By John Schaffner
editor@reporternewspapers.net

Those who were waiting for the second shoe to fall in Atlanta’s budget crisis may have heard the second thud Dec. 10.

It was the announcement of another $50 million budget shortfall — this time in the Watershed Management Department — and the announcement of the fourth wave of city employee layoffs since May — this time 97 lost their jobs, and 175 vacant positions were frozen.

Those announcements came one week after Mayor Shirley Franklin cut 222 city workers’ jobs, most of them from the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs. Those cuts addressed a projected $50 million shortfall in the general fund budget.

The Watershed Management Department is funded separately from the revenue sources that pay for most city services, such as police, firefighters and garbage collection.

Franklin announced that the water department’s deteriorating finances and job cuts will delay some water and sewer projects and make it more difficult for people to get answers about their bills.

The anticipated $100 million in lost revenues affecting the two budgets aggravates the $140 million shortfall projected midway through the last fiscal year, which forced the city to remove 400 workers in May and July. Diminished sales tax revenues and a drop in permit fees also have caused the mayor to order 10 percent pay cuts for most city workers, including herself.

The Watershed Management budget shortfall is expected despite a 70 percent increase in water rates over the next four years, including a 27 percent boost that went into effect with the beginning of the fiscal year July 1. The rate increases, approved five months ago, were needed to finance the city’s $4 billion repair of its aging sewer system and for efforts to improve water quality.

The 97 workers let go received two weeks’ severance pay. Department Commissioner Rob Hunter said the cuts probably will delay the replacement and repairs to some equipment. He blamed the shortfall on a drop in sales tax collections and higher bond costs.

Hunter said the department expects to collect $25 million less this fiscal year from water customers, largely because of their conservation efforts. He also estimated the city is owed millions of dollars in overdue water and sewer bills from users.