If you’ve been paying close attention recently to this newspaper and even some other news outlets, you’re probably aware Athens and Limestone County are well into a growth boom.
Thousands of town homes, single-family homes and apartments have been approved since the beginning of the year. We’ve written previously about the need to be prepared for infrastructure improvements, but preparation is like an onion — a multilayered concept that could make you cry.
Athens City Councilman Joseph Cannon made an interesting point at the June 24 council meeting. It was at that meeting the council rezoned property near Brookhill Elementary School so a developer could build an apartment complex comprised of more than 600 apartments.
Cannon explained he didn’t have an issue with the project itself but instead how the city’s fire and police departments would be affected by continued growth in the city. More people equals more crime, more vehicle crashes, more domestic disturbances, more keys locked in cars, more abandoned vehicles, more fires, more false fire alarms and more medical calls.
The council and Athens Planning Commission have rezoned, annexed and approved property and development plans, but talk of adding more police and fire protection has been largely absent from public debate. Maybe these concerns are being addressed behind the scenes, but we hope the council and mayor soon start talking about when additional police and fire personnel will be hired and how those positions will be funded.
During budget hearings last September, both Athens Fire & Rescue Chief Bryan Thornton and Police Chief Floyd Johnson implored the council to start thinking ahead. Thornton asked for a new fire house on Cambridge Lane and 12 firefighters to staff it, in addition to vehicles and equipment. Mayor Ronnie Marks told the council it would cost about $3 million to make that happen.
At the same meeting, Johnson told the council he only had 36 patrol slots, which he explained was not enough for the growing population of nearly 30,000 residents. If all 36 officers were working at one time, that would be one officer per 833 people. However, Johnson’s officers work in three shifts of 12 officers each, bringing the ratio to one officer per 2,500 people. If he happens to have an officer on vacation or out sick, the ratio is even larger.
Imagine for a minute being one person responsible for the safety of 2,500 people. If it seems like a daunting task, it is.
This week, Johnson said he would be having what he hoped would be positive conversations with the council about his needs as the city leadership prepares budgets for the 2019-2020 fiscal year.
We hope the city’s conversations with Johnson and Thornton about additional personnel also include conversations about compensation. It’s one thing for the city to hire more police officers and firefighters, but it’s a different matter to ensure Athens is competitive with other markets.
The city leadership needs to take a hard look at our neighboring cities of Huntsville, Madison, Decatur and Florence and find out how Athens’ compensation packages compare to those departments. Athens has talented and dedicated fire and police personnel, but we risk losing them — and forfeit the ability to recruit new talent — if our compensation packages are not competitive.
We admire the city’s efforts to attract more businesses and residents. Those efforts have been made easier by a good economy and the county’s recent industrial good fortune, including the landing of the Mazda Toyota Manufacturing plant in southern Limestone County and the Toyota Boshoku plant in Athens.
All those 4,414 employees and their families will have to live somewhere, and it makes sense they would live in Athens. This is a great city with lots of charm and character.
We hope the council will take steps to ensure all of its citizens, newcomers and old-timers, are well-protected.