By John Schaffner

City Councilman Howard Shook, who represents much of Buckhead and chairs the city’s Finance-Executive Committee, has vowed to turn every stone to avoid voting for the $40 million property tax increase proposed by Mayor Shirley Franklin as part of her fiscal year 2008-2009 city budget.

The mayor proposed the tax increase, along with already eliminating 441 filled and budgeted city positions to offset an estimated $140 million revenue shortfall for the fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The mayor’s proposed budget is set at $583,911,489, which compares to the current budget of $645,507,224. Despite those cuts, the city still faces a $40 million budgetary gap, which the mayor has suggested be filled by an increase in property taxes.

Shook is likely to be center stage in the council’s budget discussions until the new budget is adopted, probably in mid-June.

Meanwhile, the Buckhead-based Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation (FCTF), held a press conference on the steps of city hall May 6 to announce a petition it is circulating, which it plans to send to city council prior to vote on the proposed city budget. At the press conference, it announced it had already gotten 250 signatures on the petition in just one day.

Although the city workforce reportedly now has been cut to its 2003 level of 4,772 positions, the FCTF feels the city still has too many employees, and cites Charlotte as a city that operates with less employees, a smaller budget and outsources appropriate services. They cite the study of Atlanta city government conducted by the Bain Company just after Mayor Franklin took office as stating the city had far too many people on payroll and needed to outsource some of its services for greater efficiency.

Among the questions asked on the FCTF petition are: Why is Atlanta’s per capita annual spending for general operations $664 more than Charlotte’s per capita spending? Why does Atlanta, according to the 2008 census, have 184 employees per 10,000 residents, while Charlotte has 101 and the average count for Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb counties is 81? What services of the city should be privatized and what assets sold in order to reduce debt and operating costs?

The FCTF is asking city council to refuse to adopt a new budget until these questions are fully answered by Mayor Franklin and her administration.

Franklin and her staff say the shortfall is due largely to higher employee pension and health care costs.

On May 12, some of Atlanta’s most influential business and civic leaders who are members of the Atlanta Committee for Progress said they support Mayor Franklin’s budget balancing plan.

After the group heard a presentation by the mayor and her staff, the committee said it is confident that the city’s finances are on firm footing. Franklin argued that her plans for a property tax increase is better than a discussed alternative of laying off 200 police officers and 90 firefighters and closing six fire stations.

The 27-member ACP includes chairman Neville Isdell, who is CEO of Coca-Cola, leaders of United Parcel Service, Turner Broadcasting System, Georgia Power Co., the Atlanta Falcons, Cox Enterprises, colleges and other businesses.

Meanwhile, while members of city council are lining up in opposition to a property tax increase going into an election year in 2009, they also are trying to find ways to head off plans to increase water/sewer fees by 80 percent over four years to pay for pipe upgrades.

The council’s Utilities Committee was told by city utility officials May 6 that any attempt to break up or delay parts of Mayor Franklin’s Clean Water Atlanta program would be “courting disaster.”

City Councilwoman Clair Muller, who represents the other part of Buckhead Shook doesn’t represent, said at the May 6 meeting, “I’d like to look at what programs that have not been started that are not part of the (federal) consent decrees.”

The specific focus was on $930 million in water system fixes that are not part of the two consent orders.

Rob Hunter, commissioner of the Department of Watershed Management, said any change now would not lower 2008-2009 rates because the money pays for projects already in the pipeline.

The rate plan Watershed Management introduced to the council May 6 calls for a 27.6 percent hike in 2008-2009, followed by two 12.5 percent jumps and finally a 12 percent increase.

Officials estimated the average water/sewer bill would jump from $84.60 to $151.92 when all the rate increases are in place.

The Watershed Management proposed budget of $507.9 million is separate from the mayor’s city budget and is funded by rate payers, not property taxes. That department also is abolishing 148 positions.