To the editor:
Under the Municipal Charter the State Legislature enacted, Atlanta has a “strong mayoral” form of government. Our mayors lead. They set the tone.
Much depends on whether a mayor views city council as a valued partner or impediment. A mayor drawing the curtains to hide the Administration from prying eyes limits council’s options.
Council always retains the power of the purse: the option of “last resort,” not funding a mayor’s budget. We reached that point this year.
In June, we voted not to raise property taxes by 0.43 mills, ordered nearly $14.6 million cut from the budget, and lowered property taxes by 0.12 mills.
It didn’t have to end this way. Cooperation was always our preferred option, not that “last resort” of tying shut the public’s purse strings.
During seven years on council, I’ve been struck by the extent council is not informed about day-to-day operations, despite repeated requests. Par for the course, we were blindsided by this year’s budget shortfall and the administration’s budget-busting expenses over the last year. We had passed a balanced budget the year before. Kept in the dark, we had no knowledge of the looming disaster. We were blindsided again by termination of over 400 employees without feedback from us to protect our constituents.
At that point, the administration’s “closed curtains” policy combined with financial realities to constrain our options even further. Despite months of work, council never got enough information to make informed decisions on layers of management, duplication of jobs, functionality of employees, vacancies to be eliminated without service impacts, and operational efficiencies in contracted services. Denied basic information, we couldn’t cut the budget in the business-like manner we preferred.
There is some good news here. A majority on council no longer allows the administration to operate behind closed curtains. In May, the administration demanded stunning water rate hikes, despite the penny sales tax voted by Atlantans to fund water and sewer improvements. Council was instructed: increase rates for four years or risk downgrading our bond ratings.
Facing a no-win situation, council increased rates for one year only. To assess this expensive program, I proposed and council authorized an audit of water and sewer funds. It was vetoed. Council overrode the veto unanimously. Learning the administration had no intention of conducting the audit, council again voted to make additional rate increases contingent on an audit. At city hall, this is progress indeed.
Finally, I want to address critics of council’s own budget. It is important to understand that we fund a staff to correct the administration’s broken system of constituent services. Constituents know the quickest way to get results is calling a councilmember’s staff. Our people are the ones you call when you don’t get credit for paying a water bill, when you need a permit to cut a tree, when the police don’t close the crack house in your neighborhood, or when there is a dead dog left on the side of your street. We are your “Customer Service Department.” This being said, the city council has reduced its budget by 27.5% to abide by the mandate we issued for all city operations.
I hope the administration now understands that city council works hard to serve our citizens and that we should be valued as partners. With a new spirit of cooperation, we could move forward. Our citizens would welcome that.
Atlanta City Council