sales tax] loss,” Crowley says.

Since other development projects like the Hyatt Place hotel next to the Classic Center and apartments like The Standard, are still in the midst of construction, Crowley thinks the best time to establish the TAD is before Jan. 1 next year to capture extra taxes generated by those developments. That would require putting the TAD on the agenda during an election year, which may turn off voters who shy away from anything with the word “tax” in it, even though a TAD doesn’t involve raising taxes.

Because about 60 percent of local property taxes go to the Clarke County School District, the school board would have to approve a TAD along with the commission for the TAD to have its full impact. But that would mean potentially forgoing additional revenue from new development in the district for a period of years, although development generated by a TAD could boost school funding down the road.

“The argument against the TAD is the school district cannot afford to give up the taxes,” Crowley says. “It needs those taxes to pay teachers and everything else. The bulk of the [property taxes] is the school district; the bulk of the retail sales tax is county.”

School administrators have not taken a stand on a downtown TAD. “We would certainly have to review any proposals that would reduce revenues to schools, even temporarily. However, with that said, we have not been presented with any formal correspondence regarding a tax allocation district,” Superintendent Philip Lanoue says.

“It would not be unreasonable to expect the school [district] to opt into it,” Mayor Nancy Denson says.

Denson says she couldn’t support a “complete absolute TAD,” but portions of it. “It’s something we’ll have the work the details out on,” says Denson, adding that “this is like a 20 year plan, it’s not something we’ll adopt tomorrow.”

Mayoral candidate Tim Denson says a TAD is a useful tool for both economic and community development. “It’s a complex issue… but it’s something I’m definitely open to. I’m confident we could probably find a way for it to work, because these long-term plans are the kinds of things we need to be looking into,” he says. “I really feel like, recently in the last few years, everything we’ve been doing has been very short-ter


Town and gown relationship strong under UGA President Michael Adams

Video

On his first day as president of the University of Georgia, Mike Adams stepped through the Arches, crossed into the downtown, climbed the hill to City Hall, ending up at the desk of the Athens-Clarke County mayor.

Many saw that action as testament to the new president’s commitment to the UGA-Athens relationship.

Now, 16 years later, many agree the relationship is better than ever.

Interviews with Adams, Mayor Nancy Denson, and others show the mindset, the projects and the systems that propelled the improvement.

Relationships between college towns and the colleges they contain can be tenuous amidst the clash of university administration and city government, local and student. Denson said before her time in Athens government, there was a “wall” between the school and the city. Now, the relationship is much improved, thanks in large part to Adams. That improvement, though, doesn’t mean smooth sailing. It means fostering awareness and mutual respect despite the disagreements.

“That tug and pull between different interests makes us arrive at the best interests for everybody,” Denson said.  “Because if you’re just running along smooth and everything’s going great, you don’t look at your processes very closely.”

A collaborative attitude

Director of Community Relations Pat Allen said it is important for the University to be mindful of the importance of its relationship with Athens. Attracting the ideal students and faculty requires a “solid town,” he said, in addition to all of UGA’s qualities.

“I guess we have a self interest in ensuring that we have a vibrant economy in our community,” he said. “That it’s a safe place, and it’s a place that people will want to come for four years or for 40 years.”

The University also has a responsibility to the state, which incorporates its responsibility to Athens.

“And of course as a state institution we have a commitment to the state of Georgia, including Athens-Clarke County, to bring the resources of the University to bear on the biggest problems in the community,” he said.

Denson and Adams both acknowledged that they encounter Athens residents who bemoan the amount of land the University owns but doesn’t pay taxes on. Both, coincidentally, used the term “short-sighted” to describe this mindset, and counter with their own.

Adams pointed out that comments of this type are “potentially harmful to our state support base.”

“They contribute to a negative feeling in Atlanta, not widely shared by our funding partners, who still believe that sending some $400 million of taxpayer money every year to Athens is a pretty strong level of commitment,” he said.

Denson disagreed with these complaints on an even more fundamental level.

“It’s important to note that the University wasn’t just plopped in the middle of town. The town and the university grew together. And basically, without the university, Athens would just be a sleepy little village,” she said. “If we didn’t have all those taxes in property taken by the university, there would probably be just raw land sitting there and it would not have much tax value to it.”

Instead of “raw land,” she said having the University in her city brings a variety of positives – including a more “cosmopolitan” attitude and business growth.

“The University is more of an asset than anything else to the community, but it’s not a uniform asset to every member of the community,” she said.

