By John Schaffner

Dist. 7 Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook explained the unanimous votes by council on the 2008-09 city budget to some of his constituents saying, “Our unity is very disorienting. I am guessing it is unnatural. I don’t know how far we can carry it.”

He told those attending the Neighborhood Planning Unit-B (NPU-B) meeting July 1, “The budget and personnel paper have never been supported unanimously. That is pretty remarkable. It is like stepping into an alternate universe.”

Shook, who chairs the city Finance Committee that deals with the city budget, attributed much of that unity to the fact there was more public participation this year than in the past. “It always helps. Don’t ever get so cynical that you think it doesn’t.”

Shook said he came to the NPU meeting to explain what happened during budget negotiations and answer questions, since Mayor Shirley Franklin had unexpectedly shown up the month before to make her case for a property tax increase as well as increased water/sewer fees.

“It is not over yet,” Shook explained. “We not only did away with her (tax) increase, we rolled it back. We restored some things that we felt were important to public safety, like the people in the solicitor’s office, the defendant’s office, code enforcers.

“The way we are paying for that is we drew up a little list of cuts we are making, including stuff council took out of its budget,” he added. “But then we instructed the administration to go back and take another round of 2.5 percent cuts from the whole general fund.”

The original amendment, Shook said, was to cut 2.5 percent by department. “We thought let’s give them as much flexibility as we can. They can find $14 million out of $583 million, without closing fire stations and laying off policemen.”

Shook said he thought “we might be in for some Old Testament political wrath. But I am pleased to say they are at work looking for the cuts.”

There are 300-plus vacant but funded positions included in the budget, totaling $13.4 million. “That sounds like a lot, but it is only 7 percent vacancy across the whole general fund,” he said. “Council suggested that they not try to cut filled positions…that they look at vacancies, look at supplies, look at consultants.

“We clearly said that if you are going to close fire stations, then this discussion is going to continue,” Shook stated.

The man who has been at the center of the council’s budget negotiations told the group he hopes the executive branch does look at the police budget. “That is not to say I am advocating cutting policemen. We have been very clear don’t do that. The police have a $180 million budget. It has grown by $40 million in four years. It has grown every year. It has never been touched. No one has even been allowed to look at it.” He said the police “are not any better at spending a dollar than anyone else at 55 Trinity (city hall).”

Shook said that if talk of a city of Buckhead was a ploy to influence the budget vote, “it was a good one. It has been very useful politically.

“I think we all know that the chances of that getting through the city delegation are remote. Chances of a citywide referendum approving it are remote. The chances of the Department of Justice even allowing us to have the vote are remote. “But if it is just an anguished cry to get peoples attention—we are tired of being treated like ATMs—it has been useful,” he concluded.