By John Schaffner
The Atlanta City Council goes into the final weeks of review and negotiations of Mayor Shirley Franklin’s proposed $583.9 million 2008-2009 city budget by receiving a warning from council President Lisa Borders to practice a higher degree of “decorum, civility and respect.”
Borders wrote her letter to the 15 members of council May 23, saying some members have treated Mayor Franklin’s staff with “hostility” in recent weeks during hearings on the budget crisis.
Atlanta has a projected $140 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The mayor and her staff have recommended plugging the budget shortfall with a combination of job cuts, fee hikes and a $40 million property tax increase, none of which has been received well by residents or members of council.
Council members will be facing an election year in 2009 and Borders has already announced she will be running for mayor
“We must ask tough questions, but we have the higher obligation of decorum, civility and respect,” Borders wrote to the council members. “The city council sits as the representatives of our constituents and we do them no service when we replace thoughtful inquiry with hostility or probing attack. We owe our citizens more.”
Borders was apparently specifically referring to confrontations with the city’s Chief Operating Officer Greg Gironelli involving council members H. Lamar Willis and C.T. Martin on May 22. But Borders apparently also is concerned about rowdy behavior by citizens during public hearings on the budget.
Councilman Howard Shook, who chairs the city Finance/Executive Committee which is reviewing the budget, said the hostility comes from frustration over the city’s budget.
Meanwhile, Mayor Franklin continues to have support among the business community for making tough decisions that typically face CEOs of businesses in a down economy while residents are raising concerns about the city’s poor budgeting practices and errors identified in a recent audit.
On May 19, the city council showed some its dissatisfaction with the way the budget has been handled by overriding Mayor Franklin’s veto of the council’s request to have the city’s internal auditor audit water and sewer funds before proposed user rate increases of 27.5 percent are put into effect for later this year. That increase would be followed by 12.5 percent increases in each of the following three years.
Council members also voted to delay a scheduled increase in Franklin’s spending authority in relation to contract approvals.
The recent audit blamed the deficit in part on rising health-care and pension costs, which are beyond the mayor’s control. But the report also found that city budget writers relied on anticipated surpluses to make ends meet each year, only to discover that less money came in each year than they had expected.
The cumulative overestimation since 2003, according to the audit, was $241 million.
Everyone has an idea as to how the city can make up its deficit. One idea proposed by city Councilman Jim Maddox is to tack a $1 surcharge on tickets for professional sports events and major concerts held in the city.
The idea is to charge the fee on events held at places that seat thousands, such as the Georgia Dome, Turner Field Philips Arena and the Lakewood Amphitheatre.
Maddox pitched the idea during recent budget hearings, thinking the money could help defray some of the cost to have police officers work at the sites and for city crews to clean up after the events. The city already has a $1 surcharge on city-owned venues.
Maddox has told the city’s finance department to write legislation that he can introduce at the council’s June 2 regular meeting.
Finance officials said they would check with the city’s law department to determine if there are legal obstacles to Maddox’s idea.