By Maria Saporta
Residents of the City of Atlanta soon will be asked to pass a penny sales tax to improve the its infrastructure.
Unlike the publicity surrounding the regional transportation sales tax referendum to be held in July, a referendum to continue investing in the city’s water and sewer infrastructure only now is getting limited attention — and the vote is only days away — on March 6.
But don’t interpret the low-key campaign effort as a lack of enthusiasm for MOST — the Municipal Option Sales Tax.
In fact, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said that if he had to pick between passage of the MOST sewer tax and the transportation sales tax, he would pick the MOST tax.
“MOST is more important,” Reed said. “I don’t get confused about what my job is. My job is to make sure this city is strong. It would generate $100 million a year in water and sewer repair. If we had not had MOST, between $16 billion and $18 billion in economic development would have been hampered.”
Voters have approved the MOST tax twice — in 2004 and 2008 — by more than 70 percent. Because this election is taking place on the same day as the contested Republican Presidential primary, the turnout is expected to be more conservative than for a general election.
Still, Reed said that polling of likely voters shows that the tax is favored by 59 percent. Even John Sherman, president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Association, has been supportive.
“John Sherman understands that if this tax is not passed, every single person living in the City of Atlanta will see their rates go up,” Reed said. “If it does pass, 40 percent of the cost will be covered by people visiting every day.”
Repairing and upgrading the city’s water and sewer infrastructure was mandated by two court-imposed consent decrees. Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin made it a top priority of her administration, and she even referred to herself as the “sewer mayor.”
The price tag — $4 billion.
”I think finding a path to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure was a pivotal moment in the history of our city,” Reed said, crediting Franklin for efforts. “When we are done, we will have one of the most modern water and sewer systems in the country. For 100 years, that wasn’t dealt with — no matter who was mayor. “
Reed said the city now has completed about $2 billion of a $4 billion work program. Early on, the city had hoped the federal and state governments would have helped pay for the water and sewer investment.
“The past is clear. We have not received significant federal support for the past eight years,” Reed said. “The lack of federal support may have been due to the Bush administration’s policies towards cities. I think President Obama’s administration is much more city centric.”
And while the state did not allocate direct grants to the city, it did provide low interest financing for a portion of the work. “Without that, the whole thing would have fallen apart,” Reed said.
Jo Ann Macrina, commissioner of the city’s Department of Watershed Management, said the city has no choice but to pay for the improvements to its water and sewer systems.
The only question is whether it will be paid for by the city’s rate payers, who already pay an average of $135 a months — thought to be the highest in the nation; or by out-of-town visitors as well as people who come into the city to work, shop or play through the sales tax.
If the tax passes this year, the city could go back to voters in 2016 to ask for another four-year extension. Reed said before a decision is made, he would reconvene a group of community stakeholders, including Mayor Franklin, to come up with a plan for the future.
A central issue in this conversation likely will be how green the city will be when making future water and sewer investments.
During the first consent decree, the court mandated that $25 million be spent on acquiring green space along the city’s waterways.
Also, during the first phase of the work, the city invested heavily in underground pipes and tunnels. But the Fourth Ward Park showed that the city could improve its water and storm water infrastructure while creating a park around a lake that could handle peak rainfalls.
“I think green infrastructure goes a long way towards creating sustainable environments,” said Macrina, who has been working on green infrastructure projects for 20 years.
“It’s a very effective approach to take when it comes to all of our water resources,” she added. “Not only is it good ecologically, but it is less expensive to maintain, and often, it’s less expensive to construct. And it certainly is a lot nicer to look at.”
Reed said that both sustainability and green space are top priorities of his administration.
“There’s no question we are going to do more with green space acquisition and that we are going to do more to clear our water ways through the city,” Reed said, adding that he plans to announce some partnerships with other organizations to help make that a reality.
Atlanta voters will be asked to make two significant investments in the city’s infrastructure this year — for its water and sewer systems and for its transportation network.
Both initiatives will be worth it if we are greening our city while investing in our water and sewer infrastructure, and as long as we are building and strengthening our transit systems.
They will go a long way to creating a livable city for the future. Fortunately, it’s not an either-or choice we have to make.