It’s that time of year again!
One of the most critical endeavors local government leaders engage in — finalizing the annual city budget — is about to begin. If you live inside the perimeter, it’s a process that can have a major impact on your quality of life.
Atlanta’s fiscal year 2023 city budget is due to be finalized by June 30. The next two months are crunch time for the mayor’s office, City Council members, service leaders, and residents who want to weigh in on how their tax dollars are spent on hot-button issues such as policing, trash collection, and economic development in underserved communities.
“Is every corner of the city receiving the same investment in amenities and services? Because right now it doesn’t feel like it is,” said District 6 council member Alex Wan, chair of the highly influential finance committee that oversees the budget creation process for several departments.
“I think that’s a fair question to raise and push us on,” Wan added.
Capital B Atlanta asked City Council leaders to help us explain what the budget means, how it works, and how you can help ensure your community has a voice in the process.
Here’s a breakdown.
How big is the budget?
The current fiscal year budget, which was adopted last summer, includes about $2 billion in annual spending.
That funding pays for public safety services such as policing and firefighting, as well as the paychecks for thousands of people who work for city government in departments like parks, public transit, and waste management.
A summary of the current city budget is displayed on the city of Atlanta’s website.
What’s about to happen?
Mayor Andre Dickens’ office is scheduled to submit its proposed budget draft on Monday, May 2, after consulting with city service leaders about their fiscal priorities throughout March and April.
“They talk to all the departments who say, ‘This is what I want to do next year. This is how much it’s going to cost,’” Wan said. “They compare it against what the projected revenues are going to be from different sources. They will present it to City Council beginning next week.”
Council members are tasked with evaluating the proposed budget and determining whether to increase, decrease, or maintain current funding levels based on the recommendations of city service leaders. The service leaders will explain their budget recommendations at subcommittee hearings throughout May and early June, when public comment sessions also are held.
“It’s the administration’s responsibility to draft a budget,” District 7 council member Howard Shook said Wednesday. “They then are required to transmit it to the legislative branch, which is the Atlanta City Council. It’s the most important thing that the finance committee does every year, analyze the budget.”
City Council must pass a resolution to adopt the budget before sending it to the mayor to be signed into law prior to the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.
Why should Black residents care about the city budget?
The budget creation process affects everyone, but it’s more important for historically underserved neighborhoods where a disproportionate number of Black residents live and government funding is often more critical, according to City Council President Doug Shipman.
“Fundamentally a budget outlines your priorities and your activities, and to a certain extent it outlines your values from a public policy perspective,” he said. “It really showcases what are the commitments that, in essence, are being made to the residents of Atlanta.”
What are some of the key issues being debated this year?
One of the more contentious issues in recent years has been how much funding goes to overall public safety, which includes policing. Wan said public safety is the most expensive part of the city budget.
Shook said the needle has moved significantly on the issue of policing over the last two years, as the “defund the police” sentiment that erupted in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the killing of Rayshard Brooks has given way to concerns about rising crime.
“We now seem to be hearing a much more focused chorus of voices saying, ‘We’re drowning in crime. What’s it going to take to make us feel safer?’ as opposed to topics two or three years ago about, ‘We have to rethink how we do policing,’” he said.
Atlanta taxpayers spent roughly $244 million on public safety in fiscal year 2020, $260 million in fiscal year 2021, and $277 million in fiscal year 2022, according to Wan, who expects the police department to request more funding this year as well.
“[The mayor is] thinking about investing in other initiatives there,” Wan said. “If there’s anything more than just [police salary] raises, they have to come before us and explain.”
Those initiatives include adding more officers to the city’s ranks and managing the mayor’s new nightlife division, which trains nightclub and bar owners and their staff on ways to de-escalate conflicts and prevent violent encounters.
Dickens also has announced plans to increase police surveillance via the city’s Connect Atlanta network and add more streetlights with his “Light up the Night” campaign.
Employee pay raises
Part of the cost increase in policing comes from pandemic hazard pay frontline city employees, including police and firefighters, have received over the last two years, Wan said.
Employee salaries are the city’s second-largest budget expenditure.
In March 2020, then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued an administrative order for frontline city employees to receive an additional $500 a month in their paychecks due to the pandemic.
Last October, City Council voted to continue with that hazard pay through June 30, 2022.
One of the key issues the council must decide on in the coming weeks is whether to make those employee raises permanent. Shook said the Atlanta Police Department has been at a “competitive disadvantage” when it comes to officer retention compared with other departments in the metro area.
With crime on the rise this year, the issue has become even more critical heading into summer, when cities nationwide typically see a spike in numbers.
“We’re hiring a lot of police, but they continue to leave for greener pastures,” Shook said. “If you’re an outlying jurisdiction, you don’t have to meet or exceed what Atlanta pays for its officers. Your work is going to be, in general, more appreciated and the statistical odds are going to be in your favor of finishing out your career in full health.”
Other key issues
Other contentious budget concerns being debated this year include frontage fees — charged to multifamily or commercial buildings for street cleaning, trash pickup, and other services — and whether to change the city’s millage rate.
The millage rate is used to calculate local property taxes collected to fund city services. Housing prices have been surging in Atlanta’s red-hot real estate market, which means the taxes for homeowners and their overall cost of housing are rising as well.
How can you weigh in on the budget process?
City residents are allowed to attend finance committee budget hearings. Council leaders say their constituents greatly influence their decision-making.
“There’s an opportunity during that time frame to make amendments, to add things, to take things out,” Shipman said. “There’s also an opportunity for the administration to change their draft.”
A schedule for those hearings is displayed on the committee’s website. There are also public sessions on the budget that residents can watch online or attend in person if they want to voice their concerns.
A schedule for budget overview hearings is available on the public notices section of the council’s website.
They can also share their thoughts with their district’s council member by calling their office.
“I know a lot of people are unhappy about city services,” Shook said. “This is your chance to be heard.”
Capital B is publishing this story as part of ATL Budget, a civic engagement project done in partnership with Atlanta Civic Circle, Axios Atlanta, Canopy Atlanta, and the Center for Civic Innovation, to help you understand where your tax dollars will go — and how you can have a say about it. To keep up, follow #ATLBudget on Twitter and Instagram, and sign up for our newsletter here.