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Atlanta ranks first in the number of city employees

Atlanta's municipal payroll is a growth industry -- with total employment surging 27 percent during Mayor Shirley Franklin's administration.

Also, depending on how you count, the city is a leader in overstuffed employment rolls, topping 10 other mostly Sun Belt cities in a study by the libertarian Reason Foundation, and exceeding three rival Southern cities in a survey by CL.

But there are a lot of asterisks following the numbers.

Atlanta employs 9,438 people, Mayor Shirley Franklin's office said last week. When she took office, the total employment was 7,428, which equates to the 27 percent increase.

The total employment includes a number of categories – permanent and temporary, for example. More important, the city segregates employees into "general fund" and "enterprise." "General fund" is easy to understand – it's the police officers, fire fighters and all the factotums and bureaucrats generally associated with government.

"Enterprise" is a novel way to not count some employees. For example, when Franklin responded recently about employment in a letter to John Sherman, president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Association, she never cited a total employment number. But her calculations included only "general fund" employees.

"Huh?" said Reason's Washington, D.C.-based consultant Geoffrey Segal. "It's taxpayer money either way. If they say airport employees are paid with user fees, well, taxes are user fees, too. What the numbers clearly show is a growth in city employment that exceeds population growth."

During Franklin's tenure, both categories have ballooned. The "general fund" total has increased from 4,951 to 6,088 – or 23 percent. The "enterprise" tally – mostly employees who work at the airport and on sewers – has soared from 2,477 to 3,350, or 35 percent.

Meanwhile, Atlanta's population increased at a much slower pace, 16 percent, between 2000 and July 2005. Franklin's senior policy adviser, David Edwards, provided those numbers and says funds from the airport and for sewer construction pay the "enterprise" employees, justifying their separate category in city statistics.

In her letter to Sherman, Franklin claims the total city payroll has grown only 9.7 percent – Edwards' numbers appear to signal the mayor is wrong.

In the Reason analysis, Atlanta's employment was the greatest for the 11 surveyed cities, and 53 percent above the average, computed on the number of employees per 100,000 population.

A CL survey showed that Atlanta's employment, excluding airport personnel, was 8,803 (we didn't exclude the sewer workers since almost all cities have major public-works projects underway). That compares with about 6,600 people in Charlotte, 3,500 in Miami and 4,500 in Tampa. The cities have different populations, so the best comparison is to find the number of public employees for each 100,000 population.

On that basis, Atlanta still looks featherbedded, with 1,822 employees per 100,000 people. Charlotte has 1,080, Miami has 966 and Tampa has 1,363. Calculating only Atlanta "general fund" employees – which Reason's Segal and officials for the other cities argued would give an artificially low number for Atlanta – the number is 1,260. That's still higher than Charlotte and Miami. It would also rank Atlanta's payroll third in the Reason study.

"Mayor Franklin promised when she was elected that she'd reduce the number of city employees," Sherman says. "A reasonable person has to ask, 'What do they do? Why do we need so many employees when other cities seem to be doing a much better job with fewer?'"

Franklin responded to CL's questions on the number of city employees by supplying a letter she sent to Sherman in February. "We have made significant progress in streamlining city government," the mayor wrote.

Sherman says "it's absolutely true" that the large number of city employees is political. The machine built by Maynard Jackson, Andy Young and Bill Campbell – and bequeathed to Franklin – rests in part on a large patronage system. "That may be good for politics," Sherman says. "It isn't good for taxpayers."

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