Tragedy & Setting Money Aflame in Atlanta

This week’s tragedy in Atlanta was horrible, yet not uncommon, sadly. I was actually pretty surprised about an active shooter situation making the news so quickly. I’m not trying to play down the severity, it’s just that there were three people shot in Edgewood rather recently, and I didn’t see as much coverage. In fact, the requirement to shelter in place caused me to personally reflect upon the fact that I’ve had to shelter in place in two public buildings in my 41 years-both in Atlanta. The first was during Brian Nichols’ court proceedings and I was locked down in Capitol in the Hawk’s Nest (when the Georgia House had Hawks, under the Richardson Speakership). The second was Wednesday, while I was watching budget proposals at Atlanta City Hall. In case anyone thinks this is an Atlanta-only problem, you may have missed the coverage regarding the shooting of three poor souls in Moultrie. Also not a Georgia-specific challenge, my husband reminded me that these were in addition to being outside while an active shooter situation played out across the street from us off the mainland U.S. We were having coffee on the street when we were in Hawaii last December (him for work, me for pleasure). We were swarmed by police cars that we later realized was an active shooter/hostage situation that ended in suicide by cop. I’ll leave others to debate the question of the proliferation of guns, the NRA’s influence on the Georgia legislature, etc. and stick to why I was sitting there in City Hall in the first place- the Atlanta City budget discussions. It is my opinion Atlanta is setting money on fire in the name of public safety and its citizens are getting nothing but ashes in return.

First, let me say budget proposals have only begun. Wednesday was the first day, and it was full of unions. Thursday were departments’ proposals. You can watch all proposals online here. The full details of the budget proposals (and the necessary fluff) can be found here. I would encourage Atlantans to read, review, and contact their Councilmembers regarding your thoughts. I was disappointed, yet not terribly surprised that there is no public comment section throughout the proposals, but I mean, I think I’ve written pretty extensively about how much Atlanta either doesn’t have a process at all here, or the process we have is more of a shell game than any actual empowerment of citizens. 

The most amusing portion for me so far (aside from Councilmember Bakhtiari’s quips) was the hot mic moment caught on Zoom in the opening proposal from the CFO. It starts at 4:51. I missed seeing this proposal in person because I missed the #3 bus and walked to the Ashby MARTA station, making me late for the opening session. Nothing sensational caught here, just a reminder that we should all be aware of the mute function on our Zoom meetings.

Here’s a lovely graphic from the Center for Civic Innovation, so none of us have to think hard about numbers. We focus on politics here, not math, amirite or amirite?

Some overall takeaways from the CFO’s presentation were:

  • ADOT budget cut- no one on Council likes that. Hillis references that our PCI scores are 50 and below. If you aren’t happy with Atlanta’s roads now, imagine how great they’ll be when the ADOT budget is cut?!
  • Mary Norwood and Byron Amos ask about sanitation fees-basically why aren’t we getting more when we’re charging more? Norwood brought some history regarding ADOT, millage rates, and sanitation fees starting at (1:18:11). That was informative & spicy.
  • Bakhtiari asks about Dekalb Ave paving-this is sort of an ongoing joke in the City of Atlanta because of the literal YEARS this has been on the docket of fixing.
  • Hllis made a notable comment that it seems odd that we have a “pothole posse” that is really only made up of four people. Not really his idea of a “posse”. 
  • Overstreet asked about whether are we shouldering the budget for the county or state. Not exactly her own words, but a paraphrase of her question, which I appreciated. It’s an assertion I’ve made in my own writing. If you’d like to see a pretty map of overlapping jurisdictions of policing, @mappingATL‘s got you, fam. I also appreciated this screenshot of neighboring budget comparisons tweeted to me by @LathburyJason. Saved me time searching through the 638 pages, which was much appreciated!
  • A personal frustration of mine (and seemingly some councilmembers: our tax base percentage by land use (29:29) identifies Commercial makes up only 42% versus residential, which makes up 52% of our tax base. Why, with all of the C-Suite companies we have in Atlanta, are we forcing our citizens to pay the bulk of the property taxes? Dozier, Norwood, & Shipman all asked in some form about this. Shipman also asked about whether the housing bond ($100M is the City’s portion, the other half is coming from the Community Foundation), its revenues, or debt servicing was included in this budget- nope. As an aside, I find this somewhat amusing that it’s being led by Frank Fernandez, who I remember a few years back not being worried about gentrification on the Westside when he was working for Arthur Blank and I met with him alongside the Junior League of Atlanta, Inc. Presidents-current and future. I guess the old money is finally worried about the working folks who have to drive into the city to protect, teach, and serve them. So glad Frank came around!
  • Impact fees: (45:27) North parks are $6.2M restricted/$1.2M unrestricted, South Parks are $263K restricted/$4.4M, and Parks West are $1.2M unrestricted. There was no representation of impact fees for parks in the East. The slide visual is more helpful than my words, but basically, the difference between parks in the north and south is about $1M, vs the difference between the North and West, is $5M. Not to put too fine of a point on things, but if there was ever a question of where the City of Atlanta directs its development, you can see it in bright and bold colors on the slide. Spoiler alert: it isn’t any significant portion of the city other than the north. This was as of March 2023.
  • Affordable Housing is embedded in the Non-departmental budget (1:25:25), which is growing 13% over last year. The embedded amount is a little over $8M.
  • The executive office budget is up again 16%. Gotta love those political favor jobs!

