Editor’s Notes
John F. Schaffner

The following is the second part of comments made by Dist. 7 City Council member Howard Shook, who represents much of Buckhead, during an hour-long interview regarding the budget crisis facing the city.

Shook is the chairman of the city’s Finance-Executive Committee, which is now reviewing and conducting public hearings on Mayor Shirley Franklin’s proposed fiscal year 2009 city budget, which was presented May 1.

The city has what may be a $70 million deficit in its present fiscal year budget and is facing an anticipated $140 million revenue shortfall entering into the new fiscal year budget. That was made worse by discovery of vendors working for the city who had not had their invoices — amounting to millions of dollars — paid for years.

The mayor has already cut over 400 city positions — filled and unfilled — has called for a $40 million property tax increase on residents and an increase in service fees coupled with reductions in some services.

The following are some final excepts from the April 24 interview with Councilman Shook.

What about unpaid vendors?

The vendors need to get paid. That is my number one concern. If you had an agreement with us and did the work, shame on us. You need to get paid.

The project everyone loves to hate, Oracle, is in fact pointing out some of these weaknesses. We would not have seen some of the muck if it hadn’t been for this new reporting requirement. What we are finding out is that we have asked a big bureaucracy to change a whole lot of its daily habits and it is tough; it is resistant.

We see that institutions in government that have implemented Oracle have struggled with the (same) problem. It turns out we are not any smarter than anyone else.

It is unbelievable the stories about not paying people. We have to figure out who we owe and pay them. I have heard 3,200 to 4,000 (vendors). My big concern is that we get the money. (He has heard $43 million).

Some of this stuff is probably just a mouse-click away—in one account and needs to be put in another account. That probably covers a lot of it, but I am betting some of it is going to prove to be a bit more complicated. I will exhale when we have paid everybody.

City financing history

City finance and budgeting I have learned is typically a lot more personal than you would think and typically all cities, at one point or another, had some legendary CFO around 20, 30, 40 years and developed sort of a culture of how things get done. That tends to live on.

We had a guy named Charlie Davis, who I never met, but he is a legendary figure. He literally had all the books in his desk drawer. I’m told he knew where every dollar was coming from and going. But he was probably the only person in city government that knew that.

I am quite sure things eroded when (Mayor Bill) Campbell was here, because he had four or five CFOs. They came and went. It is hard to develop any continuity. Then we had Rick Andersen coming back out of retirement who had to re-familiarize himself with his surroundings and stayed a lot longer than he had been talked into. Then we brought in a brand new person from the outside. There has been very little opportunity to develop continuity.

What about council’s budget?

At the (city council) retreat there was a diversity of opinion of what council should do with our budget. (Council President) Lisa Borders appointed an ad hoc committee and our charge is to bring three options back to council to vote on.

We developed a zero cut scenario, which reflects the fact there are some council members who feel this isn’t our mess. Then there was a 25 percent cut scenario, reflecting at that time what we thought we were going to be asked to cut. Then the middle-of-the-road might be a menu of 10 percent cuts.

The 10 and 25 percent options reflect eliminating a number of things, which for years we have been saving up money to redo. For instance, all the carpeting in the offices is 20 years past its lifetime. We can’t get new carpeting with hundreds of people walking out the door.

Out of our individual accounts, everyone would contribute $22,000.

Is city council too big?

Yes. We need to go to 12 districts. I would snip off those three curious appendages they call at-large people. Rather than sending that money (savings) back to the taxpayer, I would want to have a discussion about investing that into a committee for more analysis. Policy research for us is sitting at home at 11:00 p.m. and Googling.

Will the department heads be fired?

I am quite sure there has been some internal arguing over who should stay and who should go. The mayor calls the shots.

This mayor does not speak in the vernacular of carrots and sticks. Her MO has been: Here is what we think is a fact-driven solution. She doesn’t cut deals with people. She does not threaten people and she does not reward people. For her to be reaching out to people would be kind of mainstream political activity that she has never shown any interest in doing to this day.

This mayor is a bold dreamer and I am quite sure that is part of being a good leader. But to some extent it has also become distracting.

Maybe some of this planning and dreaming has been at the expense of everyday provision of city services.