When Mayor Andre Dickens released his record-breaking $790 million proposed Atlanta general fund budget earlier this month, the public was privy to details such as how much money could be appropriated for major departments like police, fire, and parks and recreation. However, the current proposed budget info doesn’t include specific funding request details for certain offices that fall under the mayor’s purview.
According to Kyle Kessler, senior policy and research director with the Center for Civic Innovation, a nonprofit aimed at combating inequity in the city, previous budgets included granular detail that used to be visible to the public. For instance, the 2009 police services budget separated out the costs for uniformed patrol and criminal investigations from training and community services. None of these details are visible in the proposed 2024 budget.
Since 2011, Kessler said, information such as proposed salary info and details about office divisions — how much goes to cultural affairs and certain policing units — has disappeared. For a budget funded by taxpayer dollars, these omissions leave more questions than answers for residents. City government leaders do provide additional information on how they plan to use taxpayers’ money during budget hearings, but many Atlanta residents don’t have time to attend or watch those meetings online.
Atlanta City Council members who spoke with Capital B Atlanta said they aren’t sure why the budget book process changed.
“The only thing I can imagine is that it would just make it easier for the administration to move money within the department,” said Post 1 At-Large council member Michael Julian Bond, whose first term on City Council began in 1994.
Some questions around specifics, Dickens’ office points out, can be answered on the city’s Open Checkbook web tool, which provides details on expenditures made by each city government office.
But Open Checkbook doesn’t tell the whole story, according to Kessler.
“Salaries are explicitly excluded from the Checkbook,” he said. “It’s difficult to understand how we are allocating people-money based upon the Checkbook.”
Previous mayors, including Shirley Franklin, used to more clearly spell out the details in their budget books. Those details included how much money was needed to address specific programs, equipment, and operating costs within departments, not just overall, Kessler explained.
Former Atlanta Mayors Keisha Lance Bottoms and Kasim Reed also used the more-streamlined budget book practice, according to Dickens’ office and some council members.
“At a time when we’re trying to figure out what kind of policing is appropriate, what we want in our community, it is imperative that we understand at a more granular level where the police department is planning to spend the money we’re giving them,” Kessler said.
Atlanta’s city charter only requires setting the budget at the departmental level for major municipal government categories, according to Dickens’ office. Letting departments make budget amendments at the office level during the year made it more difficult to analyze historical trends, the office said.
Kessler said past mayors provided greater detail in their budget books, even if the city charter didn’t explicitly require them to.
“It seems odd that we could do something back in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, into the 2000s that we can’t do today,” he said. “Other cities do it. I don’t understand the rationale that we can’t do it.”
Post 3 At-Large council member Keisha Sean Waites said the decision of how much info and when to include it comes down to the administration.
“Frankly, it’s the mayor’s prerogative, right? I’m not saying I’m happy about it, but I think it’s important to be clear that if that’s what he wants to do, he has the authority to do it until we change the charter,” she said.
Dickens’ administration includes departmental overviews with metrics in its budget books to provide better insight into each department’s performance and how the budget is helping them achieve their objectives.
“By providing these metrics, the city aimed to enhance accountability and enable citizens to understand how the allocated budgets were being utilized to achieve specific goals,” the mayor’s office said.
Waites said the back and forth between Dickens administration and the departments gets tedious.
“Do I think that there should be a greater level of transparency? I mean, that’s a given,” she said. “Of course, we want to know how the money is being spent. But I also think it’s important, and I want to be fair to the administration, he shouldn’t have to come back to the council every time he wants to redirect funding.”
Bond suggested that not including office and program-level funding details in the budget book goes against the idea of transparency.
“It certainly doesn’t help it,” he said. “You always want to err on the side of providing more information to the public than less on any subject.”
A previous version of this story suggested that details about pensions and supplies are not visible in the proposed 2024 budget, but department-level information about those line items are available.
ATL Budget is a civic engagement project in partnership with Atlanta Civic Circle, Canopy Atlanta, Capital B 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.