While I actually sat through all of the presentations that day (the rest were unions), to keep the post short, I’m just going to focus on this overview. A budget is really a set of priorities. I was curious after much discussion over the past year about affordable housing and safety, which would win out in the budget. So effectively, aside from the bond issue partnership with the Community Foundation, the City of Atlanta is going to cough up $8M for affordable housing– an agreed-upon priority for both the Governor and Mayor. It seems striking though that the budget reflects more prioritization of police funding ($12M, p 59/638) than affordable housing. 

Ironically, one of the things our first responders AND those most vulnerable need is not the one prioritized in the budget. What a missed opportunity!

And for everyone else- the ADOT cuts. Just Why??

While there might be tremendous disagreement on the role of government in a variety of programs and entitlements, I feel like most would agree (save New Hampshire, maybe) that paving and maintaining roads are reasonable expectations of the government. Plus, with as much traffic as we have in the capital city, it seems rather egregious to not fund this area of the budget. The CFO, COO, and team all made ovations to assure the Councilmembers that tasks already on the docket would be covered, but that didn’t seem to deter any of them from their disdain for this cut.

What was noticeably left out of any overt part of the budget discussion was the further funding needed from Council regarding Cop City. Here’s the Atlanta Press Collective’s coverage, including emails referencing the CFO and others in the upcoming need for legislation from Council. That’s $35.5M MORE funding that the City of Atlanta is going to have to cough up.

I can’t help but point out that in the recent active shooter situation, in one of the most surveilled city in America, our police department missed the opportunity to nab this guy and instead he was apprehended by the next County over (who pays less in county taxes, btw).  

Now let me say- if I were a Black man running from the law, I can’t say I would have chosen Snob County to run to, but hey- I’m glad he did, and I’m grateful he was apprehended without further loss of life! I find it striking though that GDOT cameras- not APD’s tipped off Cobb on the shooter’s whereabouts. Yesterday, Fox 5 was reporting that tip as part of their timeline. It appears they have removed it today, but not before I pointed this inconsistency out to Mayor Dicken’s Senior Policy Advisor, Courtney English. 

I appreciated Courtney’s honesty about root causes and the need to address them in our subsequent tweets. I think this is my biggest challenge with this budget and the admin from which it came. Mayor Dickens talks a good game, but it sounds like the Councilmembers (to say nothing of citizens) have been around long enough to be able to discern good intentions with no actual follow-through when we see it.

I also would posit this is why I’m no longer interested in seeing Atlanta set money aflame on the altar of policing to have no meaningful return on investment. The reality, it seems the Mayor, his Senior Policy Advisor, and I all know is that giving the APD more money doesn’t actually equate to more safety in our society as much as we all wish it did. If we’re not addressing the root causes of what drives people to break, we can’t lie to ourselves and say we’re doing anything more than setting money afire. 

While those in Buckhead may be rich enough to throw money away, I can honestly say I am not and never have been. 

What I do know of Atlanta though, is that her symbol of the phoenix is the mythological entity that does, in fact, rise from ashes. Atlanta has the ability to do that now if we set our priorities to match our needs. If we want more public safety, we clearly haven’t found it with more cameras or a new mock city, no matter what the APF tells us. So maybe we try to wrestle with those root causes more? See if that method works.

We clearly have the money. The question is, what are we going to do with it, and what does that have to say about our priorities?

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