Canopy Atlanta asked more than 120 Forest Park community members about the issues more important to them last year and this summer to produce journalism for our Forest Park Issue. Angie Tran, one of the reporters on this story, is a Canopy Atlanta Fellow, a resident whom we paid and trained to learn reporting skills to better serve her communities.
AFTER REVIEWING more than 120 Forest Park resident responses to a Canopy Atlanta survey, their primary concerns can be broken down into five categories: communication, blight, economic sustainability, policing and youth education.
In an effort to aid with transparency and public understanding, the following analysis serves as a guide to Forest Park’s budget for fiscal year 2022, including how residents would like to see money spent and how city officials plan to address their concerns.
In November’s general election, Forest Park saw a voter turnout of 5.8%, according to the Clayton Crescent. In a city with nearly 16,000 registered voters, only 926 cast their ballot. In the November 30 mayoral run-off, incumbent Mayor Angelyne Butler won with a margin of 96 votes, with 788 votes cast.
What’s in the budget?
The city budget for the fiscal year 2022 began July 1, 2021, at a total of $34,714,281. Forest Park’s official website includes a digital copy—a 92-page document difficult to decipher, even for those familiar with reviewing such budgets.
Below are two charts, the first highlighting the sources of revenues and the second displaying the proposed expenditures for FY 2022. Taxation is the largest source of revenues (almost 70%). This year, police and fire services make up the majority of expenditures.
How Forest Park spends money in five categories:
Keeping residents in the loop
Residents of Forest Park say they want to stay informed and know what’s happening in the city. And ultimately, most of the residents’ other concerns, as covered in this story, have much to do with miscommunication and lack of communication between residents and their representatives about these concerns.
Transparency and information on schools, elections and city government matter to residents. It is also important that this information is presented in formats which work for them, with residents citing needs for information in multiple languages and alternatives for non-tech-savvy people.
When asked about the city’s communication, resident Bambie Hayes-Brown, PhD, laughed.
“What communication?” she said. “When I try to find information on what’s going on in the city of Forest Park, it is extremely difficult.”
She finds most communication comes from what she refers to as “digital word of mouth”—social media posts like those in community-created Facebook groups—not the official Forest Park webpage. Hayes-Brown said finding information communicated directly by the city is difficult, and when it is communicated, it’s often not communicated long enough in advance.
Forest Park is home to several diverse groups, like that of the Vietnamese community, with each requiring information to be communicated to them in languages and ways they can understand and access. Residents have felt a lack of communication when it comes to what’s happening in local schools, as previously reported by Canopy Atlanta.
Currently, Forest Park advertises a biweekly newsletter called “The Branch” to highlight events in the city. However, it has only been published once, in 2020, and isn’t currently in operation.
Receiving direct comment from the elected representatives of Forest Park— the five city council members—was difficult. Three were unresponsive after multiple emails: Dabouze Antoine, Latresa Akins-Wells and Allan Mears, representatives of Ward Two, Four and Five accordingly.
Ward One representative Kimberly James declined to comment on constituent concerns, stating “I will be deferring to city manager at this time.”
Hector Gutierrez, representing Ward Three, was the only city council member to schedule a call with Canopy Atlanta to discuss these concerns and pass along some inquiries to pertinent staffers.
These concerns are from people they represent and relate to the city budget that council members vote to approve.
Finding it in the Budget
In the budget, it’s evident the city recognizes a need for improved communication, increasing funds by $253,500 for two new positions: Deputy City Manager and a Public Information Officer. Both positions would assist City Manager Marc-Antonie Cooper, who plays a role in assessing the needs of residents.
These two positions could potentially provide more opportunity for community feedback to be shared with representatives and problems to be addressed—fostering better overall communication between residents and their government. An additional $36,000 increase was provided to hire a public relations firm.
The City’s Response
City Manager Cooper said these positions are integral parts of his reorganization plans for the city, and he already hired Forest Park’s first Public Information Officer, Javon Lloyd, in October.
