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Atlanta’s City Planning Leaders Are Struggling to Hire People. They’re Not Alone.

Lack of competitive pay has been an ongoing problem for city government officials looking to fill vacancies in their departments.

Members of Atlanta’s City Planning Department participate in an Atlanta City Council budget briefing on June 7, 2023.


Could change be in store for Atlanta’s Neighborhood Planning Unit system?  At a recent budget hearing for Atlanta’s Department of City Planning, leaders discussed the program aimed at giving residents a voice in how policy decisions affect their communities.

Leaders of the department — responsible for long-term planning of how the city will look and where different types of buildings will be located, aka zoning — also discussed their staffing challenges.

Here’s what you need to know about what we overheard at the meeting.

NPU overhaul?

Atlanta’s NPU program will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. The city’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, created the program in 1974 to give residents a voice in Atlanta’s development process. In recent years, however, folks have complained that ​NPU meetings are disorganized and unfair.

Black participation in the NPU process increased notably during the pandemic when NPU leaders started hosting meetings online via Zoom. Planning Commissioner Jahnee Prince, who began leading the department in September, said the office recently adopted a list of NPU best practices after doing months of research into which parts of the program work and which don’t.

“We’ve really strengthened our support and assistance to the NPUs and we’ve expanded our digital map collection at no cost,” Prince said.

But District 11 City Council member Marci Collier Overstreet says the NPU system needs an overhaul.

“I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get started on re-imagining our NPU system,” she said during the hearing. “I would like to enter the second half of the century of the NPU with a total new outlook on how we use it and how it is constructed.”

Part of that new look, Overstreet said, would involve hiring more personnel to work with the NPUs.

“I think we need to dedicate a couple [more] people to it, more than what we have now and just restructuring and be excited about that,” she said. “It’s going to be bold and different if we’re lucky and brave enough to do it. I think that in the long run it will do us well if we do that.”

Staffing issues

Speaking of staffing, city planning leaders want a roughly $630,000 year-over-year increase to their current $23 million overall budget. More than half of that increase ($375,000) would go to hiring personnel.The department is poised to add four new people to its payroll, taking its headcount from roughly 294 positions to about 298.

The department’s average retention rate is 65%. The bulk of the department’s staffers (206 people) work in its Office of Buildings, which is responsible for issuing permits for construction, tree removal, sign placement, and technical work, in addition to building inspections and code enforcement.

One of the primary causes of the department’s retention problem has been non-competitive salaries, Prince noted. Earlier this year, the Department of Human Resources determined the City Planning’s salaries were 25% to 30% lower than the current market rate. Prince said other local governments and major corporations offer more competitive compensation.

“We do lose a lot of staff to the private sector, but we only raise those salaries to be competitive with the public sector,” Prince said.

Lack of competitive pay has been an ongoing problem for city government officials looking to fill vacancies in their departments. Council members say other city government department leaders have complained about staffing problems during this year’s budget season.

Commissioner of Human Resources Tarlesha Smith said her team has discussed doing a nationwide HBCU tour to fill vacant positions, particularly in public safety, which includes policing.

She says landing competitive candidates in a post pandemic job market is more challenging than it was in the past.  “Some of the pushback from candidates has been, ‘I don’t want to work in a building 40 hours a week,’” Smith told the council during her department’s May 17 budget briefing.

Local union leaders have complained that many of their members can’t afford to live in the city in which they work because their salaries don’t keep up with rising rents and Atlanta’s extremely high overall inflation rate.

What’s next?

The City Council will meet to approve the budget on June 20. The general public can weigh in on City Planning or any other budget concerns during City Council’s finance committee meeting inside City Hall at 1:30 p.m. on June 14.  They also can contact their local City Council representative.