Allen’s job, created in 2003, is a product of this collaborative attitude.

“It’s called a liaison, it’s called a lot of things, but my role is to assure that we communicate with local government and community groups on issues and opportunities for us on issues that we might be having,” he said. “As self-serving as it may sound to you, him recognizing that we needed someone focused on this every day, that’s a commitment of the University’s resources to the issue.”

Project-based collaboration

Adams’ tenure has seen a variety of projects that strengthened the relationship between UGA and Athens. Project-based collaboration. just one part of the complex relationship, has increased dramatically while Adams was in office.

The University contributed $3.6 million to ACC’s new water treatment plant for odor control in 2011.

“You remember the terrible smell over on East Campus? That impacted the University and our quality of life,” Allen said. “So we recognized first that a lot of the products they processed in that plant comes from campus, so we partnered with them and helped them with some odor-control technology.”

Part of that contract also dedicated UGA resources to helping expand the College Station Road bridge. The bridge expansion will also provide better access to the University’s Veterinary Medicine Learning Center that will be built beyond it.

The University also gave the city land for a fire station adjacent to the plot of land designated for the new Veterinary Medicine Learning Center.

Allen said these are examples of mutually beneficial exchanges.

“We also worked with the city on the bridge at college station road that goes across the Oconee River, to connect not only with that plant but to connect with property that the university owns past that plant,” he said. “We can have much better access to our own property, but at the same time are able to provide another access point for the sewage treatment plant.”

He said the fire station helps both communities as well.

“What that does for the county is it saves them the cost of buying property to build a new fire station,” he said. “What it does for us is it gets us assurance that we have close-by, adequate fire protection on the south part of our campus, especially now that we’ll be building a $90 million building next door to that fire station.”

Another prominent collaboration between the city and the University was made over a building built two decades before the Civil War. The Wray-Nicholson House has flipped between University, city and private ownership over its long history. The antebellum home traces its roots with UGA back to 1825, when it served as the dining hall. It then returned to private ownership in 1845.

ACC saved the house from demolition in 1994 as part of a $64 million sales tax referendum vote. The house took up $4.4 million of that referendum. The city bought the property for $860,000 and spent the rest of the money to renovate the house and the four smaller buildings nearby.

The University, with approval from the Board of Regents, bought the house in 2000 for $2.3 million. It is now the home of the UGA Alumni Association.

The University subsidizes the Athens Transit bus system, “which is what’s kept this city bus system alive,” Adams said.

The University pays 86 cents per rider today, which Adams said puts the University support of the system between $800,000 and $850,000 annually.

A commitment to long-term partnership

Partnership means more than occasional project collaboration. Cooperation on longer-term, issues-based initiatives deals with the broader relationship between the town and University. Allen said this has been one of Adams’ priorities since before his job was even created.

“Since the mid-90s, a group of University administrators and the senior staff for Athens-Clarke County have breakfast once a month, and we talk about those very types of things,” Allen said. “So we look for things, and communicate openly about what projects that each of us have and how me might compliment each other with those.”

the University has a neighborhood relations roundtable, composed of “of Athens-Clarke County elected officials, Athens-Clarke County staff, neighborhood leaders and University folks,” Allen said.

The committee used to meet regularly to address issues of ACC citizen concern. A neighborhood leader chaired the group. Allen said the chair eventually told the group that the major issues had been addressed. The neighborhood leaders suggested meeting on an as-needed basis.

“To me, that is a very good example of improving town and gown relations,” he said. “We have the group that was formed to fix the problems saying we’ve come so far that we can just meet on-call. And there hasn’t been a meeting in several years.”

Denson and Allen individually lauded the UGA College of Education partnership with ACC schools.

“We’ve really invested our faculty and staff in assisting the Clarke county school system,” Allen said. “And we help them operate what we call professional development schools, every school now has some type of relationship with the University, though at different levels, some have on-site faculty some have more of a consultative relationship.”

This collaboration began in 2007, but Denson said she hopes to see even more done to solidify the partnership.

“It’s something that has begun to happen but I’d like to see it happen to a much larger degree,” she said. “So it’s a great benefit to those student-teachers that are coming in because they’re getting hands-on, real world experience with students, but it’s also expanding the faculty of the school because you’ve got more people working with those students. So that’s a perfect example of how you mutually help each other. I think it’s just as beneficial to the university as it is to the elementary schools.”

