By Maria Saporta
Story has been updated
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed briefed the executive committee of the Metro Atlanta Chamber this morning on the state transportation funding bills, the city’s pension crisis and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
“Those are the core issues that they care about,” Reed said after spending about 45 minutes meeting with the business organization.
Reed said there still is an opportunity to “get a meaningful transportation bill this session,” and he urged the business leaders to “redouble our efforts” in the last two weeks of the session.
“The conference committee is in place, and we are capable of getting a bill in place,” Reed said he told the executives. But he added that their “help is vital.”
Reed also used the opportunity to give the chamber leaders an update on the city’s ever-increasing pension obligations.
“What we can do immediately is to bend the spending curve, both the size of the workforce and the increase in costs related to pension benefits,” Reed said. That is growing at 9 percent to 14 percent a year, and that’s unsustainable.”
Reed said he would be laying out part of his plan to deal with the city’s pension problems at the 2010 State of the City Business Breakfast on Friday morning at the Hilton Atlanta.
The last topic the mayor discussed with business leaders was the future leadership at Atlanta’s airport. Ben DeCosta, the airport’s general manager, has decided to step down from his position at the end of June.
“We will have an open and transparent process as we’ve had for the other cabinet positions,” Reed said of the upcoming search for DeCosta’s successor. “I also expressed my sense, that because of the reputation of Atlanta’s airport, it will be a relatively easy search. We have the biggest airport, the biggest airline.”
And Reed added that the universe of major airport general managers is fairly small, which narrows the number of potential candidates.
One person who will not be Hartsfield-Jackson’s next general manager is Mario Diaz, who has been serving as the deputy. Diaz was recruited to run Houston’s airport, and he will be starting that job next month.
“He had a guarantee with the folks in Houston, and given that opportunity, he just couldn’t pass it up,” Reed said. “It does speak to the depth of leadership that we have at the airport.”
Meanwhile, Reed, DeCosta and Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson are getting ready to sell bonds to finance the airport’s expansion.
“The process will begin in the next 10 to 15 days,” Reed said of the proposed bond sale.
It is expected that the city will first go to market wanting to sell up to $800 million in bonds to build the international terminal. About 90 days after that sale is complete (likely in late summer or early fall), the city will then try to sell another $590 million, partly for refinancing existing debt service. Then next year, the city could try to sell another $500 million in bonds for a possible total of $1.9 billion.
Reed said the search for DeCosta’s replacement will not begin until after the bonds are sold. Reed said having an ongoing search while DeCosta is on the phone trying to help in that bond issue might confuse potential buyers.
“I think that would be a big distraction while we are selling the bonds,” Reed said.
After the executive committee meeting, chamber leaders spoke of how well Mayor Reed did in his presentation.
“It was clear to every one in the room that he’s on top of issues, he’s got a plan, and he’s going to implement that plan,” said Mike Garrett, president and CEO of Georgia Power and a past chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
Sam Williams, the chamber’s president agreed.
“The mayor knocked it out of the park,” Williams said. “The mayor really understands the legislative process and the status of the negotiations. The mayor said he was freeing up his calendar for the remaining days of the session. He said he will be shoulder to shoulder to make sure we get a good regional TSPLOST.”
Later in the day, at the Regional Transit Committee meeting, Reed acknowledged that he had made that pledge to chamber leaders.
“The passage of the bill is so important, and on close votes, one or two votes matter,” Reed said. “I’ll do what I can to be helpful and to be effective. You need to stay real close to the process.”