By Guest Columnist JOHN AHMANN, executive director of the Atlanta Committee for Progress and owner of a public policy communications firm.
With the transition of the City of Atlanta’s Mayor and City Council just around the corner, what can we expect to find as our newly elected leaders turn their focus from running for office to running the City?
These new leaders will walk in the door armed with not only accurate information about the City’s cash flows and projected revenues and expenses for the coming fiscal year, but for the first time, financial projections for the next five years. Catching up with technology investments the private sector made years ago, the City recently completed the launch of an enterprise resource planning system. Akin to the quantum leap from snail mail to email, this represents a fundamental change in the City’s financial processes.
The City’s budget is not in crisis. Thanks to the 30 percent reduction in employee headcount over the past eight years, the substantial cuts in city government during the past two years, and the budget adopted by City Council for this year, the next Mayor will not inherit a gap between the City’s expenses and revenues. In fact, the budget adopted for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2010 includes a projected $27 million reserve.
Crime is down 13 percent so far this year. If the current trend continues, Atlanta will have fewer homicides this year than any year since 1961. Atlanta is likely to drop out of the 20 highest crime cities this year (it was in the top five eight years ago). The new Mayor and City Council need to apply new thinking and resources to keep reducing Atlanta’s crime rate. They will have the benefit of a new state-of-the-art police operating headquarters, a new 911 center and tools to track and respond to crime trends on a week-to-week, neighborhood-by-neighborhood level. The creation of the Atlanta Police Foundation offers the next Mayor and police chief a ready-made partner with the private and philanthropic sectors.
The new Mayor will find that nearly every major operating department has been re-engineered, and the City’s fundamental business processes of human resources, procurement, information technology and – most importantly – finances have been reorganized.
At the beginning of 2009, Deloitte Consulting conducted an operational audit of the City’s finance department. Most of the resulting recommendations to transform the finance department will be implemented by the end of 2009. The next Mayor and City Council should continue to implement Deloitte’s recommendations.
The next Mayor will inherit a City with a model ethics ordinance, an ethics office to enforce it, and no recent significant ethical violations. The next Mayor and City Council need to maintain current ethical standards and will need to continue to explore opportunities for continued improvement.
These new opportunities are well documented in reports prepared by the outgoing executive director of the ethics office and by the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, commissioned by the Atlanta Committee for Progress (ACP).
The next Mayor and City Council will inherit a City poised for economic development. They will have at their disposal new tools to attract business investment including eight new tax allocation departments and an Atlanta Development Authority retooled to recruit new business and support the expansion of existing business.
The Atlanta BeltLine has moved from vision to execution in the last eight years and has no national peer in its combination of trails, transit, housing, greenspace and mixed-used development. The BeltLine is opening up huge swaths of underutilized property for residential and commercial uses.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is now home to the nation’s largest airline, offering international linkages that no southeastern city can duplicate, and the City continues to invest capital that will keep it integrated in the global economy.
The City is building a water-sewer system that will support population and economic growth for decades. Reversing a 25-year trend, the City added 120,000 residents since 2000 and is the second fastest growing major city in the country.
To help find jobs for Atlanta citizens, the next Mayor and City Council can leverage a reorganized Atlanta Workforce and Development Agency (AWDA). AWDA links Atlanta citizens with our broad and diverse set of employers. Combining federal and state funds, AWDA has placed thousands of youth in summer jobs. It has served thousands upon thousands of job seeking adults through job fairs, job placement services and job training.
The new Mayor and City Council will need, for the sake of the City’s long-term financial health, to address the pension and medical benefits promised by Atlanta’s retirement program. It will take years for current property and sale tax revenues to recover sufficiently to cover employee pay raises, re-open the City’s recreation centers, and to restore the significant cuts to the City’s public works department.
In the nearer term, these new leaders must continue to aggressively control costs. But opportunities to cut waste and to redirect revenue are extremely limited.
Significantly expanding City services, such as increasing the number of police officers, investing in City infrastructure (roads, bridges, sidewalks) at appropriate levels or significantly increasing greenspace will require new sources of revenue. Identifying these new revenue sources for the City will be an extremely heavy lift, requiring the full engagement and alignment of Atlanta’s political, business and civic leadership.
The City’s next elected leadership team will have the advantage of engaging business and civic leadership that a new administration did not have eight years ago — the Atlanta Committee for Progress.
Currently chaired by SunTrust Chairman and CEO James Wells, III and populated by member business leaders including Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola Co.; Phil Kent, CEO of Turner Broadcasting; and Sylvia Anderson Russell, president of AT&T Georgia, the ACP looks forward to partnering with the new Mayor and City Council on tackling the city’s challenges and capitalizing on its opportunities.
The most significant of those challenges for the new Mayor and City Council will not be balancing the budget or having to address the City’s business operations and delivery of services.
Rather, it will be how to fully exploit new opportunities opened up by all the improvements and strides Atlanta has made the last eight years.