Harry Sims: “Making Athens One”

All three candidates for mayor of Athens visited Cedar Shoals for an extended interview with News editor Daveon Montgomery and reporter Tristan Lankford. Each of those interviews has been transcribed and posted for voters’ consideration. See the other two interviews with Kelly Girtz and Richie Knight here on CedarBluePrints.com.

Can you describe to me what made you want to be a commissioner?

“It was to serve the community. I am a native Athenian and the person that I replaced, her health was getting bad, and as a result she wasn’t able to represent the area that she was representing. I ran for the seat and replaced her.”

Have you had any post-secondary education or any other careers?

“I graduated from the UGA. I taught 5th grade at Barrow elementary school for 29 years. That is what I did for a living, and prior to becoming a commissioner, before we unified the government, we had a old city and a old county commission and we had a city council, and I served as a Athens CIty Councilman for two years prior to unification. When unification came about, I ran and lost that position that I was running for, and two years later, I got the position that I am in now.”

What high school did you go to as a child?

“These schools no longer exist. I graduated from Burney Harris High School, which is where the H.T. Edwards building is now. That was originally Athens High, and in 1965 it was changed to Burney Harris High School and I finished in 1967 there.”

Your resigning from the County commission. Can you tell us more about that?

“The state constitution does not permit for a person to hold a office and run for another office, and because I am in the middle of my term, we serve four year terms, mine would be the beginning of my second year of my term. So, I have to resign in order to race as mayor. Mr. Girtz is able to continue in his seat because his term expires in December. He basically has six months left, so he will be allowed to continue to serve until the end of his term.”

Why are you running for mayor?

“My reason to run for mayor is really to make sure that we are getting the best that we could for all the citizens of Athens-Clarke County. Sometimes, unfortunately, some people run and kind of get tunnel vision and they represent a certain area and forget that what we do represents all of Athens.”

You served as commissioner for 25 years. What are some significant things that you were a part of during your time?

“The largest project that was ever done for Athens-Clarke County. People don’t get to see it, we call it infrastructure. That’s the stuff up under the ground. The largest project we did was increasing the capacity for sewage waste treatment. We have three waste treatment plants, and we increased the capacity of those plants in order for us to serve the citizens of Athens to the year of 2050 and beyond hopefully. That was an over-$200 million project. That is something where you flush the toilet at school here, it goes somewhere. In this case, It goes up to the Cedar Creek plant and it’s treated. All waste water has to be treated, and the waste water itself ends up in the Oconee River. We are required by law where the Oconee RIver comes in to measure and look at the purity of the water, so when it goes out on this side, it has to be more pure going out than it was when it came in. So we monitor that and that was a major thing. I also run the government’s pension program. That’s when they retire and they get a check. I managed that for the past 23 years and we have grown that program to over $240 million.”

There are three other main candidates. What makes you different from the other candidates?

“I am the most experienced. My thing is to work for every citizen, all 120,000-plus and not for certain areas. I think part of the other candidates is they’re more focused in certain areas of Athens vs. all of Athens. I think that’s one of the big differences that I bring. I don’t want anybody left out.”

What can you do for Athens that the other candidates can’t?

“Something I think I do that they don’t do probably too well is listen. Sometimes when people provide so much lip service they don’t really give service because they don’t know what the people said. I am one that is always trying to listen. I feel I am more open minded that the others. I feel I am going to give things the best thought, and sometimes it may sound totally crazy, the suggestions people give, but when you stop and think about it from a common sense standpoint you can make it work.”

Affordable housing is a huge issue in Athens and there is a large poverty rate. What is your stance on affordable housing?

“We have a high poverty rate and people are always concerned and talking about affordable housing. My definition of affordable housing vs. the government’s definition of affordable housing is totally different. Mine is real simple, if you have a job, and you make enough money to buy a house, then it’s affordable. The government says if you have so many people living in your house, your median income, and all of these things, then you should be able to afford this type of house. Whatever house you choose to pick is the one you can afford to pay for. That’s really the big thing that a lot of people do. They talk about affordable housing, and then it really comes down to wages that people get paid. Sometimes people have these dreams of the type of house they want vs what they can pay for. Affordable housing is what you can pay for.”

What plans have you made to support your stance?

“It comes down to a fair wage. Right now, in the fair market we talk about at least $15-$16 an hour. Our government, that I represent, we have a pay scale and nobody makes less than $7.35. Nobody that works for Clarke County government makes less than $10-$15 an hour. When you first start off, you come in and your on six months probation, you will come in at a wage that is higher than minimum wage, and even after your probation, the wage will be ratcheted up. We have to create jobs that will pay people both kinds of wages.”

What are your plans to increase public engagement?

