By John Schaffner
Fee increases and layoffs are part of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s proposed $558 million fiscal 2011 general fund budget, which represents a $17 million increase over the current $541 million 2010 budget.
In keeping with a campaign promise to improve public safety, the budget proposal Mayor Reed sent to Atlanta City Council on April 30 would pay for 100 additional police officers and give city police a 3.5 percent raise.
“We cannot afford to make public safety anything less than a top priority,” Reed wrote in a letter to council members. “Government has no greater responsibility than to keep its citizens safe, and our residents and business owners have spoken loudly about their desire for a secure city.”
The 100 additional police officers and police pay increase would cost about $11 million.
Reed also recommends spending another $4 million to reopen Atlanta’s 32 recreation centers, an initiative aimed at reducing crime among young people by giving them something fun and healthy to do.
To pay for those proposals, Reed has built into the new budget $16 million from the anticipated sale of the city’s detention center and $13 million for the lease/sale of the City Hall East property. Both real estate deals require the approval of City Council.
During its May 3 meeting, the council approved a deal to lease and eventually sell the city’s jail to Fulton County as part of the mayor’s three-pronged effort to generate funds to bridge the 2011 budget gap between budget revenues and the added programs on Reed’s wish list.
That deal now has to be approved by the Fulton County board of commissioners. To date, only three commissioners have favored the plan. At least four votes are needed. The county’s incentive to make a deal is that its jail is overcrowded and the county has need for the additional 500 beds that would be made available.
The city also is negotiating an agreement to transfer the 2-million-square-foot former police City Hall East building on Ponce de Leon to the Atlanta Development Authority, which then would sell it to Jamestown Properties for an expected $12.5 million to $13 million.
Council members have expressed some doubt that both deals can be completed by the June 30 deadline for adopting the 2011 budget.
The third prong of the effort to fund the mayor’s budget is a proposed rollback of pension benefits for some current city workers as well as future employees.
Reed wants to save $8 million to $11 million during the current fiscal year by reducing pension benefits for newly hired Atlanta employees and workers with less than 10 years of service. He also wants to extend the period an employee needs to work to become vested in the pension from 10 years to 15 years.
The pension discussions have brought heated exchanges between the administration and the three unions which represent the police, firefighters and general city employees. The most vocal objections have come from the firefighters’ union.
The budget also asks the council to increase business and alcohol license fees by $7 million, Roosevelt Council Jr., the city’s interim chief financial officer, wrote in a separate letter to council members. For instance, the fee charged for employees when starting a business could increase to $25 from $15.
But other fees also would be affected. The cost of a ticket to events at the Civic Center may go up by $1.50. Property owners who don’t take care of housing code violations could pay $500 instead of the current $350. And annual recycling costs could rise to $88 from $35.
On the spending side, the fiscal 2011 budget would eliminate 34 full-time positions in city government and 73 sworn positions, dropping the total workforce from 4,004 to 3,897. The job cuts are part of overall reductions that would affect most departments.
Reed pledged he would not increase property taxes and his budget holds the line on the tax rate.
Both of Buckhead’s council representatives, Dist. 7 Councilman Howard Shook and Dist. 8 CouncilwomanYolanda Adrean, agree the main issues with the budget involve finding a way to reform the three city pension plans and finding money to pay for the additional 100 police officers and increase the pay for police, but not other city workers.
“Right now they predicting that revenues will be flat,”said Adrean, who as a first-term council member this year was named chair of the powerful Finance/Executive Committee. “We are going to come in right about $541 million for 2010 and they are predicting the same number for 2011. They are predicting that property taxes will be about flat..
“The mayor’s initiatives of adding 100 police officers, raising police salaries and opening the rec centers creates a gap of about $45 million,” she said. “The closers are selling the jail, reducing the pension costs for those who are not vested and selling City Hall East. Of course, there is no guarantee that these three items can be closed on before June 30, when the final budget needs to be approved.”
Shook said, “I have not heard any of my colleagues express enthusiasm (for increasing the numbers of the police force). As much as they would like to do it, I don’t know how you can give one unit of the organization a raise and just exacerbate a have-and-have-not situation.
“There definitely will be layoffs,” Shook stated. “I think it will follow the theme of the past couple of years to, relatively speaking, spare the public safety departments. So the others will take another round of beatings.”
Shook, former chairman of the finance committee, said, “There are some variables. How much money are we going to have carried over from the current year? That is looking good.”
Shook and Adrean said it looks like it is possible the city may end the year with $10 million left over.
“I am on record as saying I don’t think we should go on a spending spree. I think it needs to go to replenish our reserves and fund balance, which is what Wall Street clearly tells us we should be doing.”