“It will be the responsibility of this position to ensure we provide timely information via as many formats as possible. They will be working closely with the City Manager, and all our departments to ensure accurate, timely information is communicated in multiple languages, as well as written formats,” he said.
At the request of Mayor Angelyne Butler and Councilman Gutierrez, Cooper will be bringing forth a new initiative to the council for discussion, a “Bi-lingual Incentive Program.” This program allows those working for the city who can speak conversationally in another language to receive a $1 per hour raise — and an additional $0.50 if they can write in the language too. This would be a first for Forest Park, and he believes it will pass.
Despite the current newsletter The Branch being inoperable, Cooper said they are looking to develop and relaunch the newsletter, likely under another name.
As for transparency, Cooper said they are looking to host budget meetings in the new year within the community through public hearings and not just at City Hall.
“We will look to find locations throughout our city where we can hold these meetings and discuss the FY22-23 and allow those who cannot make it to City Hall an opportunity to participate,” he said.
Blight and City Maintenance
On the most basic level, Forest Park residents see their community as neglected, with uncut grass, unkempt landscaping, litter, trash and potholes in need of repair. Abandoned and unsightly homes and businesses bother residents. Several complained of roaming cats and dogs and pests, like rats, that are often drawn to other sources of blight—like the dump in one resident’s neighborhood.
Virginia Ford, 71, has lived in Forest Park for nearly half a century. She and others affected live right on the border of Wards Two and Four, with the dump falling in the Fourth Ward.
“There are some evenings, around 10 or 11, it’s horrible. If I wanted to have guests over for a cookout at night, it would be horrible to sit out there and smell that smell,” Ford said. “I feel so badly for this lady who lives within 50 feet from the dumps.”
Ford said she’s brought the request of removal of the dump to the city before, only to be told No.
“Why would [the city] come over here in the Black neighborhood and put this dump? But people don’t complain—what could they do?”
Finding it in the Budget
Money to address blight is spread across several city departments. Animal Control is budgeted at $129,212, which is distributed to staff salaries and resources like transportation and office supplies.
Planning, Building and Zoning allocates $1,500 to Code Enforcement expenses from the department’s $967,478 budget, which pertains to boarded up, unhealthy, unsightly buildings and dangerous environments.
The remainder of the community’s blight concerns can mostly be found within the Department of Public Works, which sums up to around $3.7 million. The first division under Public Works, applies to sanitation which is a separate budget item, at around $3 million. This includes $1,500 for clean sweeping, $3,000 for recycling, $1.3 million for roll-off containers and $12,000 for solid waste disposal to keep trash and litter in check.
The next division within this department is streets, with the most pertinent budget items being $30,000 for street maintenance and $16,000 for right-of-way enhancements, which include pothole repair, tree removal and some landscaping.
Lastly, is parks, with $34,000 for parks maintenance and $15,000 for grounds maintenance of city buildings.
The City’s Response
According to City Manager Cooper, the main roadblock Forest Park faces in addressing abandoned properties is most are privately owned, and the city must first go through the legal process to obtain ownership of these properties.
“The city remains vigilant in our efforts to search and find the owners of these properties through our Code Enforcement Section and develop our case by issuing citations to these owners,” Cooper said.
When it comes to issues of neglected landscaping and litter, Cooper said, “the City of Forest Park is not immune to the current labor shortages that have been experienced by every sector of business.”
As a result, the city had to take up ongoing recruiting efforts to fill open positions.
Residents want to be provided with resources for employment and job opportunities. They also want businesses and shopping availability to reflect the community’s needs, with improved quality and variety.
One of the most frequent requests of residents was improved food options, both in restaurants and grocery stores—with a desire for healthier food options and well-kept grocery stores.
