By Joseph Mayson
In the Mayor’s Column in the current “Sandy Springs Times” (download at www.sandyspringsga.org ), Dr. Galambos states she and our council have been “soul searching” to decide what to include in our city budget. Her agonizing dichotomies include “resurfacing roads or developing parkland,” “picking up litter or doing an aerial survey of our tree canopy,” and “a city hall complex or lessening traffic congestion.”
While soul-searching might be useful when deciding on which charities to give to, I respectfully submit it creates chaos when used to make line-item budget decisions. Although the mayor’s lament is understandable as a request for sympathy, nevertheless it pits unrelated needs against each other, creating politically useful but unnecessary dilemmas.
I suspect, however, that this fledgling budget “process” has more likely resulted from allowing it to evolve from the bottom up. (After all, the campaign did offer the vision of having “$24 million more than we need.”) But hey, we are still a new city and will never have a better opportunity to design a budget process that clearly reflects our community’s overall mission from the top down, while minimizing the politics of pitting one interest against another.
How? Our budget has to be “balanced” twice: first in terms of our city’s mission, and second in terms of our available tax dollars. First our elected officials hammer out a “pie chart” covering all the generalized and abstract priorities covered in the city’s mission statement. These categories are not about individual interests competing for finite dollars, but reflect a deliberate strategy to achieve our city’s mission over the coming years. The relative sizes of the “wedges” our City Council agrees upon then reveal to the taxpayer at a glance how much import this administration currently places on each component of our overall mission.
The current budget, for example, clearly reflects how much our officials value more and better police and fire services. Other large wedges reflect how much of the “deferred maintenance” (aka 35-years of infrastructure neglect) our city feels it must shoulder responsibility for right away. (Wait until you see the estimated cost for restoring our stormwater system!) One would, however, expect even the thinnest components all to include significant goals like “study,” or “planning,” or “survey” to show their deliberate position in the overall plan. This first balancing of the budget must be based on leadership, overview, and structure—absolutely not on cherry picking.
The “second” or fiscal budget then allocates tax dollars proportionate to the community values “balanced” in the first. This time our hired professionals hammer out down to the line item the most effective use of revenues allotted to each component of the mission-based budget.
Instead of open-ended wish lists which lead to arbitrary conflicts (paving versus parks?), the “first budget” sets limits on what proportion of our resources we are going to commit this year to achieving each part of our mission. Truth be told, we could spend every single penny of our revenues on traffic improvement only to discover the net effect to be nominal and temporary at best. The question for the council’s “first budget” is what is the relative value of investing X% of our revenues on traffic improvements as weighed against the other components of our overall mission? The question for traffic professionals then becomes what specific kinds of traffic improvements will actually make a positive difference in how well we taxpayers move about in Sandy Springs? Is resurfacing our roads a cosmetic goal, a safety goal, or a traffic congestion goal? Are accidents happening and lives being lost because of bumpy streets? Are we resurfacing neighborhood streets ($) so cars can go faster only to come back and put in speedhumps ($) to slow them down again? Are we making traffic improvements to tempt even more folks to try to “cut through” Sandy Springs? Or, can we make improvements which will first and foremost improve our own local mobility and commerce? If “resurfacing” is being debated in City Council, that’s micromanagement and a misdirection of time, energy, and talent.
Likewise, “picking up litter” must be evaluated in the second budget in relation to cutting grass, emptying trashcans, pulling up illegal signs, and calculating the percentage of storefront windows obscured. Or would it be better addressed with the carrot-and-stick of a Community Pride Campaign with predictably swift and heavy fines? On the other hand “doing an aerial survey of our tree canopy” is not a constant cosmetic issue but a one-time means of achieving one of our stated core values—have a look at our official city seal: the only images you will see are of TREE CANOPY and WATER. If we don’t know for sure where our best remaining potential parkland is, how will we know which land to try to buy to achieve a key part of our overall mission: “developing parkland”?
And finally, when and where to build a civic complex must be evaluated in the “first budget” in terms of how far and how soon it would advance the mission of our city. Would it be seen as a hasty monument to our founding administration, or will it just facilitate more bureaucracy (isn’t that why we hired CH2MHill?), or could it be the deliberate catalyst for downtown redevelopment and set the standard for our vision of the new Sandy Springs? Or would it be wiser to let some ambitious, deep-pocketed developer be our redevelopment stalking horse? Is it an urgent “need” or can we focus on other community values and take time to design and redesign the most inspirational, signature civic complex we can? If we want it to be a catalyst for downtown, doesn’t that help us decide where to put it even if we have to open a long-term civic center savings account?
Visions to achieve our mission can be readily drawn on paper, viewed, criticized, and improved over time to allow ideas to grow into community dreams—long before the first golden shovel touches dirt. Show me the plan.
Basing our “first” budget on a constant review of our mission will protect us from emotional decisions motivated by special interests, political expediency, and excruciating sessions of micromanaging. Our budget process should not be focused on having to “choose among so many different needs” or “weighing a variety of requests.” That is the job of a Santa Claus, not of a City Council. Rather, it should be about gradually turning our “Mission,” “Goals,” and “Vision” into a safe, attractive, and sustainable reality.
We are all rooting for you.
Joey Mayson was a founding member of Heritage Sandy Springs. Owner and resident of historic Glenridge Hall, Mayson is chairman of the board of directors of the Sandy Springs Conservancy. Also, Mayson is a member of the Citizen Advisory Committee for the Sandy Springs Comprehensive Land Use Plan.