Budget season in Atlanta is nearing the home stretch. Before the City Council and Mayor Andre Dickens approve and sign off on the record-setting $790 million general fund tab, we had one question: What would local teens do with that money? After all, Dickens dubbed 2023 the “Year of the Youth,” launching an initiative in January aimed at creating opportunities and a safer city for young people.
So, along with our #ATLBudget partners — Center for Civic Innovation, Atlanta Civic Circle, and Canopy Atlanta — we invited 27 high school-age teens to discuss how they would prioritize spending your tax dollars. With a big assist from local education and youth advocacy programs — Hey!, Close Ties, Next Gen, VOX ATL, SAVE Institute, Gangstas To Growers, Raising Expectations, and Restore More — we met at the CCI headquarters for our 2023 Youth Civic Summit: Atlanta Budget.
We requested that each student create their own $790 million budget. Once finished, the teens got into breakout groups, fashioned after the Atlanta City Council, debated their priorities, explained their reasons, and came up with one budget representing everyone.
The teens heard from Dickens’ chief of staff, Odie Donald II, who encouraged them to think outside the box in their approach to coming up with their budget priorities for allocating funds to 10 departments: planning, corrections, executive offices, fire, information management, judicial operations, parks and recreation, police, public works, and transportation.
Donald also stated that the city’s goal in this proposed budget is to use tax dollars in ways that positively affect residents on a daily basis.
“We want to utilize our dollars to create things citizens are asking for,” Donald said. “Whether that’s bringing new grocery stores or a new senior center, the budget is the city and the mayor’s interest in ensuring that happens.”
What were the top budget priorities for the next generation of potential Atlanta voters and taxpayers? Here’s what we learned.
Transportation, smooth roads, and clean streets
Along with many Atlanta residents, this group of teens is over Atlanta’s pothole issues. By giving the new city-operated Department of Transportation $111 million, the teens hope that will help address infrastructure issues appropriately.
“Something I think should be fixed is the holes in the streets and the holes in the sidewalk,” Emonee Joni wrote.
A clean community was a top priority for the youth group when it allocated $59 million toward keeping streets and neighborhoods free of trash.
Serigne Marone also wrote that the money should be used to pay employees more for keeping Atlanta’s streets clean.
City planning with community needs in mind
The youth granted the city’s Parks and Recreation Department $114 million. QuaKniyah Hoseh wrote that she would pay for more pools at local parks.
Hoseh also noted that if she were making budget decisions, $104.3 million would go toward city planning to bring grocery stores and better houses to her neighborhood.
Rethinking public safety spending
The teens hope that with $63 million, the Atlanta Police Department will be able to provide mandatory mental health and de-escalation training for its officers.
The group allocated $58.4 million to the city’s court system. Marone wrote that he hoped the money goes toward accommodating more mental health cases.
Our teens said they would allocate $44.2 million toward opening new facilities at the Fulton County Jail, which they said would be a start toward providing a safer environment for inmates.
“They need to give them better cells, food, and better corrections officers,” Maudistine Reeves wrote.
Providing more support to Atlanta’s fire department was a top priority for the teens, who said that, as the first line of defense in many emergencies, firefighters need $76.5 million to serve nearly 500,000 residents citywide properly.
Reeves also wrote that she would utilize the money to purchase more fire trucks and EMS vehicles for the department.
The rest of the $$$
Another $180.9 million would go to the city’s executive offices, according to the mock City Council member Hakeem Marone — Serigne’s brother — who wrote that he would like to see departments invest in more uplifting programs for Black youth.
And, being the tech-savvy generation that they are, the teens feel like doling out $68.5 million to protect the city against cyberattacks is needed.