Hayes-Brown, president and CEO of Georgia Advancing Communities Together, has been a resident of Forest Park for four years. “We do need healthier food options,” she said. “The Piggly Wiggly and the Wholesale Food Outlet is just not sufficient … The Piggly Wiggly is a little scary, so I don’t go in there at all.”
Canopy Atlanta previously reported on the Atlanta State Farmers Market and what other food options residents currently have available to them in Forest Park. As a city center, residents would also like to see Main Street redeveloped with more local businesses.
Finding it in the Budget
These improvements primarily fall under the Department of Economic Development, which supports small business growth, brings larger corporate businesses to the area and facilitates the development of the Gillem Logistics Center and Main Street.
Most of this work is overseen by two people. Director Bruce Abraham focuses on business recruitment and retention and plans involving Main Street and the workforce. Project Manager Danita Hamid focuses on job fairs, website maintenance and works as a film liaison.
In the most recent budget, the Department of Economic Development received $291,638 in funding. The majority of this money goes toward salaries for the two aforementioned staff members.
The City’s Response
Abraham, director of the department, said residents looking for work can start with the Forest Park website, where jobs in the city are posted. He said there are plenty of jobs ready to be filled in Forest Park, specifically in the industrial section of the city: Fort Gillem.
According to Abraham, the old army base closed 15 years ago. Since then, the city has spent $16 million to build roads and utilities in the area and partnered with a company that works in industrial real estate development to bring in new companies. This includes two distribution centers: a new Amazon facility and one for Kroger.
He said Forest Park’s industrial businesses are looking for workers now. The last job fair held was for Kroger and “only had 27 people show up,” Abraham said, noting that Forest Park is experiencing the same national workforce shortage on a local level.
However, for residents looking for jobs in different lines of work with better pay, like office positions, Abraham admits, “there’s not a lot of those in Forest Park.” The lack of these jobs stems from the same source preventing those types of businesses from coming to Forest Park, something residents also want, Abraham said.
“So much of it is a function of the income of the community. We’ve tried to get Starbucks there, but Starbucks has a $5 cup of coffee and a lot of folks at Forest Park just won’t spend five bucks on a cup of coffee,” he said.
The same goes with any other business, like new grocery stores. Take Kroger, for example, with a location not too far away in Morrow, yet still too far to be accessible by residents without transportation.
“They don’t want to cannibalize their market … Kroger is right there, Kroger has a major facility and they just can’t seem to justify [building a new location in Forest Park].”
Residents share mixed feelings about the Forest Park police department. When surveyed by Canopy, some said the police keep the “community safe,” particularly for vendors and businesses. However, others have expressed concern over “heavy police presence” and increasing traffic stops, as covered by Canopy Atlanta in our Forest Park issue. Given the fact the police department makes up nearly 30% of the budget, it is important to look into how this money is being spent.
Finding it in the Budget
Forest Park reserved more than $10 million for the Police Department. This is about a 7.21% increase or $684,178 from last year.
Riverdale, a neighboring city of comparable size, has a police budget that is substantially less than Forest Park, about $3.8 million.
Several items contribute to the increase for Forest Park. First, there was an increase in salaries by $119,940—which adds to around $4.5 million. The explanation provided in the budget was “based on the hiring of (1) Accreditation/Quality Assurance and (1) Grant Administrator.” In other words, general salaries have been updated based on professional skills and standards. There is also an additional $100,000 for overtime or a 63% increase for “officers reference special events,” according to the budget explanation.
Some of the percentage increases are in the “purchase and contract service” subcategory. For example, the city has reserved hefty amounts for radio equipment, air card expenses and equipment — a 1,055% increase and a 400% increase, respectively.
In the budget, explanations for supply increases included the following.
- “Air card/Maintenance: …due to implementation of body cameras, cell phones, and additional air cards”
- “Radio Surveillance: …based on the purchase of a New License Plate Reader And Flock Camera”
The greatest percentage increase in total is in the “CAPITAL OUTLAYS” subcategory. Purchases include
- “Computer Hardware/Software: …based on the purchase of Optiview Software for Records”
- “$130,000 for “the purchase of 2 new Animal Control Vehicles.”
