City Hall Closed on Fridays, as Part of Budget Cuts

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(APN) ATLANTA — Atlanta residents will be unable to visit City Hall on Fridays, unless they are there to pay a water bill, as part of Mayor Shirley Franklin’s latest round of cuts, which also include shorter work weeks, staff layoffs, and cuts to various services.

Franklin is attempting to make up for a $56 million projected shortfall for the fiscal year 2009 budget.

While expenditures are down 2 percent, the city is expecting a 12.6 percent decrease in revenues, forcing city leaders to make some tough choices.

“City Hall is kind of the people’s hall. It is the spine,” of city government, Council Ceasar Mitchell, a candidate for Mayor in 2009, told Atlanta Progressive News. Mitchell compared the Friday closures to “taking one of the bones out of the spine.”

“This is an unfortunate situation the City is in. We’re no different from many cities and states around the country… [looking for] ways to bring our costs in line with sinking revenues,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said property tax revenue was declining because property taxes are based on homes’ market values, which have been declining.

Sales taxes have declined due to decreases in consumer spending, Mitchell said, adding that fees, another big source of city revenue, have also been on the decline.

“We passed last summer a balanced budget. Quarter 1 showed a drop in revenues. For Quarter 2 we’re expecting a similar trend downward… which leaves us with making hard decisions,” Mitchell said.

“Closing City Hall is kind of one of those situations where you kind of have to pick your poison. I have to applaud Mayor Franklin for being proactive,” Mitchell said.

“I certainly wish it would be open on Friday. With the furloughs the Mayor’s instituting, that’s one way she’s trying to save some money because some of those employees would’ve been off anyway,” Councilwoman Felicia Moore told APN.

“My office is open and several staff are still working,” Moore said, adding she does not know whether she could schedule Friday meetings with constituents.

“I probably would have to alert the security to let [a constituent] in. I think they’d have to call them. I’m just assuming I’d be able to go to security,” Moore said.

Mitchell told APN the Friday closure would not keep him from meeting constituents, adding he would meet people for lunch in the community if necessary.

Just some types of people who will be affected by the Friday closures are those seeking a business license, a building permit, or those needing to visit the sanitation department, Moore said.

“We really have to have a conversation as a city. We have to look at our operational platform and identify our priorities. We’re gonna have to continue to provide services citizens expect with less,” Mitchell said.

Asked whether an increase in the property tax millage rate should be on the table, “It would be foolhardy, for me, in my opinion, not to at least consider raising property taxes. We have to work at that issue,” Mitchell said.

“Evidently, there’s some people who use that day to conduct business with the city. Twenty percent of their opportunity to conduct business with the city has been truncated,” Ben Howard, a frequent public speaker at City Council meetings, told APN.

“That’s another link in the whole chain of impositions upon the public. It didn’t have to be that way but the mayor said that the reason it had to happen is the Council did not go along with her plan that the taxes should be raised,” Howard said.

“It’s hard to believe we wake up one morning and say we’re $150 million in debt. Someone’s been asleep at the switch. Most of the Council Members think they’re just up there to say motion to approve,” Howard said.

“I personally think it was out of bounds,” to close City Hall on Friday, Howard said. “I don’t sense a human cry out here in the public, the lack of conversation about it… they don’t think this is a big thing, because I don’t hear enough people making a fuss about it.”

“I think it’s symbolic. It diminishes access to government. We need to be expanding that. Here’s the sad situation. If they find they get no push back when they slice out one day, why not make it a 3 day affair when things get bad enough?”

Officials announced December 02, 2008, that they are imposing a hiring freeze, implementing a 10 percent furlough on all positions within the General Fund departments, and proposing using $12 million in city reserves to close the gap.

The City hopes these measures will close approximately $37-42 million of the shortfall.

The City will also cut $13.9 million from Parks, Recreation, Cultural Affairs, Public Works, and Planning and Community Development.

The City will lay off 222 employees, each of whom will receive two weeks of separation pay and reemployment counseling. This will be the third employment cut this year.

The latest changes are in place for the remainder of FY 2009 through June 30 but officials warn that more cuts may be necessary if the revenues continue to decline.

“Since we are obligated to operate the City in the [financial] black, it is possible that additional measures will be needed later this fiscal year,” Greg Giornelli, Atlanta’s Chief Operating Officer, said in a December 02, 2008, letter to the Atlanta City Council obtained by APN.

“We have spent the last seven years investing in quality services for our citizens, and there isn’t any question that [current] financial conditions are forcing us to take a step backward from some of the service goals we had set for ourselves,” Mayor Shirley Franklin’s office said in a statement to the City Council.

“However, there is nothing more important to the City than to be on sound financial footing. We will finish in the black.”

Here is a closer look at the latest cuts:

TEN PERCENT FURLOUGH

Franklin signed an administrative order on December 2 establishing a 10 percent furlough on all positions within the General Fund departments.

Most City employees began December 11 working four, nine-hour days Monday through Thursday. Most employees will have Fridays off.

Police and certain fire employees will begin their furloughs two weeks later while sanitation workers will begin during the second week of January.

As a result of the shorter week, City Hall, City Hall East, and the Municipal Court building are closed to the public on Fridays, as of December 12. The public will be able to access these buildings on Fridays only for the payment of water bills.

Officials note that while the city can make these cuts without reducing any jobs in police or fire, they note that there will be “significant reductions” in Recreation, the Bureau of Buildings, and Solid Waste.

Cuts are set to look like this: $3 million out of Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs; $2.5 million out of Public Works; $1 million out of Planning and Community Development; and another $7.4 million in various administrative and support department reductions.

PUBLIC SAFETY

This department will not suffer any job cuts. The City will maintain a sworn officer staff of around 1,700.

The Department of Fire-Rescue has adopted “brownout” and “blackout” policies that will affect certain fire companies at certain times of day depending on staffing levels.

“The implementation of blackouts and brownouts will not change the number of apparatus dispatched to emergencies,” Kelvin Cochran, Atlanta Fire Chief, said in a letter to the Atlanta City Council. “The same number of fire trucks will respond, though blackouts and brownouts invariably impact response times.”

PARKS, RECREATION, AND CULTURAL SERVICES

Cuts in this area include maintaining nine recreation centers, down from 33; delaying the opening of nine pools; and the elimination of various arts programming including Jazz Fest.

In addition to losing funding for Jazz Fest, Woodruff Park programming will be reduced by $25,000. The Artschool Summer program will lose 40 students and the Chastain Art Center will be closed on Saturdays.

Overall, contracts for Arts Services will be reduced by $130,000 resulting in a reduction of grants available to arts organizations and individuals.

PUBLIC WORKS, PLANNING, AND COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT

Household garbage collection will move from five days to four days per week, Monday through Thursday. Friday pickup will either occur on Monday or Thursday. The day has yet to be determined.

Recycling and yard trimmings pick-ups will decrease from weekly to every other week. There will be only two neighborhood street cleanings this year instead of four.

The City is also reducing dead animal pick up crews from two to one.

The Department of Planning and Community Development will reduce its permitting staff by 20 percent to reflect the decline in recent permitting activity.

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for The Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable is jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com. Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor for The Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable is matthew@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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