By John Schaffner
Dist. 7 City Councilman Howard Shook, who represents almost half of Buckhead and chairs the city Finance Committee, predicts the new $541 million fiscal 2009-10 Atlanta general fund budget will pass virtually intact with the backing of eight to 10 council members by the June 30 deadline — including a 3-mil property tax increase.
The proposed budget, which kicks in July 1, reportedly removes the 10 percent personnel furloughs that have restricted the city’s service delivery, increases public safety spending, and is designed to improve the city’s financial position and reserves.
“It gets us an immediate, overnight 10 percent increase in public safety,” Shook said, because it eliminates the furloughs. But it also includes the millage increase for residents to pay for that extra public safety.
“No one has counted heads” for the budget vote, Shook said. He said his colleagues on the 15-member council are keeping their voting thoughts to themselves. The one exception is at-large Councilwoman Mary Norwood, also a Buckhead resident, who has made it clear since April that she will not vote for the budget as presented by the administration.
Norwood said she cannot support a property tax increase because she “lacks confidence” in the Franklin administration’s numbers, based on past years’ experiences, a lack of transparency in the process over the years, and her inability to get requested information and an outside review of the administration’s data.
Shook said the plea from residents at the budget public hearings certainly was “Please don’t raise my taxes.” But he expects the budget to pass with the property tax increase and with few if any amendments, all of them minor.
Both Shook and Dist. 9 Councilwoman Felicia Moore, whose district includes a sliver of Buckhead’s western border, praised this year’s budget process as being the best they have experienced on the council.
Moore said this has been the most open budget process she has seen in her 12 years at City Hall. Shook called it “the most reviewed budget in many years.”
Shook noted two “big pluses” in this year’s process: a lot more dialogue between the executive and legislative branches, compared with vetoes and veto overrides last year; and a tighter and more transparent budget.
He praised the city’s “just the facts” chief financial officer, James Glass, “for producing good and quick figures and information” so the council did not have to decipher bad support data.
Norwood, however, said she has not been provided the type of information over the years that she needs to justify voting for a budget with a property tax increase. “Where are the true executive summaries so that you and I and citizens can understand how much money we have, where the money is, how much money we owe and how that is going to be repaid?” she said. “All of us take our responsibility seriously, and it has been extraordinarily difficult for any of us to get information that we have had confidence in.”
Norwood said that in her seven years on the council, “I have never gotten a monthly budget vs. actual of expenditure line items or revenue line items.”
“Nobody, including myself, wants to be excited about a property tax increase,” Moore said. “However, I have been warning my constituents over the years and even more recently about the state of the city’s finances and that something like this was probably going to be on the horizon
“So many of them — especially if they go to NPU (Neighborhood Planning Unit) and other meetings I attend — are not shocked. I don’t think anybody is happy about it. But the alternative is worse at this point.”
With the 3-mil tax increase, “we are actually moving from where we are at current, with all the cuts that were made during the year, and cutting some more,” Moore said.
For instance, she said the Corrections Department is going to lose close to 200 people. “So there are still layoffs, and the budget has about $60 million in savings and/or cuts. A big piece of it is the re-amortization of the pension fund.”
Moore said the property tax increase “is not equal to the amount of the furloughs, and furloughs are not the only thing that it represents. It represents the memorandum of understanding on the payback of that water/sewer fund. It represents public safety building costs that we have had to take on because of not being able to sell City Hall East. It represents increased workman’s comp, increased health care. That is close to $56 million in other things beyond just the furloughs, which account for about $18 million.”
She said the tax increase “is not a silver bullet. It is not going to solve all the issues.”
Asked if she thinks the 3-mil tax increase will be rolled back in the future, Moore said the rating agencies have taken the city to task for rolling back millage rates over the years. “At the time when everything was moving in the real estate market, appreciation was happening; the city wasn’t taking advantage of that. We weren’t taking that money and putting it in reserve or using it to cover costs that we were experiencing. Considering our costs and the reserve that we need to build up, I don’t know that we will be going much lower, if any, if we are responsible. We have a lot of infrastructure needs, and we can’t afford to do that now.”
Speaking to the reduction of city staff, Moore said: “I don’t think at the end of the day it will be bad for us because we have so much to recover from. The leaner that we are at this point, the more chance we have of getting where we need to go. Maybe this is an opportunity.”
Shook echoed that sentiment. He said the workweek of four 10-hour days has become efficient in many city departments.
“We need to be very wary of going on a buying spree when the revenue stream improves,” he said.