Editor's note: The Atlanta Civic Circle, Axios Atlanta, Canopy Atlanta, Capital B Atlanta, and the Center for Civic Innovation have teamed up to report on and engage Atlanta residents on the budget process.
Why? The city budget process in Atlanta has long been an insider’s game. Few people even know the amount of the city’s budget. Even fewer attend budget hearings or question the city’s spending habits.
We believe Atlantans should have access to accurate, easy-to-understand, and timely information about the city budget. They should know how to share feedback with the city council and the mayor’s office. Equally important, they should feel confident that their voices are heard by city decision-makers throughout the process.
What is a municipal budget?
A municipal budget is basically an annual spending plan for the city. It represents the priorities and needs of the city’s residents, officials, and stakeholders. Pretty much everyone in a city, whether they’re city employees, employee unions, community organizations, or corporate leaders, is affected by the budget.
What’s the total operating budget for the City of Atlanta? Where does it come from?
The city’s operating budget is $2.28 billion for the 2023 fiscal year, which starts July 1. That amount is based on projected revenues for the upcoming year. Most of that $2.28 billion is paid for a specific purpose, like the airport revenues that fund airport operations and water that pay for the water works. The funds mostly come from property and sales taxes, licenses, franchise fees, charges for services and other small revenue sources.
While that total amount may sound like a lot, most of the operating budget is already spoken for and is not up for debate during the budget process.
What is the operating budget used for? Are there designated pots for certain things?
Atlanta’s operating budget is not one big pot that everyone is vying to scoop out of. It is divided into separate “funds” designated for necessary city functions, like water and sewer, and 911 services.
The general fund, which is the largest, is set at $734.2 million for the upcoming fiscal year. It covers basic city services like police, fire and rescue, parks, and infrastructure. The general fund receives much more debate and discussion during the budget review process because it directly affects city residents and has fewer spending restrictions than the other funds.
There are two other basic types of funds: proprietary and fiduciary. Proprietary funds receive revenue from specifically designated fees and charges, such as the airport, and they can’t be used for other services. Fiduciary funds are pension and retirement funds for city employees held by the City of Atlanta.
Where is the general fund money going? Do I get any?
Police: $235.7 million. This is the largest area of spending and makes up almost a third of the total general fund. About $4 million of this funding will go toward hiring 250 more police officers and starting a community policing program.
Housing: While housing is not a line item in the general fund, Dickens, after an outcry, reversed course and added $7.3 million for a new Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The trust fund for housing initiatives, which was created by the city council last year, calls for Atlanta to allocate 1% of the general fund to it in its first year. The mayor has earmarked another $3.8 million to aid people experiencing homelessness.
Department of City Planning: $23.05 million (up 5.9% from FY 2022).
Department of Parks & Recreation: $44.51 million (up 1.6% from FY 2022). Parks & Rec will receive $8 million to $11 million in additional annual funding over the next five years to acquire new park land and fund officers at rec centers, summer camp expansion, and Midnight Basketball–a program aimed at diverting at-risk youth from crime.
Does the city have the equivalent of a savings account where leftover money goes? How does that money get used?
Georgia law mandates that cities must operate on a balanced budget, with no deficit and no surplus, so it’s very unlikely that there will be any leftover money in the first place. However, the city is required to maintain a 15% to 20% reserve of unrestricted monies in the general fund to cover any revenue shortfalls. This reserve functions as a cushion in case of unexpected hardship or crisis.
Is all of the budget up for debate during the review process?
Yes, but the general fund attracts the lion’s share of debate and discussion because it’s, well, general. The other funds are already pretty much accounted for.
Can the council reduce or increase the mayor’s proposed budget?
The city council can make adjustments and recommendations during the review period starting in May, but they can’t reduce or increase the total amount of the budget, because it must be balanced.
The review period begins when the city budget officer submits the mayor’s proposed budget to the city council. That happened on May 2 this year. It ends about a week after a public hearing–scheduled for June 7 this year–where citizens can voice their budgetary opinions. After the budget officer makes any needed adjustments, the budget is set for the city council to adopt.
What if the mayor and the city council don’t agree?
Atlanta’s mayor can’t do a line-item veto like the Georgia governor. While the mayor can veto the entire budget from the city council, that’s unlikely unless the council has made considerable changes. What’s more, the city council can override any veto with a two-thirds majority vote.
What happens if the council does not approve the budget by the July 1 deadline?
If the city council failed to adopt the budget by the start of the next fiscal year on July 1, the city of Atlanta would be out of compliance with state law. That is exceedingly rare.
The city council has approved the budget early under special circumstances–and even had issues with process compliance–but the budget is always adopted before July 1.
How can I participate in the budget process?
You can give direct feedback to your city councilperson and other city officials. Be vocal about the changes you want to see in the community.
Aside from that, 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.