“You generally will have groups who tend to be very vocal, but they are really in the minority. The people who are most vocal are generally the ones that come down to the meetings and tell you what they want. The majority of people look at it ‘well we elected you, you made the decision, we have you in office,’ and unless we’re doing something that’s terribly wrong, you don’t hear from those people. You hear from the minority, and it’s the minority that is as they say ‘the squeaky wheel’. What we do is get the oil can out and get the squeaks out the way. If you could really get the vast majority of the people, they will say the stuff that we want, we see it, so we don’t complain. We have fire service, we have sidewalks. Right now, everyone is fussing about how we want our streets paved. Hopefully we are going to get some of that done with our SPLOST. As long as those kind of things happen, you don’t really hear from the majority.”

One of the issues with Athens is the police. We don’t have enough officers, and the officers we do have are underpaid which brings us the worst police officers because the good ones don’t want to stay. What is your stance on that?

“Unfortunately, that’s not just in Athens. That’s everywhere. They’re not going to want to stay, and you have a situation where when we train them and they work with us a year or two and then you wonder, ‘What happened to that guy?’ Well, he went to another county because they’re paying five thousand dollars more than we are. We try to give them incentives like, if they are living in Athens, they get to take their police cars home with them. And they can drive them, not only when they’re on duty, but off duty as well. They may drive to the grocery store, and somebody who’s planning to rob a store will see the police car. He might not even be on duty, but he was able to drive the car and do that. If they live here and want to buy a home here, we try to help with that and subsidize some of the housing. We try to do every little thing that we can do, and it really comes down to money. If we do raises, that means we have to increase your taxes and that’s something that we try to avoid as much as possible.”

What public safety issues do you feel Athens has?

“I really don’t see us having a lot of issues. I think our biggest challenge is trying to work with youth. I think that’s the biggest thing trying to get young people to see that there is more to it than playing cops and robbers so to speak.”

Many consider transportation in Athens ‘not great’ and complain about the traffic and such downtown, so what efforts would you put forth to correct these issues?

“Sometimes people forget that the smallest county in landmass is Athens-Clarke County. We are the 14th largest in population in the state of Georgia. Athens is to the surrounding area what Atlanta is to their surrounding area. The jobs flow into Athens. Over 100,000 vehicles flow into Athens everyday because we are job providers. So that does create that problem in addition to the fact that you have 35,000 students. Even though not all of them drive, most of them have cars. Downtown we built parking decks to try and get cars off the streets as much as possible, but at the same time, we want cars to be downtown because of the fact that that’s where the businesses are. The thing is, we want people to flow in and flow out. That becomes difficult sometimes when you only have X-number of spaces to park and people not knowing how to use parking decks. Parking decks are supposed to work like parking meters if you use it right.”

A lot of people do not have reasonable bus stops, so many are having to walk a ways just to get to a bus stop. How do we address this?

“That’s under constant review, in terms of where bus stops should be. Some of them do have some distance. I think about the one that’s on Atlanta Highway where the people that live down Sycamore have to come all the way up the street to the bus stop there, and the fact that they don’t even have a sidewalk to be able to walk on. We are trying to address some of those things as well, but those are things that bus transit is trying to look at if it’s feasible to be able to drive down there and turn around because that’s a dead end area. Then we’re looking to be creative and trying to get some smaller vans or whatever to get in and shuttle people in and out.”

Athens has a large youth population with 3,000 students and many of them want job opportunities to put on resumes and applications. How would you get businesses together to get students the jobs they want and need?

“Jobs for Georgia is one of the things that deals with youth employment. I serve as a chairman of a youth advisory group that’s in partnership with the police, chamber of commerce, and a whole lot of other people that are looking at what we can do for youth. One of the reasons that I wanted the chamber of commerce to be involved in that is the fact that the chamber of commerce are the people that have businesses and jobs. There are companies like Power Partners, they are employing young people, giving them an opportunity to work, and they’re not paying them at minimum wage. They’re paying them what they pay their regular employees. We’re trying to get more businesses involved in that kind of project.”

A lot of teachers and students express a lack of student resources on the Eastside of town, for example a library. Clarke Central is much closer to the library and this presents a disadvantage. How do we address this issue?

“Right now, we have some people that I’ve been talking with. Maybe when we finally get finished with the old Gaines School building, we might look at the possibility of creating a community center or a library in that facility. That building has a potential and I think that is something that we as the government and the school district together may look at a partnership in trying to get something in that manner.”

Downtown is very busy and it is home to a lot of college students as well. How would you work with the Athens Downtown Development Authority to try and bring in more businesses, more family friendly businesses, and bring in more people?

“When we figure out how to do that, we’re going to really hit the jackpot. When I grew up in Athens, there was no mall. There was no Georgia Square Mall. It was Belk, Penny’s, Macy’s, all those buildings were downtown. Those businesses left because the trend was malls, but now they are trending away from that. They are going to individual stores now. What the Downtown Development Authority has been trying to do is not only to look at nationwide type stores, but people who want to be entrepreneurs and want to have businesses. We have probably 20 to 40 bars downtown, which is not family friendly, but to have more businesses that are more family oriented is something that were working on.”