Allen also noted UGA’s involvement in Partners for a Prosperous Athens, an organization that broke ground in 2005 to address poverty issues in Athens. The organization was a collaborative effort on the part of UGA, ACC government, the Clarke County School District, the Athens Chamber of Commerce, and various local nonprofits.

“We formed a group called Partners for a Prosperous Athens where we had a major initiative to identify and address poverty issues here and develop strategies to try to deal with that, understanding that the poverty level of this county, being whatever the numbers show now, is just an embarrassment to a county with the flagship institution of the university system located within it” he said.

He said the University’s ability to collaborate is important to ventures like this one.

“We got involved and partnered with these other people,” he said. “We didn’t come in and say we’re the university we can fix this for you, what we said is let’s work together and we’ll bring our resources in terms of facilitators and office space and back-room support to help our community address what we think is the major social problem here.

PPA spent time and resources fact-finding and adopting an action plan to address poverty in Athens. It then transferred their findings to a nonprofit called OneAthens. This organization has addressed a variety of needs in the community – most recently helping to develop the Athens Health Network.

Bumps in the road

This positive relationship has had its bumps along the way.

A highly publicized scuffle occurred at Sanford Stadium beginning in 1999. The teams weren’t composed of athletes, but rather of administrators – the University versus ACC.

Before the 1999 football season, UGA workers noticed a brown liquid that looked and smelled like sewage bubbling up from that sacred piece of grass between the hedges and causing patches of grass to die. UGA brought in the company that installed the field to determine the cause of the problem. That company brought in an environmental consulting firm, which concluded that leaking sewage from an ACC line was the crux of the problem.

The cost of repair to the field, the University said, could be in excess of $1 million.

The University took the report to ACC officials and indicated they may be at fault and liable to pay for repairs to the field. ACC responded by hiring their own consulting firm. This firm’s report concluded that the smells and liquid could not be sewage due to the depth of the line beneath the field.

A third report concluded that the smells and liquid was indeed sewage, though the sewage leaks weren’t as bad as in the past. It said the death of the grass was due to old age.

UGA and ACC retained lawyers. The threat of a lawsuit was eminent. But Adams and then-mayor Doc Eldridge announced a solution to the problem in April 2000.

The city agreed to remove a discontinued sewer line discovered beneath the field during investigation. The project cost approximately $40,000. The University agreed to bear the cost of installing new turf and restoring the field before the 2000 football season began.

The relationship has grown since.

Allen said community relations is about bigger questions than periodic projects, whether they be successful or not.

“It’s not just helping build a bridge or a fire station, but it’s helping to address issues that are more long-term and not project related, and might have a long-term impact to the University and the community,” he said.

For richer and for poorer

This isn’t a perfect marriage.  When times get tough, the relationship is strained. But Adams and Denson have worked hard to fulfill their primary responsibilities, despite the dwindling dollars.

“We would like to help in more [ways],” Adams said. “But there’s just not been that much venture capital over the last three to four years to do anything new.”

The University must stick to its “core functions” of teaching, research and public service when money gets tight, Adams said, “and probably in that order, if you look at the budget.”

In his State of the University address this year, Adams said “some have forgotten that the University of Georgia is a charity, not a donor.”

He praised the collaboration on “mutually beneficial” projects in the past, but he reminded the audience that UGA is “a nonprofit educational institution” whose “resources have been more limited in the past three years than at any other period in my 16 years here.”

Adams said it’s important to remember that UGA’s commitment is statewide, not just to Athens.

“I get up every morning thinking, ‘OK, how do I serve the state of Georgia?’ I don’t ignore Athens, I love Athens, I live in Athens, I’m going to continue to be in Athens going forward, but my job is a statewide mission,” he said. “So sometimes I have to balance what’s the request from Athens versus what does the whole state need. And that’s not always a perfect answer.”

Denson said there’s a fundamental imbalance, but the right attitude helps maintain a good relationship.

“Of course the university’s core responsibility is educating its students, and our core responsibility is providing for the safety and welfare of everyone here, including the students,” she said. “So when money gets tighter, that gets to be harder for both of us. But I think that we can make that easier to both groups by having an attitude that we are responsible for each other.”

Looking forward

 When Adams steps down July 1, current Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Jere Morehead will take his place. Denson said she thinks Morehead will be “a real asset to the community.”

The mayor praised his academic background, but said “the fact that he was the first person in his family to graduate from college” will give him the sensitivity to understand the people of Athens.

“He’s going to have the sensitivity and understanding of regular people,” she said, “that people in academia in previous generations may not have had.”