Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Atlanta Council fiddles while city burns

Posted By on Wed, Mar 24, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Here's the bottom line: The Atlanta Detention Center — otherwise known as the city jail — at the south end of Peachtree Street downtown costs taxpayers $30 million a year. That's net, after you've already factored in payments from MARTA, the U.S. Marshall's office, immigration authorities and the other agencies that lease inmate bed space from the city.

Detention center 16
The city — or, more precisely, the mayor's office — wants to sell the jail to Fulton County in a lease/purchase deal to stem the flow of red ink. Fulton, still under a federal court mandate to ease overcrowding at its own jail, theoretically wants to buy the city's 1,150-bed facility.

As Councilman Howard Shook observes: "This deal is a no-brainer."

But you wouldn't know it from having sat in on recent meetings in which Atlanta Council members have spent excruciating hours asking dumb-ass questions, getting testy with administration officials and generally wallowing in irrelevant minutiae.

Beware: What follows is something of a diatribe. An informed diatribe from a payer of Atlanta taxes, but a diatribe nonetheless.

Having spent the past 20-some years covering local government, I've probably developed a lower tolerance for elected officials asking bone-headed questions and making comments that betray a poor grasp of basic finance — especially when they come from folks who clearly know better and are simply wasting everyone's time.

For instance, at a meeting on the jail two weeks ago, Councilman C.T. Martin insisted that the administration break down the resale value of every feature of the property, including the front steps, the elevators, the hallways, etc. I hope I needn't point out that that shit doesn't even make sense.

At a second meeting on Tuesday, Martin claimed to be appalled that the city hadn't done a property appraisal on the facility. As Peter Aman, the city's chief operating officer, attempted to explain: It's not an office building; it's not loft apartments; it's a jail — and a somewhat outdated one at that. The only potential buyer for a jail is another government entity and the only meaningful price is one that comes out of negotiations. An appraisal on such a single-function property would be meaningless.

(Full disclosure: Assisting Aman in trying to persuade the Council to unload the jail is David Bennett, senior policy adviser to Mayor Reed. A former AJC reporter, Bennett is a longtime friend of mine. If that fact causes you to question my take on these meetings, I welcome you — nay, I dare you — to watch the archived video.)

Watch the archived video.

But Martin wasn't the only time-waster. Councilwoman Felicia Moore has made a career of asking whatever administration is in power — Campbell, Franklin and now Reed — for increasingly detailed information about every action the city is considering.

Unlike Martin, she means well. In Moore's mind, she's a watchdog looking out for the public good. Fair enough. But I've watched her long enough to realize that no amount of nitpicky information is ever enough for Moore. She'll always have one more question, always want another chart, always ask for a follow-up work session, always find new nits to pick. In short, if Moore were running City Hall, no decisions would ever get made.

Frankly, some of the Council members demanding ever more financial data have neither the training nor capacity to understand the information they're given. Trying to explain it and bring them up to speed wastes more valuable time. In both meetings, about a dozen high-ranking city employees — attorneys, auditors, accountants, contact managers and, of course, the jail's top brass — cooled their heels in the chamber so they would be available in the event that a grandstanding Council member had some inane question.

Not all of the questioning was inane, however. Some of it was downright disingenuous, designed to obfuscate and muddy the already silt-filled waters.

Councilman Michael Bond opposes the sale of the city jail. As a former corrections officer who worked at the jail — and whose brother, I'm told, still works there — Bond is determined to prove (or at least claim) that, with a few tweaks and efficiencies, the facility can be a money-maker.

But the jail has never made money. Few jails do. That's not really the idea behind a city jail. Since the ADC opened in 1995, it's cost city taxpayers about $445 million over the past 15 years. Currently, it costs more to house inmates than the city can recover in payments for bed space. In essence, Atlanta is subsidizing the Fulton Sheriff's office and the other jurisdictions to provide a service that cities aren't required to provide. Under state code, pre-trial detention is a county function.

When this was pointed out to Bond, he replied: "I disagree that operating a jail is a county function." I'm not sure how one responds to such a blatant disregard for facts. Clearly, Bond is less interested in debating the merits of selling the jail than in trying to stonewall the process and confuse his Council colleagues.

Anyway, here's what you need to know:

  1. The ADC is now a $30 million-a-year drag on the city budget.
  2. The city is only responsible for housing misdemeanor defendants, of which there are far fewer than accused felons, who are housed on the county's dime.
  3. If Fulton takes over the jail, the city's expenses — including outstanding construction debt and leased inmate bed space from the county — drop to $18 million.
  4. That leaves about $12 million in savings to help plug the estimated $54 million gap in the upcoming 2011 budget, which begins July 1. The savings would increase in subsequent years.
  5. In order to make a difference in balancing the FY 2011 budget, the jail deal must be approved by March 31.
  6. If the deal isn't approved in time for the FY 2011 budget, the city may need to lay off hundreds more city workers.
  7. There is little evidence that the Council has finished dicking around with the jail deal.

There's an old saying that, in a democracy, the citizens get the government they deserve. There are times when it's appropriate to take that as an insult.

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