Mayor Dickens has pledged to prioritize affordable housing, infrastructure and safety. Does the new budget line up with his claims?
This story is part of an #ATLBudget series, in partnership with local Atlanta newsrooms.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens has just submitted his proposed budget to the Atlanta City Council for their input. They have until June 30th to pass the budget for the 2023 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
What you budget for is what you prioritize. Here’s what the mayor’s new budget for the city will fund. Does it have the same priorities as yours?
What exactly is a municipal budget?
Before getting into the budget’s details, let’s take a quick look at how it works. A municipal budget is a spending plan for the city that represents the priorities and needs of its stakeholders, which include all the city departments, employee unions, community and corporate leaders– and residents.
Unlike the federal government, municipal governments like the City of Atlanta can’t run a deficit. They must operate with a balanced budget, and they can’t spend more than they take in.
The City of Atlanta’s total operating budget for 2023 is $2.28 billion. That sounds huge, but most of that revenue is already spoken for, because the operating budget is made up of a lot of separate funds for things like the airport, water and sewer and 911 services.
The general fund, which is the largest one, provides basic city services like police, fire and rescue, parks and public works (like roads and infrastructure), and it’s where the mayor and city council have the most discretion.
It totals $734.2 million for the upcoming 2023 fiscal year–a 3.4% increase from the current year. That is mainly because of higher revenue from property taxes and sales taxes.
What should we expect from this year’s general fund budget?
The mayor says in his proposed budget that his top priorities are to: “reduce crime, tackle homelessness, increase affordable housing efforts, reignite youth engagement opportunities, increase investment in infrastructure, and improve satisfaction with city services.”
The biggest spending in the general fund goes to police, with proposed funding of $235.7 million. That represents a 1.9% increase from last year and almost a third of the total general fund. About $4.3 million of this funding will be used to hire 250 more police officers and start a community policing program.
While housing is not broken out as a line item in Atlanta’s budget, it has been a point of emphasis for Dickens since he was on the city council. (The city’s public housing authority, Atlanta Housing, is funded separately through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with a current budget of $413.2 million.)
With Atlanta’s widening wealth gap, the city is under enormous pressure from constituents, community groups and businesses to help alleviate its housing crisis. Atlanta rents have shot up 22.1% over the past year alone, while home prices have gone up 20%–and they’re expected to continue to rise, though at a slower rate.
To address these concerns, the mayor’s budget increases funding for the Department of City Planning, which includes zoning, by 5.9%, to $23.05 million. That makes up 3.1% of the overall general fund.
Dickens has also pledged that $10 million will go to an affordable housing trust fund that Atlanta City Council created in December. Another $3.8 million is earmarked for aid to people experiencing homelessness.
The mayor’s budget increases funding for the Parks & Recreation Department by 1.6% to $44.51 million. That’s not a big increase for 2023, but over the next five years Parks & Recreation will receive between roughly $8 million and $11 million per year in extra funding for new park land, officers at rec centers, summer camp expansion and Midnight Basketball.
Dickens pushed for the launch of the Midnight Basketball League while he was on the city council with the aim of helping youth between ages 18 and 24 stay out of trouble and develop life skills by keeping rec centers open late. Another way the mayor’s budget supports youth is through funding for At-Promise Youth Centers, which the Atlanta Police Foundation started in 2017 to divert at-risk youth from crime.
Along with the new park land, the five-year plan includes an unspecified amount of investment in a city park patrol.
What are the other funds in the city’s budget?
Besides governmental funds like the general fund, the city’s budget has two other types of funds: proprietary and fiduciary.
Proprietary funds receive revenue from fees and charges that are earmarked for them and they can’t be used for other purposes. Besides the airport, water and sewer and 911 service, some other proprietary funds are employees’ health and life insurance, and the city’s vehicles.
The third type, fiduciary funds, are pension and retirement funds that the City of Atlanta holds in trust to spend only on those things.
Who decides the budget each year?
Before the mayor draws up a budget, the city’s budget commission works with the city council to submit a revenue forecast to him. While the mayor proposes the budget, it must get final approval from the city council. The mayor must submit his budget to the city council by its first regular meeting in May. After that, it gets discussed and debated at departmental briefings; these are streamed online and on Channel 26.
The city council usually adopts the finalized budget in a late June meeting, but the official deadline is June 30. The budget must be adopted before the fiscal year starts July 1.
The public doesn’t have much direct say during this vetting process, but there are opportunities to give feedback in public meetings. The year’s public budget hearing is on June 7th from 6:15 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. It is for both the budget and proposed increases in property tax millage rates.
If you want to take part in the budget proceedings, this meeting is a chance to make your feelings known–but you can also give direct feedback before June 7. Go ahead and contact your city council members to tell them what changes you want to see in your community.
Budget charts by Maggie Lee.
Atlanta Civic Circle is publishing this story as part of ATL Budget, a civic engagement project done in partnership with Axios Atlanta, Canopy Atlanta, Capital B Atlanta, and the Center for Civic Innovation, to help you understand where your tax dollars will go — and how you can have a say about it. To keep up, follow #ATLBudget on Twitter and Instagram, and sign up for our newsletter here.
Read part one of the #ATLBudget series from Capital B Atlanta.