Atlanta prepares to ask voters to extend 1 percent sales tax for water, sewer upgrades

By David Pendered

Atlanta is starting the process to call a referendum on extending the 1 percent sales tax to pay for water and sewer upgrades. The proposal is to be on the ballot March 1, 2016, the same day Georgians are to vote for presidential nominees.

Tanyard Creek, toilet paper

Toilet paper hanging from tree branches was a frequent sight along Tanyard Creek after heavy rains prompted raw sewage to flow into the waterway. Credit: esciencecommons.blogspot.com

The proposed extension of the municipal option sales tax  would last four years. It would raise a maximum of $750 million to fund water and sewer projects and costs.

The existing sales tax is slated to sunset Sept. 30, 2016. If Atlanta voters reject the extension of the sales tax, the $750 million could be collected through even higher water and sewer rates. Before the 2012 referendum to extend the tax, city officials said rates would rise by 30 percent if the sales tax were not extended.

Atlanta has some of the highest water rates in the country, according to the federal government.

Atlanta City Councilmember Natalyn Archibong introduced legislation at the council’s Oct. 19 meeting to call the referendum. The legislation is due for debate Wednesday at the meeting of the council’s Finance/Executive Committee. The council could consider voting on the paper as early as its Nov. 2 meeting, presuming the committee chaired by Councilmember Alex Wan approves the legislation.

The expensive repairs result from the city’s neglect of its sewer system through most of the 20th century. The total price is expected to exceed $4 billion.

The Greensferry Sewer Separation project was built as part of Atlanta's effort to eliminate combined sewer overflows in the city. Credit: lachel.com

The Greensferry Sewer Separation project was built as part of Atlanta’s effort to eliminate combined sewer overflows in the city. Credit: lachel.com

These issues relate to the recent situation in the Peoplestown neighborhood, near Turner Field, where longtime resident Mattie Jackson was among those to be relocated as part of the city’s effort to manage chronic flooding. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced Oct. 8 that Jackson could remain in her home while city officials review alternative methods to address the storm water runoff.

Atlanta is required to make the repairs because of two consent agreements the city signed with the state and federal governments to address persistent leaks of untreated sewage into streams and the Chattahoochee River.

A 1998 consent decree required Atlanta to fix combined sewer overflows, a mixture of storm water and sanitary sewage, which the EPA says, “discharge excess wastewater directly into waterways during wet weather events.” The city completed most of the $760 million project by 2009, the EPA said.

A 1999 consent decree required Atlanta to fix sanitary sewer overflows and, by 2012, Atlanta had spent $1.5 billion on the effort, according to the EPA.

MOST 2012

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed led the campaign in 2012 to extend the 1 percent municipal option sales tax, appearing here on a campaign flyer.

When the sales tax was conceived, the notion was that a sales and use tax would share the burden of upgrading the sewer fix with folks who visit or work in Atlanta.

Atlanta voters chose to create the sales tax in a referendum in July 2004. They have voted twice since then to extend the sales tax – in 2008 and again in 2012.

The high cost of repairs to the water and sewer systems has prompted the federal government to extend the deadline Atlanta faced to complete necessary repairs. The initial deadline was July 1, 2014. U.S. District Judge Thomas Thrash extended the deadline to July 1, 2027.

In announcing its support for extending the deadline, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cited the more than $2 billion Atlanta had spent by 2012 to comply with consent decrees related to the city’s long record of allowing untreated sewage to be released into creeks and rivers, in violation of the Clean Water Act.

The EPA cited concern for ratepayers in its 2012 announcement of what then was the planned extension:

  • “The proposed extension would reduce the financial burden on Atlanta ratepayers who are already paying some of the highest rates in the country, and allow the City to simultaneously address competing priorities to improve its drinking water system.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

6 replies
  1. health_impact says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. It’s a big priority for me to get our
    waterways cleaned up and make them into assets. But the city is missing
    massive opportunities in green infrastructure that could simultaneously
    make our streets and parks nicer, and reduce the cost of the sewer
    infrastructure. For example, if you look along the streetcar route on
    Auburn Ave, you see these very expensive planted beds surrounded by
    curb, with a little gutter cut. As a result, all of the water gushes
    down the hill, turning the street and the sidewalk into rivers and
    flooding the low-lying areas in Sweet Auburn… They could have been
    built as little rain gardens at no extra cost, and help retain some of
    that water. And don’t even get me started on all of the surface parking
    lots that keep getting approved, the required retention ponds that do
    little actual retaining but just feed runoff into the stormwater system, the wide street requirements, and so much more…Report

    Reply
  2. JWK says:

    I have mixed feelings as well. Extending the sales tax with those exorbitant rates in place put a very heavy burden on homeowners in the City. I am not sure that they share the proportionate cost of the burden. In addition, I think a full blown financial audit of the City Water Department is in order given the malfeasance that has been documented. I want to know where the money is being spent, who is getting the construction projects and if they are getting true value for the money being spent.Report

    Reply
  3. poulie says:

    You are kidding me right?  Voting for a tax increase?  Forget it.  As we all know these tax increases NEVER go away and, worse still, NEVER pay for what they are intended to pay for.  The tax they want to extend (again) has been in place for 16+ years and they have not come close to fixing the problem.  Why?  Because idiots continue to vote “yes” for tax increases.  Remember the T-SPOLSH for road improvements?  Thank the Lord that was voted down and, as stated when that disaster was being debated, they will find the money somewhere.  Sure enough they found the money for various road projects faster then if the tax was in place (i.e. I285/GA 400 interchange).  We need to stop trusting government with open checkbooks.  JWK is correct a big time audit is required as they have received millions of dollars with nothing to show for it. 

    Please people wake up and start to question the way government spends our money!!Report

    Reply
  4. DownstreamPoopRecipient says:

    Time to Cowboy up, Atlanta.  The Clean Water Act took effect in 1973.  You’ve been given an extension for another thirteen years (!!) to comply with its goals and mandates.  If you’re proud of Atlanta’s stature as an international city, it means you should be ashamed of the fact that it’s also “The City Too Busy to Stop Crapping Itself.”  Fix it.  Complaining about retaining a 1% sales tax sounds tremendously whiney in light of this.Report

    Reply
  5. Native Atlantan says:

    Question.  I assuming the 1% sales tax was implemented in 2004.  As of 2012, apparently $2 billion had been spent on the water/sewer fix.  How much 1% sales tax revenue was taken in from 2004-2012?  What is the balance in the water/sewer fix account?  Simple accountability.  Actually, I’d like to support the sales tax extension and fix the problems, but we need some accountability on how much revenue is being brought in and how much is being used to fix this problem.Report

    Reply

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