The City’s Response
While the police and some members of the city council have not responded to inquiries for the increases in supplies, council member Gutierrez framed it as additional accountability as well as a matter of updating outdated equipment, particularly for the fire department. Chief Nathaniel Clark did not respond to Canopy Atlanta’s requests for comment regarding the increases.
Youth and Education
At least 25% of the respondents Canopy Atlanta heard from were concerned about the quality and accessibility of educational opportunities, from high school dropout rates to the lack of “YMCA or other resources for the youth in the area.” Their sentiments reflect learning gaps provided by data from the 2020 American Survey. In Forest Park, the dropout rate is 28%, significantly higher than the state average of 13%. On a broader scale, Clayton County students underperformed in standardized testing, with less than 50% of students, from elementary to high school, classified as proficient in reading and math.
As previously reported by Canopy Atlanta, Kesha Crockett, current chair of the Forest Park Local School Council and parent to a senior at Forest Park High School, has expressed frustration with the budget and transparency. “I asked for the document several times and didn’t receive it. They’re asking for our opinion on the Title 1 parent compact, but not giving us the budget or what they’re using the money for… It was more collegiate and not in layman’s terms,” she said.
Finding it in the Budget
The Forest Park school budget is managed by the Clayton County Board of Education. For this year, the board approved $744 million for county schools, administrations, learning programs and services.
While early childhood education does have considerable weight, special education has more funding for instruction per student in comparison to other educational categories, with more than $18 million from a federal government grant. On the other hand, for early childhood programs, the state provides most of the funding.
Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning granted Clayton County around $2 million for the Bright From the Start Program, a lottery-funded educational program to prepare four-year-old children with the learning experience needed to prepare for kindergarten. Additionally, the federal government has approved more than $32 million for Title I Schools’, funding which is “to be used to narrow the educational gap between disadvantaged children and other children in those areas where the highest concentration of children from low income families attend school,” according to the Clayton County Budget explanation.
How does the Clayton County School Budget compare with other counties with similar student enrollment? The number ranges.
The City of Atlanta Board of Education budget is almost double that of Clayton’s, with $1.4 billion reserved for its public schools. On the other hand, with a slightly lower student population, Henry County has reserved a smaller budget of around only $414.5 million for schools. It is interesting to note that Henry County has a lower dropout rate (9%) than Clayton, but similar to Atlanta.
Schools in the Forest Park area include five elementary schools, two junior high schools, and one senior high school. From Clayton’s Board of Education budget, around $14.3 million is reserved for Forest Park High School’s total general fund budget. Forest Park Middle School received $6.7 million. Its elementary schools, Edmond Elementary and Unidos Dual Language School both received more than $ 4.5 million, respectively. To learn more about more schools and their budget allotment, see Clayton’s Board of Education budget.
The City’s Response
The City of Forest Park does not have a specific allocation for education, but does reserve some money for youth recreational activities, which indirectly could lead to increased educational opportunities.
“We are currently offering an after-school program to the local schools. We offer transportation from the schools; homework assists and different active programs,” City Manager Cooper said.
“We currently offer different sporting activities such as soccer, baseball, basketball, tumbling, and dance. We are looking to implement different workshops for team building, financial freedom, and leadership skills for the teens.”
When interviewed about the budget, Councilman Gutierrez expressed support for more educational opportunities. Because the budget does not cover education expenses beyond recreational activities, he is working with community members to start a local scholarship fund and build free mini libraries around Forest Park.
Ultimately, residents that express these concerns about Forest Park usually note it comes from a place of love for the city. They want to see Forest Park grow and become better—without it becoming too expensive and forcing out residents that have lived there for decades. They also would like to see the local government being responsive to residents’ needs and communicating how they plan to address those needs.
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