2005 Profile in Courage Award Recipient Shirley Franklin became Mayor of Atlanta in 2001, having never before run for public office. She inherited an $82 million budget deficit – about a fifth of the city’s total budget – and a crisis of confidence in the public management of the city. Atlanta’s sewer system needed immediate and massive repairs, and its homeless population was growing at an alarming rate. While many cities were struggling with budget deficits and other problems, Atlanta’s woes were known to be among the most daunting.
Instead of blaming her predecessor or glossing over the depth of the crisis, Franklin responded by leveling with Atlantans about the extent of the city’s problems, and asked everyone to bear the burden of solving them. She raised property taxes nearly 50%, slashed city services and eliminated 1,000 jobs from the city payroll, cut her own staff and salary, and imposed the strictest code of ethics for public employees anywhere in the state.
To deal with the sewer crisis, she asked for a threefold hike in city sewer fees, forged unlikely alliances with skeptical state leaders and the business community, and in an economy that was straining to recover from the dot-com bust, she convinced the Atlanta electorate to vote in favor of a hike in the sales tax. Then, two years into her term, she asked for another property tax hike.
Any one of these actions might have been a career-ending political risk for a newly-elected office holder. But Franklin’s blunt insistence upon fiscal solvency and her unblinking acceptance of the political risks of her decisions were instead met with cheers. Her popularity soared. “People want someone who’ll just tell it like it is,” she said in a media interview.