By Atlanta City Councilman
I have been asked by the editor of this publication to provide a brief overview of what I see as the major challenges awaiting Atlanta City Council as we receive, debate, and adopt a new budget. Two of the largest challenges—Atlanta’s pension programs and aging infrastructure—are outlined in a separate piece by your fellow Buckhead representative Yolanda Adrean.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of other major issues.
How will city operations be funded? Seventy-five percent of Atlanta’s General Fund revenue is generated by economic activity. The cruel hand of the Great Recession has closed this flow to a trickle, while the costs of healthcare, utilities, capital, and many other basic needs continue to rise. Property taxes, generally considered a very stable revenue source, have also been negatively impacted. Virtually no relief was provided by Washington’s bail-out billions.
As is the case with most capital cities, Atlanta’s relationship with its suburban/rural-dominant state government leaves much to be desired, and is a main reason why we receive 1/15th of the average general fund support received from the host states of other major cities. Until this relationship improves, our access to a fair return on what we contribute to Georgia’s economy will be forever withheld.
How can the city attract and retain capable and committed employees? Employee salaries have not come close to keeping up with inflation over the last decade. When the national economy begins to recover, the city will lose many of its most competent people. Expert management can help alleviate some of the problems, but ‘expert management’ and ‘City Hall’ are terms rarely heard in the same sentence.
The city finance department must establish a continuity of effectiveness. When this year ends—my sixth on the Finance Committee—Atlanta will have its eighth chief financial officer. Perhaps the down economy will provide us with the committed executive we’ve been looking for.
Will the administration and council have the discipline to rebuild our depleted reserve funds? For years, Atlanta’s reserves have been relied upon to resolve a plethora of problems rather than strengthen our strategic financial position.
Atlanta’s emergency 911, Underground Atlanta, sanitation, and capital finance funds chronically run in the red (total accumulated deficit: $142 million), requiring annual bail-outs of precious general fund dollars.
Come 2013, Atlanta must assume the costs (approx. $3.2 million) of maintaining the 50 new federally funded police positions. Keeping them later means preparing to pay for them now.
Atlanta will save millions on our court-ordered capital projects if the water/sewer funds are properly managed. If not? The ratings are currently one level above junk bond status.
These and other challenges require a no-margin-for-error spending plan that will be fashioned and managed by a brand new mayor and executive administration.
Howard Shook represents District 7 on Atlanta City Council. He is the former chairman of the council’s finance committee and now a member of the committee.