City budget passes, councilmembers flex muscle

Wan, Bottoms push back against Reed, municipal judges

Last week, the Atlanta City Council signed off on the city's budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Instead of simply finalizing the $567 million spending plan, some councilmembers asserted their independence from — and influence over — the city's executive and judicial branches.

The approved budget, which kicks in July 1, will fund public safety department staffing, two new "Centers of Hope" rec centers, and the city's 311 system. Budget amendments increased cash for code enforcement and demolition, funded new neighborhood cleanup initiatives, and kept alive the Eastside Tax Allocation District, a lucrative tool used to pay for community improvements (or pet projects). The budget increases Atlanta's reserve fund to a total of $137 million.

Before ultimately blessing the budget, several councilmembers locked horns with city judges and Mayor Kasim Reed over two controversial last-minute budget amendments. And in a rare moment, some members of the relatively weak Council attempted to show they could do more than just oversee city government.

Near the end of an eight-hour June 16 meeting, Councilman Alex Wan introduced an unexpected measure that he claimed would help make City Hall spending more efficient by escrowing funding for vacant city positions. The proposal would have forced department heads, typically at the midpoint of a fiscal year, to explain why they needed allocated cash for empty posts.

Fellow penny-pinching reps Yolanda Adrean, Howard Shook, and Felicia Moore praised the proposal. But it caught Reed off guard, motivating him to pay Council a surprise visit. The mayor told Wan he was "shocked" at his attempt to place the city "in handcuffs" with hiring practices. Then he lashed out at the councilman for circumventing him altogether on the plan.

"If you want to run for mayor, Mr. Wan, run for mayor," he snapped before the proposal ultimately failed in a 4-11 vote.

Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms engaged in some political jockeying of her own with a $3.9 million proposal to expand the Atlanta Municipal Court's staff by around 40 positions in an effort to keep its doors open five days per week. Years ago, the court cut hours due to funding woes, which has contributed to case backlogs.

Chief Judge Herman Sloan, representing the judges who adjudicate traffic offenses and city code violations, argued that Council was overstepping its bounds — besides, the court already planned to fix the issue on its own. But Bottoms wanted a guarantee — under her proposal, funding for the needed positions wouldn't be fully allocated if judges didn't extend court hours before October 2014. She has promised to push for amendments to the city's charter tweaking the court's hours of operation — and tie judges' salaries to the number of days they preside over the courtroom.

The flexes came on the heels of councilmembers' growing frustrations about their diminished role in a series of potential major land deals for Underground Atlanta, the Atlanta Civic Center, and other city-owned properties. That changing dynamic, a far cry from the support many councilmembers showed Reed in his first term, could affect other City Hall decisions moving forward — especially as some elected officials begin to advance their own political futures.

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