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City Council discusses investing money and economic development in Athens

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City Council suggested investing the money for the community pool project and heard a presentation on economic development in Athens County at its meeting Monday.

Mike Burns, a representative from the investment firm who works with Athens on the pool project, reported Athens has maintained a high bond rating.

“I was a little nervous when I did the first analysis on the city and the first work on the city,” Burns said. “I thought there might be a chance that there would be a downgrade on the bond rating. So that’s why the mayor and I and City Council and others really worked hard.”

Burns said while bond ratings could change at any time, the city has the capacity to take on more projects and should not be worried about bond ratings going down as a result. Rates have gone up half a percent since the presidential election and are expected to continue to rise, he said.

Burns said the auditor and mayor displayed “good judgement” by finishing the bonds before the election Nov. 8.

“We saved the city almost a half percent just by not selling the bonds after the election,” Burns said.

The city budget will receive approximately $7.3 million Thursday in its account for the pool project, City Auditor Kathy Hecht said. Hecht asked the Council to appropriate the money instead of letting it sit in the fund, since construction on the pool is not expected to begin until next summer.

“I have talked to our treasurer about investing that money,” Hecht said. “It is too much to just let sit in a savings account and we can do short-term investments, especially with that kind of money.”

The Council also heard a presentation from Sara Marrs-Maxfield from the Athens Economic Development Council. Marrs-Maxfield outlined the group’s successes and goals for the future and said Athens County is moving in the right direction economically, noting that the county has been removed from the Appalachian Regional Commission’s “distressed counties” list for the first time in 20 years.

“Jobs are growing here, incomes are increasing, we’re doing some of the work that we’ve been set out to do,” Marrs-Maxfield said. “So there are improvements being made.”

Marrs-Maxfield said Athens County added 1,142 new jobs in 2016, but the Council wants to raise county income from its current level of $17,000 per capita.

“The long-term strategy is focusing on expanding private sector employment opportunities,” Marrs-Maxfield said. “Far too many of our jobs are public sector. We’re far too reliant on public sector jobs in this community, we need some private sector jobs so that we can be a little bit more robust. We want to focus on livable wages and advancement opportunities for our citizens.”

The Athens Economic Development Council’s goal is to add 2,500 new jobs over the next five years while cutting the poverty rate and increasing the per capita income. Marrs-Maxfield called the city of Athens an “economic engine” for the region but said there needs to be a focus on retaining young talent in the area.

“Its ambitious, but I think it’s attainable and it’s what we should work toward,” Marrs-Maxfield said.

Mayor Steve Patterson also gave an update on this year’s budget, saying the city’s current unencumbered balance is at $2,259,005. Patterson also discussed reallocating certain funds, including reducing the general fund by one percent to put toward the street fund, and reducing the recreation fund by one percent to put toward the community center fund.

The next City Council meeting will be Nov. 21 in the city building.

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