Atlanta: No water/sewer rate hike if voters reauthorize sales tax

Atlanta does not plan to raise its water or sewer rates over the next four years if local voters reapprove a 1 percent sales tax to fund sewer projects in Atlanta, the city's chief financial officer said Thursday in a wide-ranging discussion of the city's budget projections.

The sewer tax, which could raise $440 million over four years, is headed to a vote on March 6.

Also Thursday, documents released at a City Council retreat in west Atlanta showed a $22.4 million gap between the wish list of Mayor Kasim Reed's administration (roughly $548.4 million) and the city's expected revenue ($526 million) for the general fund in the 2013 fiscal year.

City officials say there is enough time to drop projects from the wish list or find new sources of revenue before the next fiscal year starts July 1. The city hopes to negotiate with Fulton County for a more favorable allocation of dollars from a "local option sales tax."

The difference between departmental wish lists and what the city will be able to afford next year is "not an insurmountable budget gap," said Jim Beard, the city's chief financial officer. "It's manageable."

Atlanta's 2012 budget is about $551 million, but the city is actually on pace to spend $543 million this fiscal year.

At a Tuesday night town hall meeting organized by City Council member Keisha Lance Bottoms, Reed said the city is trying to be thrifty.

"We've been doing what you've been doing," Reed said, "being more modest and governing more conservatively and focusing on our core issues."

The preliminary budget documents assume no increase in Atlanta's millage rate. That's despite the city's tax digest -- the assessed value of property within city limits -- shrinking as much as 5 percent.

The economy is not helping Atlanta's number-crunchers. Growth in revenue from business licenses, hotel/motel taxes and sales taxes is all expected to be lackluster, ranging from half a percentage point to 1.5 percent per year.

Beard said the city's projections call for growth in the city's tax digest after 2013. But the growth in revenue from property taxes will be slow.

City Council member Yolanda Adrean of Buckhead complained that the figures for the needs of various city departments seemed inflated while the Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs "is down here, barely breathing." The parks department would see its budget cut 1 percent to $29.7 million.

She contrasted that with the police department, which would see its funding rise 4.4 percent to nearly $168 million. About $1.6 million is to be spent on 41 additional police officers.

Without naming names, Beard acknowledged "some padding in the budget," but attributed that to city staffers' reluctance to ask the City Council for more money in the middle of the year.

"In some departments, like Recreation, you're actually getting into muscle," Beard said. "There are other departments that are sacred cows that haven't been touched at all, and some of those departments have not been as frugal."