By John Schaffner
Buckhead’s Dist. 7 City Councilman Howard Shook spent many grueling months and contentious meetings chairing the council’s finance committee as it wrangled with the administration of former Mayor Shirley Franklin and her annual budget proposals.
Buckhead’s new Dist. 8 City Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean, the new chair of the committee, is just beginning her first review of a city general fund budget.
It is a new regime — it’s the first year in office for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed — and it’s a new day in budget negotiations, as both Shook and Adrean see it.
“I don’t think it will be nasty,” Adrean said. “This administration has been very open with us. … I haven’t had them say ‘no’ to any request. For me, I have never been burned. We may differ on our goals, but I think we can have a constructive conversation.”
Shook agrees. “To the administration’s credit, they have been very open about what the main budget themes are going to be, for months,” Shook said. “Of course, there are a million details we have to look at.”
Council members received electronic transmissions of the 465-page budget on April 29, right on the deadline it was due from the mayor’s office.
“I refused to print out the budget,” Adrean said. “I read in the paper it takes two gallons of water to make one piece of paper.”
There was no executive summary in the book that was electronically transmitted to council members.
“We do have an analysis by department of how much we spent last year, with the increases and decreases that the mayor is interested in,” Adrean explained. “We at City Council call the (budget) gap– what we have and what the mayor wishes to have.”
“I know what the big picture items are,” Shook said. “I am pretty sure we are going to find other surprises in there, but we certainly are going to go through it department by department, as we always do.
The big picture items are: 100 new police officers, no property tax increase, raises for police, funding to reopen or significantly reopen city recreation centers, and pension plan reform.
“Do we sell or lease the jail? Do we sell City Hall East? That is $25 million right there,” Shook said. (Council has to approve any agreement to sell City Hall East.) The price for City Hall East now is at $12.5 million.
“Every day that building sits there, the city is taking a little more of a financial bath,” Shook said.
Regarding the jail, Shook said, “There are two things I keep pointing out to my colleagues — if your main interest is the welfare of the employees, the best thing we can do for them is work out a deal where they are offered employment and hired the next day. The administration has threatened, and I don’t think it is a bluff, that they will just shut the jail down. Then, not only are these people screwed, we will probably end up having to fire some other people.”
Savings from pension reform is important in Reed’s budget plans, too, Shook said.
“The money from pension reform, along with the sale of City Hall East and sale or lease of the city jail are three big pieces that go a long way to making a budget possible, without making the cuts that we have seen in the last three years,” he said.
Adrean also argues pension reform is critical to the city. “No matter what we do, it is going to draw legal challenges But, if we don’t do it, we will never be able to right-size this ship, never.”
Reed proposes that the proceeds from the sale of City Hall East be used for infrastructure, which would include replacing cars and trucks in the aging city fleet, Adrean said.
“We need to make fleet replacements in garbage trucks, police vehicles and fire trucks,” she said. “We will probably end up financing those through leases, rather than outright purchases.
“I have been going to neighborhood meetings and asking people what is important to them and what I am hearing resoundingly is infrastructure,” Adrean saod. “They are really beginning to notice the lack of investment in sidewalks and all those things. It is really beginning to bother people.
“The mayor’s budget shows a reduction in the public works budget, so I am anxious to have a conversation about what does that mean in terms of taking care of our infrastructure?”