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Welcome to the June 2020- Budget Update edition of the Atlanta City Council District 6 eNewsletter. 

As always, I encourage your feedback and comments. Please contact me at (404) 330-6049 or jnide@atlantaga.gov if I can be of assistance. I appreciate the opportunity to be your voice in our city government.
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City of Atlanta FY2021 Budget Update


I wanted to take a minute to provide an update on the City’s FY2021 budget and in particular how this budget speaks to the ongoing dialogue over public safety, policing, and community development.  This email is long, but this complex issue can’t be addressed in soundbites or a sentence or two.   
 
The Budget Process
The FY21 budget covers the period from July 1, 2020 – June 30, 2021.  The budget process begins in the early spring of each calendar year, with the Mayor introducing a proposed budget to City Council the first week of May.  The Finance/Executive Committee, of which I am the chair, holds three weeks of departmental budget hearings, during which we hear presentations from each commissioner and his or her team.  We hold an interactive community budget hearing, where we answer questions from the public, and a series of public hearings on the property tax millage rate.  Then, prior to June 30, City Council debates, amends, and adopts a budget, which is sent to the Mayor for approval.
 
The Impact of COVID-19
This year, we went into the budget season with confidence of a stable economy and healthy budget, only to be hit with COVID-19 and a complete shutdown of the City.  We saw across the City how fragile many residents’ financial and social conditions are, as unemployment skyrocketed and Atlanta Public Schools and the City undertook a massive effort to feed school children, families, and seniors who could not afford to eat with schools and community centers closed.  In addition, the City worked incredibly hard on how to keep providing essential city services while keeping our frontline employees safe.   
 
Eastside TAD
We also quickly began an analysis of the budgetary impact of the shutdown.  When the Mayor introduced her proposed budget in the beginning of May, it reflected a drop in anticipated revenues of $58M from current year.  The proposed budget anticipated pulling $37M from our reserves and $17M from the Eastside TAD, as well as making a net $3M reduction in expenses to meet this projection.  While the Administration was able to identify $43M in operational cuts, those were offset by promised police raises, and increases in pension and healthcare costs, which took it to a net savings of only $3M.       
 
There was considerable debate on the use of the Eastside TAD funding, which I believe would have likely required a closing of the ETAD and would have jeopardized projects in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood that had been waiting several years for support.  In early June, based on an analysis of March and April tax collections, the decision was made that the ETAD funds were not needed to balance the budget. 
 
Department of Corrections
It appeared that the main remaining budget issue was what funding was required for our Department of Corrections, as the City was at the tail end of an 18-month process examining closing the City jail.  (Usage of the City jail has been significantly lower over the past two years as a signature bond is generally available for violations of city ordinance and the City no longer contracts with ICE.  Individuals arrested for state law violations are taken to the Fulton County jail.). The majority of public comment at the June 2nd public budget meeting was with regard to the jail, with most commenters expressing that the funding for Corrections be reduced and reallocated for public facing programs.
 
Protests and Police Reform Outcry
Throughout June, as protests swept across the country and our City, we heard from more and more people about public safety issues.  People emailed and called me, and we had overwhelming participation by the public in our remote meetings.  On Friday, June 12, Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by an Atlanta Police officer.  At our June 15 regular City Council meeting and a June 16 specially-called listening session, we heard 29 hours of voicemails from individuals sharing their concerns about policing in Atlanta.
 
The comments received from the public ranged from residents who voiced fear of or harassment by our police officers to demands to “defund” the police to residents who are fearful in their neighborhoods and demanded more police.  In the emails and voicemails that I received from individuals who identified themselves as a District 6 resident, comments were varied, but there was a definite orientation toward a need for meaningful police reform.  
 
Resolution 20-R-4068
At the June 15 council meeting I introduced a resolution that laid out a process for the City Council and Mayor’s administration to have additional time to take a deeper look at our current policing practices and policies.  The resolution reviewed many of the measures that the City has put in place to ensure a diverse police force, regulations on the proper use of force, and ongoing training.  The resolution also reaffirmed the City Council’s commitment to standing by the police raises that had been legislated by this Council after an independent study showed that APD was not paid at market rates.  I 100% support paying all of our city employees a fair and competitive wage that will attract and retain the best talent.  There was never any consideration by Council of denying these raises (despite some public demand to do so). 
 
