APN Chat with Atlanta Mayoral Candidate, State Sen. Kasim Reed
(APN) ATLANTA — State Sen. Kasim Reed (D-Atlanta), a 2009 candidate for Mayor of Atlanta, sat down with Atlanta Progressive News for a 45 minute interviewing concerning key issues of the day.
Reed is a seven year veteran of the State Senate and four year veteran of the State House.
His Senate seat was previously held by Donzella James; James plans to re-seek the seat in a special election.
As part of our series on the 2009 Mayoral and Council races, APN recently posed almost the same list of questions to Councilman Ceasar Mitchell, also a Mayoral candidate, in a recently published article.
Councilwoman Mary Norwood, also a candidate for Mayor, expressed interest in an interview last year; however, calls to her home and campaign office have not been immediately returned.
APN asked questions about crime, affordable housing, the budget process, homelessness, and even casino gambling. Here are his responses:
HOW CAN WE INCREASE AFFORDABLE HOUSING?
We can increase affordable housing by taking advantage of the lowest real estate prices that we will see for another 30 years. Now really is the time for the City to be aggressive in using its land bank capability to acquire real estate.
We should give some consideration to figuring out a way of making different decisions to muster the resources to acquire property right now.
While we have limited fiscal resources right now, I believe that it is a very good time to be in the market to make strategic real estate acquisitions.
That may mean that another area has to do with less but I really view the downturn in the real estate market as a once in a lifetime opportunity to create affordable housing in areas where people would actually want to live.
How do you define affordable housing? Is it something for teachers and police officers or for minimum wage workers?
I think it’s a blend. I think that people that provide the services that we need in Atlanta are as important as people that have intellectual skills or white-collar positions, for example.
When you’re building a great city [you are] constantly looking at a blend of those so that an individual that earns $21,000 to $35,000 has an opportunity at home ownership.
You have 6,000 condominiums in the City of Atlanta that will likely be foreclosed on in the next 36 months. And these are condominiums that were built with a plan to sell them for a quarter of a million [dollars and] up.
What you’re seeing is those units are being sold in the hundreds [of thousands of dollars]. People who traditionally would not have been able to afford them really have an opportunity.
But that doesn’t include the public sector and I think we have an obligation in the public space to try to build both workforce and affordable housing in places that are close to jobs so that when you are finished working at the end of your day, your commute home is not as long as the time you were at work and for some of our citizens that is the case
I think the range for affordable housing is more in the neighborhood of $25,000 to the $55,000 to $75,000 range.
(NOTE: It is not clear whether Reed means that would be the range of affordable housing costs, or whether what would be the income bracket for families who could afford his notion of affordable housing. APN will attempt to get clarification and will post it here.)
DO YOU THINK CRIME IS A PROBLEM? IS THE ISSUE OVERBLOWN? WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE ABOUT IT?
Crime is a real issue and I don’t believe it is overblown. When people feel unsafe, the answer is not to tell them their fear is irrational. So I don’t start there.
I believe – and have been saying it for now several months — that Atlanta’s police force is too small. We have a police force of 1,650 officers and we have added 100,000 people [residents] since 2000.
While the City has had substantial new growth, the footprint of our police force has gone from about 1,350 to about 1,650.
[NOTE: Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington estimated last week that Atlanta has just over 1,700 officers on the street right now and projected the City needs at least 2,000.]
I think that Atlanta needs 2,500 police officers. I authored Senate Bill 77 which I think would take us a long way toward achieving that goal.
[NOTE: SB 77 would “create a special district in all municipal corporations which employ in excess of 1,500 police officers and firefighters combined, impose and levy a special district tax within such districts for the purpose of providing all or a portion of the salaries for police officers and firefighters, provide for a referendum, [and] provide for adjustment of such tax rate.”]
The other thing we need to be focused on right now is, once again, we have a unique opportunity as a result of President Obama’s stimulus package to apply for $2 billion in funds that are available for police officers. But the catch is that you cannot apply and use those dollars to expand your force if you can’t continue [to expand].
That’s why in January I, along with several of my colleagues in the Senate, proposed a [tax] levy by referendum — I’d like to push back on this notion of a blanket tax increase — that if the voters decide is appropriate would go to end the furloughs for police and fire and that revenue would be used to grow the police force in a robust way. That revenue could be used to match the President’s stimulus dollars
I also think focusing on police morale and the morale of the firefighters is another vital component of keeping them in place.
Chief Pennington mentioned last week that the challenge is not recruiting police officers but keeping them longer than two or three years. How can we keep police officers and firefighters in place longer?
One, we can use innovative methods that involve providing them with discounted housing and having a concentrated program that allows them to live in the communities that they protect.
Atlanta has had those kinds of programs in the past. They are not extremely expensive, certainly, with the large number of foreclosures that we are experiencing right now.
I authored a bill that I think would be helpful to police officers and firefighters and teachers that would allow the City the option of waving the property taxes on the homes of officers. That would be a real big punch.
If you were able to waive the property tax bill for police and fire officers, one, you’d have a firefighter and a police person living in your community, stabilizing the community.
The other thing is that would be a very nice pay raise for the police officer that they were not taxed on. So as opposed to additional compensation in their paycheck you can provide them with an additional benefit that they were not liable for from a tax standpoint.
MAYOR SHIRLEY FRANKLIN INSTITUTED A TEN-YEAR PLAN TO END HOMELESSNESS. WOULD YOU APPROACH THE ISSUE DIFFERENTLY?
What I would do is make sure that The Gateway Center is at the center of the homelessness effort. I would make sure that that remained as the quarterback, so to speak, of all homeless issues in the City of Atlanta.
