By John Schaffner

With Atlanta facing at least a $50 million budget deficit, having laid off hundreds of workers and put all city employees on scheduled weekly furloughs without pay, Mayor Shirley Franklin has said she wants to increase the city’s police force to 2,000 officers by the end of the year, proposing a property tax increase to cover the $20 million to $40 million price tag.

The Atlanta Police Department has 1,633 sworn police officers and 79 recruits who are on track to become officers, for a total of 1,712. All of the officers , however, were furloughed last month by Franklin and are working 10 percent less because of the ongoing budget crisis.

The Buckhead Reporter requested information from the Zone 2 police commander, Maj. James Sellers, on how the furlough system is affecting the scheduling of officers to provide sufficient day-to-day coverage of Buckhead. But Sellers referred questions to the department’s public information officer because the furloughs are a citywide issue. The call to Sellers on Friday, Jan. 16, fell on his furlough day.

The Police Department’s public information officer, Sgt. Lisa Keys, did not respond to repeated phone calls to her work number before the Buckhead Reporter went press.

The city would need to add almost 400 sworn officers to bring the police ranks up to 2,000 in Franklin’s final year in office, and the mayor has estimated it would cost at least $20 million to hire, train and equip 200 officers.

While the mayor was presenting her plan at a meeting of the Atlanta Press Club, the City Council was planning to vote on a resolution to end the furloughs for police officers and firefighters. Franklin has questioned how the council would fund that plan.

(The City Council could have voted on that resolution after this edition of the Buckhead Reporter went to press Jan. 21.)

Franklin, in her talk about increasing the police force and raising taxes to pay for public safety, never mentioned adding back the new firefighters who were dropped from the budget, reopening the fire stations that have been closed or lifting the furloughs that cut into Atlanta’s Fire Rescue Department.

The firefighters have said they don’t expect to be treated on an equal basis with police until a new mayor comes into office. That sentiment was echoed recently by Atlanta’s relatively new fire chief, Kelvin Cochran, as he dealt with cutbacks in his budgets for this year.

The president of International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 623, Sgt. Scott Kreher, said in response to the mayor’s timetable for reaching 2,000 police officers that it is implausible for the city to hire and train several hundred officers by Dec. 31.

An apparently miffed Franklin wasted no time in responding to Kreher. In a terse letter, she stated:

“Since I came into office in 2002, I have led the investment for higher pay for officers, for increasing the number of officers, new equipment and service weapons, training and technology. Today, Atlanta officers are better equipped, trained and compensated for their service.

“I remember early conversations that you and I have had about the need to increase the number of officers. I listened and seriously took the advice of you and others like the Atlanta Police Foundation. And the City invested in recruitment and the results speak volumes for the interest of professionals in joining and working for the Atlanta Police Department.

“Over the last five years we have effectively increased the number of officers on the street by 286 and today the sworn staff stands at 1,712. We had a plan and we executed it. As a direct result of the increased staffing, the violent crime rate has decreased 38 percent since 2002 and the overall crime rate is down 21 percent.”

Franklin explained in her letter to Kreher that she had proposed a tax increase in her May budget letter to the City Council to avoid “going back to 2002 service levels in public safety.”

Franklin concluded her letter to Kreher by saying, “I am writing this letter to request your full support for a tax increase to fund 200 additional police officers in the FY 2010 General Fund budget. Working together I am certain we can be successful.”

The figure of 2,000 cops has been bandied about by Atlanta mayors for 20 years.

Franklin argues violent crime is down 38 percent since she took office in 2002. FBI figures show a 19 percent drop in Atlanta’s violent crime from 2002 to 2007. Final figures for 2008 have not been released.

There are some in the city who say Franklin made the promise to increase the police force to add some luster to her legacy before she leaves office.

Former Mayor Sam Massell, who was defeated in a re-election bid by Maynard Jackson in 1973 and now is the president of the Buckhead Coalition, said Franklin has a solid record, regardless of what happens with the police hirings.

“I don’t know any eight-year period where a mayor has had so many achievements,” Massell said.

But Buckhead resident John Sherman, who is the president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation, said that while Massell would give Franklin an A-plus, “in my view, she’d get an F.”

Sherman constantly points to a report submitted to Franklin in 2002 by the consulting firm Bain & Co. that outlined a plan to cut or privatize 12 city services, including garbage, fleet maintenance, road maintenance and even fire services. He notes that Franklin has never implemented any of those recommendations.

Instead of saving money, Sherman said, Franklin wants to raise taxes, but people can’t afford the present taxes.