By David Pendered
The incoming Atlanta City Council is to face two thorny issues the past council voted in December to punt to the city’s new leadership: Tree protection and solid waste fees.
These matters aren’t on the agenda of an event billed as the council’s “First Organizational Meeting,” slated to begin Monday two hours after the conclusion of the 1 p.m. inauguration ceremony. The issues are waiting in the wings.
The incoming council has a new president, Doug Shipman, and five members new to the 15-person body. Two incoming members served previously. Councilmember-elect Mary Norwood now represents parts of Buckhead, after serving the entire city. Councilmember-elect Alex Wan returns to represent parts of Midtown and Druid Hills, and Shipman plans to appoint Wan Monday to a one-year term on the Piedmont Park Conservancy.
Two separate tree protection ordinances had been offered last year and were to be considered at a Dec. 16, 2021 work session of the council’s Community Development/Human Services Committee. The work session was canceled and the council voted Dec. 20, 2021, to defer the legislation. New proposals are to be introduced if the process of enacting a new ordinance is to continue.
The cancellation came after the council had postponed indefinitely a work session scheduled in May on the proposed tree ordinance. Hopes at that time were so high that a citizen’s blended draft could be accepted that Oscar Harris, founder of Turner Associates Architects and Planners, wrote a column in SaportaReport describing trees as Atlanta’s “green soul” and supporting the citizen’s blended draft, which reflected residents’ input along with the city’s position.
Returning Councilmember Michael Julian Bond had introduced legislation that contained a citizens’ blended draft. The other paper was submitted by former Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit, who did not seek reelection.
Efforts to update the tree protection ordinance have been underway, intermittently, for a decade. Atlanta’s Department of City Planning has been working since 2018 to revise the existing ordinance, adopted in 2001, in a manner that satisfies constituents including residents and developers.
The proposal to revise Atlanta’s solid waste fees and related matters was handled by Councilmember Jennifer Ide, in her role as chair of the council’s Finance/Executive Committee. Ide did not seek reelection.
The paper drew plenty of attention. For starters, it called for a rate hike even as a worker shortage caused a cutback in yard collections. The proposal was presented after Atlanta paid $19 million to settle a lawsuit filed after the previous rate hike. A petition on change.org attracted nearly 1,000 signatures on a page attributed to “End Atlanta’s Unfair Solid Waste Fees.”
The proposal was to raise rates for residential trash pickup to $409.55 per year, effective July 1, 2022. Some exemptions were provided. A new section established procedures for administrative hearings that must be followed before a lawsuit is filed in court.
The $19 million settlement resolved a lawsuit brought by owners of commercial and multi-family properties. The lawsuit was filed after a new structure of waste fees was imposed in a revision of rates in 2019.
The owners who filed the lawsuit contended that owners, citywide, had paid a total of almost $80 million that was illegally assessed. The owners and city agreed in October to the settlement to resolve the case, “McKillips, et al. v. City of Atlanta,” filed in Fulton County Superior Court. The legislation Ide had sponsored removed the entire section that triggered the $19 million settlement.
Atlanta’s sanitary waste collection system has been beleaguered since at least the early 2000s. Challenges continued this year, with labor shortages that resulted in yard waste left on curbs. The lack of service for which residents had paid prompted Matzigkeit to say the city may need to consider rebating some portion of the payments to offset the service shortages.
Other policy discussions awaiting the council include the proposal by returning Councilmember Amir Farokhi to enable more residences to be built near some MARTA rail stations. The city’s capital improvements budget, funded with impact fees, and the list of projects to be funded if voters endorse $750 million in tax referendums on the May 24 ballot are likely to be revisited. The pending Buckhead cityhood effort is to unfold at City Hall and the Capitol. The state Legislature convenes Jan. 10.