By John Schaffner
More than 750 Buckhead residents took advantage of two recent public forums to hear the four top candidates in the upcoming Atlanta mayoral selection offer their positions on city issues.
Heavy emphasis was placed on increasing the size of the police force to deal with a perceived upsurge in crime.
More than 250 residents from southwest Buckhead and northwest Atlanta neighborhoods braved torrential rains Sept. 16 to hear City Council President Lisa Borders, Councilwoman Mary Norwood, former state Sen. Kasim Reed and attorney Jesse Spikes at a forum sponsored by the Northwest Community Alliance (NCA) of neighborhoods and businesses at Puritan Mill in northwest Atlanta.
Half of the questions at that forum were pre-determined and offered by NCA chairman Michael Koblentz and board members Cindy Dennis and Byron Amos, with the second half of the program devoted to questions from the floor. The moderator was Brian Leary, vice president of Atlantic Station who that day was named the new president of BeltLine Inc.
Six days later — on Sept. 22, just before flood waters consumed Buckhead — the same four candidates were again on stage at a forum sponsored by the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, Trinity Presbyterian Church and other houses of worship, including St. Anne’s Episcopal Church and Ahavath Achim Synagogue.
The two-hour forum, which was held at Trinity Presbyterian Church on Howell Mill Road, was moderated by Dick Williams, host of the Fox TV Georgia Gang political talk show, and former WSB-TV political reporter Bill Nigut, who now is regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
While both forums covered a wide variety of city issues—budget problems, sustainability, outsourcing of services, strengthening neighborhood input into City Hall decisions, etc. — a central and recurring theme to both was the commitment of at least three of the candidates to increase the city’s police force to deal with the perception of increased crime in the city.
Earlier in the day Sept. 22, Atlanta Chief Financial Officer Jim Glass challenged the mayoral candidates claims that they would increase the city’s police force by pointing out, at a news conference with Mayor Shirley Franklin, that the city has no money to hire additional police and there is no room in city government to make enough cuts to produce the money for the hires. He also had stated that position in a Sept. 18 letter to members of City Council.
Borders also held a news conference earlier Sept. 22 to promote her plan to hire a firm to collect sales tax revenue for Atlanta, instead of relying on the state, which she said does not collect about 20 percent of that money.
“In Atlanta alone, a modest 10 percent increase in sales tax collection would equal $10 million, enough to add 50 new police officers,” said Borders.
Reed stood by earlier statements that he will hire 750 police officers in his first term. The former state senator says he can pay for some of those officers with a portion of the money from this year’s property tax increase, by collecting an estimated $20 million a year in fees he says the city does not collect and reducing overtime in non public safety departments.
Reed said he would look at spending in the Information Technology department, whose budget has more than doubled since 2004 from nearly $13 million to the current 12-month spending plan of about $27 million.
Norwood, who’s also talked about the IT department and wants to hire more police officers, did not specifically address the concerns in the Glass letter. She said in a statement she wants a performance review of each city department.
“Until we know how much money we really have and how much we really owe … it is unrealistic to think that the city can increase the public safety budget without first finding new revenue streams or making significant budget cuts,” Norwood said.
During the Sept. 22 forum, Spikes referenced the Glass letter to City Council. He has not offered specifics about how many officers he’d hire nor ideas for new revenue. But Spikes says he’ll focus on removing waste and getting more federal aid for Atlanta.
“It’s been what I’ve been saying all along [about the other candidates]. Promises, promises, promises. Show me the money,” Spikes said in support of the Glass letter.