Back in 2001, when Shirley Franklin was seeking to become mayor of the city of Atlanta, much of the campaign focused on the consensus that 7,428 city workers were more than necessary for the city’s size.
When Franklin became mayor, the number of city workers was reduced, budgets were cut and the city’s financial house was put in order, although all that may have still been inflated for a city with the population of Atlanta.
That followed the pro-bono preparation of “The City of Atlanta Turnaround Plan” by highly regarded management consulting firm Bain & Company, which the mayor accepted in July of 2002.
But now, the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation (FCTF), a nonprofit advocate of lower property taxes in Atlanta and Fulton County, reports to us that the number of city employees has jumped by 1,204 to 8,632. Those 8,632 employees are 53 percent more than the average of comparable cities, according to John Sherman, president of FCTF.
That’s a lot of paychecks and a lot of pensions to cover at a time when Mayor Franklin recently mentioned during her State of the City address that the city needs to raise an additional $250 million a year — a 40 percent increase over its present budget —to cover “retiree benefits and provide better city services.”
What happened to that part of the analysis from the Turnaround Plan, which indicated that Atlanta’s workforce of 7,428 at the time was “21-37 percent larger than the average for comparable cities?” Obviously, it has been ignored.
However, the increase in city employees may even be greater than records indicate. The Taxpayers Foundation says that a senior city of Atlanta official, who requested anonymity, said, “Atlanta presently employs 9,400.”
Regardless of which figure is correct, FCTF states that based on the number of employees per 10,000 population, Atlanta is currently staffed to accommodate a population of nearly 1 million.
That begs the presentation of the usual argument that Atlanta itself might be small, but it is in a huge metro market and its daytime demands far exceed many comparable cities.
We accept that the demands on Atlanta exceed those of cities such as Tucson, Oklahoma City and Omaha. But what about truly comparable cities, such as Cleveland and Kansas City, Mo? Atlanta’s payroll far exceeds the payrolls of those two cities. And, Atlanta’s general fund spending is 47 percent higher per capita than that of comparable cities.
FCTF points out that all of this is taking place when the Atlanta Regional Commission projects Atlanta’s growth will be only 1.2 percent a year for the next several years and states the city’s market share will continue decline, reaching just 10 percent of the overall state population by 2030.
The taxpayer group has long proposed privatization of some of the city’s services, which was also suggested by Bain & Co. in the Turnaround Plan. But that is not going to happen in Atlanta as long as city employees’ unions remain a dominant force in the city’s election picture.
Now, you can hardly compare the city of Atlanta, with its population of 470,000-plus, to the city of Sandy Springs with its population of 70,000. But the city of Sandy Springs has just completed its first year of operation with a total of less than 10 city employees (not counting the staffs of the police and fire departments). The rest of the city’s functions are handled through CH2M Hill, a private management firm, on a contract basis.
And, following in the footsteps of Sandy Springs, the new cities of Milton and Johns Creek have adopted the same model and use the same contract services provider. Time will tell how it all works out; but it is certainly worth watching very carefully, as many communities throughout the country are watching.