By John Schaffner
The city of Atlanta’s chief financial officer, Jim Glass, offered members of the City Council some long-term suggestions May 19 on how to improve the city’s fiscal health, starting with the creation of a multiyear budgeting process.
Speaking at a budget hearing, Glass said most large corporations and many big city governments use multiyear budgeting.
Glass also suggested that council members not roll back the property tax rate, an action that would reduce Atlanta’s revenues.
He said the city must find money to pay for repairs to its roads, sidewalks and bridges. Atlanta spends more than $50 million a year on infrastructure needs, but city officials have said the total should be increased to $100 million. The city is trying to obtain federal economic stimulus money for such infrastructure projects.
Glass, who came out of retirement last year to work for the city, plans to leave at the end of the year.
Dist. 7 City Council member Howard Shook, who represents Buckhead east of Peachtree and Roswell roads, had a one-word response, “regrettably,” to the fact Glass will leave city service when Mayor Shirley Franklin leaves office.
Shook said council members have a great deal of respect for Glass and his work for the city.
Responding to Glass’ suggestion that the city should budget five or so years out, Shook said: “There’s a notion. We could actually do some strategic planning.”
Asked whether he thinks that will happen, Shook, who chairs the council’s Finance Committee, said: “I think we need to get into forecasting, which is routinely done in the private sector and probably by more governments than not. We are woefully ad hoc. It is ‘I Love Lucy’ catching the cakes coming off the conveyor belt for us. We can never turn the machine off and think about what we are doing.”
Shook noted that the city is facing a big transition next year. “We are going to have a new mayor, have a new CFO. We are going to have a new council president, that much we know for sure,” he said. “Jim Glass graciously has agreed to help to the extent he is asked to help as part of the transition.”
But Shook said the city lacks the forecasting resources necessary to make accurate multiyear budgets. “The last thing you want to do is budgeting for five years if you are relying on faulty, flawed or shaky information. We will have to access really good resources in order to be able to do that, but it is certainly something we need to be doing.”
Shook said he’ll push to get those forecasting resources, but “even if we had been in the practice of doing five-year forecasting, nobody would have forecast this (past) six months before it happened. It is going to be helpful, but it is not going to be bulletproof when we get severe surprises.”
At-large council member Mary Norwood, a Buckhead resident who is a candidate for mayor, said: “What Atlanta needs is tough love. Our next mayor must go through the city’s budget item by item and figure out how much money we have and how much money we owe.”
She said no individual or department should be exempt from that scrutiny.
“We need the unvarnished truth about what is happening to the citizens’ tax dollars,” she added.
“When you have a city that has been running a giant shell game,” Norwood said, “you cannot untangle all the threads in one week or one month. It is going to take time to get to the bottom of this mess.”
She said City Council members have not been kept abreast of the city’s financial situation. “Until we actually know how much money the city really has and how much money the city really owes, the only responsible thing for someone in my position to do is tell you what priorities I would fund no matter what,” Norwood said. “My No. 1 priority is public safety. We have to end the police and firefighters’ furloughs, and we have to boost the force, recruiting and retaining the officers we need to keep you safe in your homes and on the street.”