As the city begins building its downtown along Roswell Road near I-285, the costs will likely mean fewer projects for other parts of the city.
Plans for building a downtown from scratch and an expected decline in tax collections will mean fewer sidewalks and parks for city residents.
City Council members Chip Collins and Karen Meinzen McEnerny said during a May 7 budget hearing that some important projects won’t get done if current project list stands. Other council members said changing the priority list would destroy a method meant to keep politics out of spending decisions.
City Council will vote on the Fiscal Year 2014 budget in June. City staff members say there is $4.5 million available for citywide capital projects, the lowest amount in six years.
The projects, sometimes called “priority” projects, are a list of items that the council wants to spend money on in any given budget. They include things like road paving and traffic management.
The task of dividing up a smaller amount of money is causing some on the City Council to second-guess how the council sets its spending priorities.
Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Tibby DeJulio, who is serving as mayor while Mayor Eva Galambos recovers from surgery, said council members must make a hard choice this year. He rejected Meinzen McEnerny’s suggestion that city staff take another look at the numbers to find more money.
“The only way we have to raise revenue that’s guaranteed right now is to cut expenses or raise taxes, which we’re not going to do,” DeJulio said. “I think our staff has found what our staff is going to find.”
Meinzen McEnerny and Collins argued that the city is putting too much taxpayer money in reserves. This year’s budget proposal sets aside reserves totaling 31 percent of the city’s operating expenses. In prior years, the city has budgeted 25 percent of its operating expenses for its reserves.
City staff and other council members say they want to budget as conservatively as possible this year and have money to cover unexpected costs. Collins said the city already has enough in reserves to do that.
“Stuffing all of your money under the mattress is conservative, too, but it’s not necessarily the smart thing,” Collins said.
Meinzen McEnerny said the city projects large surpluses each year and should use it to benefit taxpayers.
“The surpluses in the past have gotten to $12, $15, $20 million,” Meinzen McEnerny said. “At some point we need to start giving some of this money back.”
The biggest change in the FY 2014 budget is the cost of building the city’s downtown.
This year the city is budgeting $13.5 million for its city center project, a decade-long effort expected to cost upwards of $100 million. City staff is also predicting a $3 million decline in tax collections.
Sandy Springs’ method for selecting capital spending projects is unusual compared with other cities. City elections are this November. If the current budget passes, council members will have to explain to voters why the city isn’t building their walking bridge or fixing up the Tennis Center.
Their explanation will go something like this: Each year during budget time, city staff gives council members a list of projects and asks them to rank each one. City staff then budgets accordingly.
In prior years, the council had more money to spread around the project list. In Fiscal 2011, the city budgeted $18 million. This year, Fiscal 2013, the city budgeted $12.6 million.
Meinzen-McEnerny and Collins also asked if the city could spend less money on its downtown project. City Manager John McDonough said the money will be needed to buy additional property and pay for a project manager.
Collins suggested pulling money out of the Abernathy Greenway Linear Park project in Fiscal 2014 so Lost Corner Preserve won’t be left off the list. Lack of funds could keep Lost Corner from opening this year, he said.
“They’re telling me we don’t have funding for the completion of the driveway and parking lots,” Collins said.
Pulling money out of Abernathy would be another setback for that park, which is already months behind schedule.
Other city council members said moving the money around would be inviting politics into the mix.
“Essentially that just blows up our process,” Councilman Gabriel Sterling said.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think we should deviate from a process we’ve done for seven years,” Councilwoman Dianne Fries said.