The resolution acknowledged, however, that the Atlanta Police Department was not exempt from claims and evidence of the misuse of force, and that it is time for the City to take a comprehensive look at its approach to public safety.  The resolution stated an intent for the City’s Chief Operating Officer to conduct this review and report back to City Council monthly, with final recommendations presented by November 1.  During the pendency of the review, a portion of APD’s funding would be held in essentially an escrow account within APD’s budget.  Any changes to APD’s funding would require additional legislative action by 8+ members of City Council and approval by the Mayor.  And, under the companion budget amendment, if no changes were made by December 31, all of the APD funds would be released from the escrow account back to their operating accounts.  The resolution (statement of intent) passed Council 9-6, but the budget amendment that would have put the funding in escrow failed 7-8. 
 
I anticipate the COO will provide his first report to City Council in August on the Administration’s review, which should include recommendations from the Mayor’s Use of Force Task Force.      
 
The public discourse on reforming /“defunding” the police has invoked strong emotions across the spectrum.  While the language may be divisive, I think there are many points that the majority of residents can agree upon.  (1) We need to strike the right balance between addressing the root causes of crime and preventing, responding to, and investigating crimes.  (2) We will always have a need for a well-trained police force to respond to violent crime, and that this work is stressful, dangerous, and important. (3) There are many calls to 911 that don’t involve violent crime or require an armed official, ranging from responding to individuals in a mental health crisis, to a barking dog, to a homeless individual needing assistance.  Nonetheless, under our current setup, these calls are referred to APD. (4) There are residents of Atlanta who don’t feel safe in their own neighborhoods for many reasons- whether due to the presence of, or lack of a presence of, APD. (5) We want to run an efficient city across all departments with well-trained employees working at their highest and best use.
 
As I said at the June 20th meeting, my legislation was much more about the work that needs to be done by elected officials than police officers.  We are the ones who have put the current system into place, and if we’ve decided changes need to be made, it is up to us to make those changes.  Most of the time, police officers are doing exactly what we have asked them to do. 
 
My proposal was a mechanism to hold both Council and the Mayor’s feet to the fire to do the important work of assessing our approach to public safety and deciding what we can do better.  This could mean moving some functions out of APD, such as having Parks patrol officers who handle matters such as dogs off leash and public drinking.  It could mean a deeper partnership with Fulton and DeKalb County to provide responses to mental health related 911 calls, as they are the agencies with responsibility for public health. It could mean doing further assessment of our beat alignments to provide faster response time.  It could be a move to get officers out of cars and onto bikes and foot patrols in neighborhoods so they have more opportunities to interact with neighbors.  It almost certainly will address our policies on use of force and an examination of what training needs to be revised.  
 
When it came down to it, we had to pass a budget by June 30, and frankly, at the point in time that this discussion began in earnest in Atlanta, we had not had the time needed to make any decisions about necessary changes.  So, my proposal was a means to allow more time to do the analysis and decide what changes need to be made—a signal that the work is not done.  It is just beginning to ensure everyone feels safe in Atlanta. 
 
When it came to a final vote on the budget, I felt—after hearing all of the public discourse—that passing a budget with no definitive promise to continue this discussion was not right for me.  I certainly did not take this decision lightly, as this budget process has consumed by life since late April.  The budget passed 13-2, and is awaiting signature by the Mayor.  
 
Council Amendments to Support Community Development and Public Safety 
All that being said, two other very important public safety budget amendments were introduced and passed by Council- an expansion of the Fulton County Atlanta Pre-Arrest Diversion program that we already have in Zones 5 & 6, as well as additional funding for the Atlanta Citizen Review Board.  The diversion program provides resources and support to individuals (mostly homeless) at risk of being arrested for non-violent offenses by offering social services such as drug treatment, mental health assistance, housing, and job placement programs.  The ACRB reviews complaints from the public about officer misconduct and works with the Mayor, Council, APD and Corrections with the purpose of improving the ability of police personnel to carry out their duties and improving the relationship between APD, Corrections and the community. We also passed an amendment that dedicated $1.5M toward growing middle-wage jobs.  In addition to these amendments, the Administration transferred significant funding and personnel from Corrections to Constituent Services.  Council will review this action in 120 days.  These are exactly the kinds of changes Council needs to be pushing to support our residents and communities. 
 
Where Do We Go From Here?
Throughout the late summer and fall, we will be having a series of meetings on public safety in Atlanta, and I hope you can participate and help guide us as we address these difficult issues.  The bulk of these discussions will occur in the Public Safety/Legal Administration Committee and Finance/Executive Committee.  Meeting notices are always posted on the Atlanta City Council website and Facebook page.  While we are meeting remotely, notices provide call in information to both leave public comment before the meeting, and instructions to dial in and listen/watch during the meeting.  If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me at jnide@atlantaga.gov.                        
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