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.
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.
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.
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.”