Atlanta: Budget, Crime at Issue in First Televised Mayoral Debate

9-17-09, 9:13 am

Original source: The Atlanta Progressive News

(APN) ATLANTA – Four top candidates for Mayor of Atlanta discussed public safety and crime, as well as Atlanta's City finances, on Sunday, September 13, 2009, during the season’s first televised debate sponsored by the Atlanta Police Foundation and aired on WSB-TV.

Attorney Jesse Spikes, Atlanta City Council President Lisa Borders, Former State Sen. Kasim Reed (D-Atlanta), and Councilmember Mary Norwood were the only candidates invited. Candidates Peter Brownlowe and Kyle Keyser were not invited.

Many of these candidates share similar ideas about how to reduce crime. For instance, the four candidates generally agree that Atlanta needs more police officers, though Spikes argued more immediate progress could be made through strengthening and expanding community policing programs.

Candidates also agree the City needs to work harder to retain officers, offering everything from better pay to affordable housing within the city, to more incentives for training, to improving the workers' compensation process.


A significant portion of the debate focused on how the City would pay for any safety improvements; here is where the differences began to show.

Borders would offer a 'point of sale sales tax' to generate additional revenue. Reed said the recent 3-mill property tax increase would generate about $40 million.

'The notion that we aren’t already paying enough to be safe in our city is simply wrong-minded,' Reed said.

Spikes hammered home his fiscal efficiency message. 'You get rid of the waste, mismanagement, and misallocation of resources and you redirect those resources to public safety,' he said.

Norwood supports not only streamlining the city’s finances but also getting more aggressive when it comes to obtaining grants.

'We have not tapped into federal grants the way that we should,' Norwood said, adding she supports the creation of a grant developments office to supplement the city’s grant development manager.

Norwood, who opposed the 3-mill increase, signaled she would shy away from any new taxes.

'It is unconscionable for city government with Enron-like accounting to have as the default position that we raise taxes on our money that our citizens have earned,' she said.

Candidates exchanged some barbs during a discussion about what certain candidates had done in the past and what they would do as Mayor to repair accountability gaps and avoid budget shortfalls that plague the city.

Borders said she recommended the city 'reamortize our pension liability,' a move she said would have generated $30 million for the fiscal year 2009 budget.

'There was absolutely no need, no need, in effect to have a tax increase for [fiscal year 2009],' she said. 'The [fiscal year 2010] budget had a gap of $52 million and so we, in effect, had to pull the lever that no single person on Council wanted to pull,' Borders said.

Spikes noted Borders did not support a half-mill tax increase for the fiscal year 2009 budget but did support a 3-mill tax increase for the fiscal year 2010 budget – with the implication that Borders' reversal on tax increases was politically convenient.

'I don’t believe in unnecessary taxes,' she said. 'My challenge to the [Franklin] administration was to trim the budget, that we could find the adequate resources within the [2009] budget to close the gap.'

Reed argued a 1-mill tax increase would have prevented furloughs, although it is not clear how he came up with that figure.

'The notion that last year, when we had a $70 million shortfall, that we did not need to make furloughs is a little disingenuous,' Reed said. 'Failing to provide even a small tax increase for police and fire last year generated the furloughs that were solved by a tax increase [this year] that was too high.'

Norwood agrees with Spikes that there is a greater need for efficiency and accountability.

'I have clamored for audits for years,' she said. 'I was the person that wanted an audit of the water sewer fund and all projects going forward way back in 2004.'

Such a resolution passed the Council but was never implemented, she noted. The City also ignored Norwood’s 2008 call for an examination of the city’s payroll to determine what cuts could be made.

'There have been studies and recommendations for years that have pointed out the shortfalls in our system, that it’s not working properly,' Spikes said. 'It wasn’t like we just learned about it last year – it’s been there for years, we just haven’t done anything about it. We need new people who are really going to pay attention to what’s going on down there.'


Mayor Shirley Franklin issued a rare statement on Norwood's comment about 'Enron-like accounting.'

'The accounting issues at Enron involved fraud and criminal activity. If Ms. Norwood has knowledge of fraud or criminal activity in connection with the City’s finances, her obligation as a public official is to report them immediately to the US Attorney, and I call on her now to do just that... To publicly assert criminal activity in the absence of proof violates basic principles of fairness and decency.'

Atlanta's Chief Financial Officer also issued a statement, recounting a phone call he had with Norwood after the debate. 'During the call I explained to Ms. Norwood that 'Enron accounting' meant fraud and I stated that during my 10 months I have seen no evidence of such criminal activity. To use the terminology she used Sunday night during the mayoral debate was a direct affront to not only my integrity but that of all of the employees in the Department of Finance.'

'During my phone call with Ms. Norwood, she apologized profusely and said she recognized the efforts our department was making to correct antiquated financial practices. She also stated that she had made a public comment correcting her allegation against the Finance Department, but I have not seen any such public statement of support for the important work we are doing every day,' Glass said.

'No one disputes the city's finances are a mess, not even the current CFO, Jim Glass,' Norwood said in a statement issued to Atlanta Progressive News.

'In fact, it was as recently as one month ago, August 13, that Mr. Glass admitted as much when responding to a request for government wide financial statements. He said, 'The fact is if I could fulfill your request, the City would probably not be in the dire financial situation it is in today and while we have made progress it is still not at the point that a CFO or any financial person might expect.''

Norwood's campaign also forwarded a copy of the email from Mr. Glass to verify that he had indeed written that.

'That statement speaks for itself. Mr. Glass has publicly criticized my characterization of the city's accounting practices as Enron-like. I am sorry that Mr. Glass has taken offense and I personally apologized to him, but I will not back down from my belief that our city's finances have been mismanaged for years.'

It should also be noted, as previously reported in APN's coverage of fraudulent claims made by the Bush Administration regarding alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that fraud does not necessarily mean intentionally misleading. Public officials make fraudulent statements if the statements are false and they did not have a factual basis for making the statements; public officials have an affirmative responsibility to know that statements they make are true before they say them.

In the case of Atlanta's finances, we do know that the City reported one set of financial numbers showing the City was in good shape, only to 'realize' that due to accounting magic, the City was actually millions in deficit. Setting aside the question of criminal intent, there are parallels between Enron and the City of Atlanta to the extent that accounting mechanisms were used to obscure the financial pictures of both.


During the debate, Reed and Spikes said they would work to find people who could run the city jail well.

Borders said the city might need to get out of the jail business.

'I would find a different way to run the jail. We are not doing it well,' she said. 'I would remove the City of Atlanta from this business or have a public-private partnership.'

For much more on Sunday’s debate, including what the candidates would do to improve police moral and improve the city’s working relationship with other governments, visit

--Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at