City budget hearings start next week, which means it’s almost time for Atlanta residents like you to tell leaders how to spend your tax dollars during the next fiscal year, beginning on July 1.
Concerned residents will have opportunities to weigh in on the latest budget, which impacts government services for the nearly half a million people who call Atlanta home.
The budget is due to be finalized on June 30. Its creation and approval process is becoming even more critical for Black residents who say changes are happening in their neighborhoods without their advance knowledge.
The Atlanta City Council is tasked with approving the final budget. Council President Doug Shipman says city residents should care about the budget because it’s their tax money that’s being spent.
“It really can make a difference when it comes to what gets repaired in the neighborhood, what gets expanded in the neighborhood, what new things happen, and how those priorities translate into the budget,” Shipman recently told Capital B Atlanta.
Below is a breakdown of why the budget matters, the Atlanta City Council’s priorities, and how you can influence the process.
Why does the city budget matter?
The city budget is a financial plan that breaks down expected revenue and expenditures for government services over the course of the next fiscal year.
“[It’s] basically the way the city spends funds that it collects from citizens,” Shipman said.
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.
How big is the budget?
Last year’s general fund operating budget — which covers everything from public safety and parks and recreation to the salaries of staffers in the mayor’s office and City Council — increased to more than $754 million.
It contained added funding for Atlanta Police to hire more officers, pay increases for firefighters, and wage increases for frontline city workers such as corrections officers, 311 agents, and Department of Transportation employees.
This year’s budget is expected to come in just shy of $800 million, according to council member Alex Wan, chair of the council’s Finance/Executive Committee, which makes recommendations on budget matters.
“When you add in all of the other funds, we are almost at $3 billion of taxpayer and other revenue dollars that we have to be stewards of,” Wan said.
What are the budget priorities?
It depends on who you ask.
Mayor Andre Dickens has made youth engagement a central theme of his administration via the Year of the Youth initiative. The policy directive aims to help provide job and education opportunities for young people ages 14 to 24 in the city, while also addressing youth violence.
City Council members have said increased funding for affordable housing programs is at the top of their priority list, in addition to helping lower-income residents get training to land better career opportunities in the city’s growing tech and alternative energy sectors.
The council’s other budget priorities include pay increases for city workers who aren’t first responders, as well as ensuring there’s enough revenue to match expenses in the latest budget, and that spending more on city services won’t require a tax increase on residents who are already struggling with higher living expenses.
Council members have also prioritized funding programs that increase upward economic mobility for residents and create more recreational and vocational opportunities for city youth.
In addition, the council wants to increase funding for maintenance and capital improvements in parks and greenspaces, and plans to spend more on repairing potholes, sidewalks, and to resurface city streets.
Helping the Department of Customer Service and Policing Alternatives and Diversion Center provide 24-hour, on-call service for mental health crises that occur during non-business hours is also a priority.
Who decides how much funding city services will receive?
The mayor’s office — and all the departments that report to Dickens — are responsible for developing the initial city budget.
Wan says the budget approval process is “probably the biggest requirement and expectation of the council every year.” He says the finalized budget lets the public know what city government leaders’ real priorities are and what initiatives they plan to work on.
It’s also an opportunity to hear from all city stakeholders “to make sure that the actions we are taking are in line with their desires and their expectations,” Wan said.
City service department leaders will spend an estimated 45 days — from May 1 through June 15 — addressing council members during various committee meeting hearings on the budget, telling them how much money each department would like to have next fiscal year and what they plan to do with those funds.
“It’s very intense,” Wan said of the budget approval process. “We have hearings, we dive into the numbers, we dive into the service levels of each department, and then we assess and evaluate the mayor’s proposed budget. We have the opportunity to make changes to it.”
How can you weigh in?
Wan says the City Council will host at least two public comment hearings regarding the taxes in the latest budget: on June 6 and June 14.
The public can also address budget-related concerns during regular council subcommittee hearings, he said. People who take issue with police appropriations, for example, can make their voices heard during the city’s Public Safety Committee hearings between now and mid-June.
“There’s public comment incorporated into all of our public committee, standing committee, and full council meetings,” he said.
The public isn’t allowed to speak during most department budget hearings, according to Wan, but finance committee budget hearings are open to the public for residents to attend in person or watch online. The hearing schedule is posted on the committee’s website. A budget overview hearings schedule is available on the public notices section of the council’s website.
“Folks can come in and sit in the audience and listen, and then essentially respond to what they hear,” he said.
After watching or listening to these hearings, Wan said citizens can share their thoughts with City Council members via email, phone or during the public comment portion of full council meetings, which typically take place at 1 p.m. on Mondays twice a month.
Where can you read the city budget?
The mayor’s office is due to release its latest proposed budget on May 1. Afterward, a summary will be displayed on the city of Atlanta’s website. In the meantime, you can review last year’s budget here.
Capital B is publishing this story as part of ATL Budget, a civic engagement project done in partnership with Atlanta Civic Circle, 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.