City Seeks One Cent Sales Tax Renewal, but Missing Water Deadlines
(APN) ATLANTA — Today, Tuesday, March 06, 2012, Atlanta voters will consider the second renewal of the Municipal Option Sales Tax (MOST), a one penny sales tax–Atlanta’s eighth penny–which funds water and sewer infrastructure improvements.
As previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, the infrastructure improvements are mandated under two consent decrees: a Combined Sever Overflow Consent Decree between the City of Atlanta, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD), and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dated 1998; and a First Amended Consent Decree (FACD) dated 1999. These consent decrees were to address major pollution problems where raw sewage was entering the Chattahoochee River and other streams and rivers in the Atlanta area.
The City had a deadline to complete all work under the FACD by 2014, but has already sought to receive support from the EPA for a fifteen year extension to 2029. According to a copy of the City’s Extension Request submitted to EPA on April 30, 2010, there are about one hundred projects throughout Atlanta that the City has failed to complete on time, for a total cost of 2.078 billion dollars.
The late projects include Sewer Assets; Wastewater Treatment Plant Assets and Compliance; Water Assets; Water Treatment Plants and Facilities, Assets, and Compliance; and some projects not included in City’s Comprehensive Investment Plan.
The City of Atlanta is seeking currently sales tax revenue of an estimated 122 million dollars per year for four more years, from 2012 to 2016, in funding in order to repay bonds for some work already completed, and to finish other certain projects pursuant the First Amended Consent Decree by 2014, even though Mayor Shirley Franklin promised Atlantans that the projects would be finished by 2012.
During an October 16, 2002, press conference regarding the Clean Water Atlanta campaign, then-Mayor Franklin said, “As a part of Operation Clean Sewer – and this is truly important – I am today directing [Commissioner] Jack Ravan to put in place an action plan under which the City will meet its Sanitary Sewer Consent Decree obligations two years earlier than required under the federal court order.”
“For too long the City has responded to urgent problems by seeking delays. Clean Water Atlanta is an action program, and I will not allow us to seek any delays in meeting our clean water obligations. So I committing to EPA and EPD, to City Council, to the many environmental groups joining me today, and to every resident of Atlanta, that we will finish all of our Consent Decree requirements by 2012,” Franklin said at the time.
“Politicians say a lot of things,” Sally Bethea, Founding Director of UCR, told APN, emphasizing that the FACD deadline has remain unchanged from 2014. “Shirley’s not mayor anymore. She may have wanted it done by 2012.”
Bethea said that she felt the City had made good progress, particularly towards preventing pollution into the river.
“We got a lot accomplished in ten years with those funds,” she said.
“By 2014, if MOST passes, 99 percent of the volume of sewage flowing in the creek will have been stopped, and [water and sewer] rates won’t go up thirty percent to get that work done,” she said, noting that before the Consent Decrees, fecal matter and tampons would be found flowing through Atlanta’s creeks.
“The money raised from MOST will help ensure major capital projects will be done by 2014. The remaining work to be done, the City is working with the EPA to get an extension. With the recession, the drought, and everything, the federal government has determined the ratepayers are paying a high burden,” she said.
The high burden is important because it is part of the argument the City is using to justify getting a time extension on the FACD.
“They’ve done about two-thirds of that work [for the FACD]. They have smaller pipes and lines in areas where they’ve had problems, but not huge problems of significant overflow. They tackled the biggest problems first,” she said.
“Whether pollution is going into various rivers and streams, yeah that has been caught. There are other projects that need to be done… [such as] if it backs up in somebody’s house, or overflows into the street,” Robert Schreiber, a clean water activist, told APN.
Bethea said she did not know whether the City would seek additional MOSTs in 2016, 2020, and so on. “It’s possible, but I have no idea.”
However, Schreiber predicted the City would seek additional MOSTs, and predicted that even though the Mayor recently promised no water and sewer rate increases for the next three years as long as MOST passes, that the administration would seek future increases as soon as the three years expires.
Schreiber criticized the City for what he described as poor fiscal management of the water and sewer system under the FACD.
Schreiber noted that the FACD was signed in 1999, and that Franklin promised early completion in a speech in 2002, but that the City did not pursue the MOST nor raise water and sewer rates until 2004.
“The City should have immediately gone back and immediately raised water and sewer rates. They knew they had to make these expenditures. The longer you wait to pay for something, the less time you have [available] to pay,” Schreiber said.