I would have a much greater collaboration with the organizations that specialize in dealing with the homeless challenge in our City so that they could benefit more from the Gateway.
I also believe that if you want to truly address homelessness, you have to make sure the financial affairs of the City are in order because whenever the city’s budget contracts and tightens certainly where it is today, very often the first individuals and organizations that suffer are the organizations that support and help the least of these.
When you’re focused like a laser on making sure the City has robust controls and strong finances and that we have made it through the challenges that we have had in the CFO’s office, then you’re actually giving yourself capacity to help homelessness.
For example, the City of Atlanta has a pension benefit cost that is literally absorbing dollars that could be used for homelessness and to help our citizens but right now our pension costs are absorbing almost one in five dollars of the city’s general fund.
The pension cost is up from $31 million in 2000 to more than $120 million today. The next Mayor is really going to have to address that in a forward-leaning manner so that it doesn’t continue to absorb all of your resources.
WOULD YOU REINSTATE A FUNDING RECOMMENDATION FOR THE METRO ATLANTA TASK FORCE FOR THE HOMELESS, WHICH MAYOR FRANKLIN RESCINDED?
The answer is yes, but what I would also do is to make sure that we look at all of the funding needs for the issue of homelessness from the standpoint of measurable differences so that we know exactly what each organization is doing, how they’re treating people, and the difference that they’re making in individuals’ lives and tie that metric to funding going forward.
But I want to be very clear that the lead on all homelessness issues would be a person that I would select and empower to move my agenda regarding homelessness and they would be working in concert with The Gateway Center.
A homeless czar?
I’m not going to use the word homeless czar but what I would do is to have a person that reported directly to the mayor and that person had the power they needed to make a difference and that person spoke for me when I was not directly present.
A point person?
Stronger than a point person but the person who’s responsible for that issue on a day in, day out [basis]. I happen to think a great deal of Debi Starnes and her work in the homeless [issue area]. She has shown an extraordinary level of commitment. But her or someone like her that is really willing to do the hard part of working through the issue around homelessness would really be the model.
[NOTE: Starnes is a former Atlanta City Council Member and serves as Mayor Franklin’s advisor on homeless issues. Starnes has been a staunch critic of the Task Force.]
MAYOR FRANKLIN HAS BEEN A STRONG EXECUTIVE DURING HER TENURE. SOME HAVE INTERPRETED THAT AS A MY WAY OR THE HIGHWAY APPROACH. WOULD YOU TAKE THE SAME POSITION OR WOULD YOU TRY TO WORK MORE WITH THE COUNCIL?
That is one area where my career as a legislator will bring value to the job of Mayor. I have worked in the collaborative process for my entire career. It’s just absolutely necessary. You don’t get things done, certainly the kinds of things I’ve been able to get done at the Georgia State Capitol, without working in a collaborative fashion.
Culturally, I don’t know anything else. I think the Mayor’s [Franklin] career development was executive-driven. There are some people who will criticize me for a lack of executive experience.
I happen to believe that I have a good blend of skills but I know what a legislative body is like when the leader of that body doesn’t listen and when the leader does. I prefer the way that the body functions when the leader listens. It makes a great deal of difference how fast you can do hard things.
I actually enjoy the give and take of the legislative process I like the exchange of ideas that goes on.
HOW WOULD YOU MAKE THE BUDGET PROCESS MORE TRANSPARENT TO THE MAYOR AND THE COUNCIL?
I’d make the process more transparent by prior to getting into the budget writing process — once I made a judgment about what I would want the priorities to be for the city — engaging in a citizen tour, so to speak, where you just go out and spend a lot of nights out on the road making the case for where you want to take the city on an annual basis.
That process would occur somewhere near 45 days prior to the work so that way citizens could take your measure directly, ask tough questions directly.
Members of the press would have an opportunity to watch you defend your budget and that would be very helpful from an accountability standpoint because the cornerstone of transparency is disclosure.
The extent that you can show and share over a sustained period of time where I want to go – at least the public had an opportunity to question you eye to eye, look you in the face before you get to what I call the sausage making process.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO ABOUT THE CURRENT BUDGET SHORTFALL?
The first thing I’d do is to always use zero-based budgets so that we never start a new budget year based upon last year’s budget. Everybody always has to justify why there is a function occurring and how it relates back to the charter of the City.
The second thing is to recruit a best-in-class finance team so that they city has confidence in what they are hearing and learning.
The third thing is to have one of the major four accounting firms fully audit the City on an annual basis and make that audit of the city public and available on every single library in the City of Atlanta so that we have a level of transparency that inspires a level of confidence.
DID THE MAYOR MAKE ANY CUTS YOU DID NOT AGREE WITH?
Not furloughing police officers and firefighters would have been worth whatever cuts that we made in another area of government.
WHAT IS YOUR OPINION OF THE BELTLINE?
The BeltLine is very important. We were working very hard [in the General Assembly] to resolve the differences between GDOT, Amtrak, and Atlanta just last week.
I believe the BeltLine is an essential element for Atlanta’s future economic development. Its economic development components are more important to me than any other economic development initiative in Atlanta that we have.
I do not agree with the notion that the BeltLine should be a 30-year project. While we should have a 30-year vision for it, I think that we need to be prepared when the economy turns and Atlanta is on a stronger fiscal foot, after we get through the next 12 months, 24 months of this tough economy when Atlanta is robust again.
We need to consider every way that we can to compress the amount of time to get the BeltLine done. I have seen no less than three proposals that show a path to getting the majority of the BeltLine built in a shorter time frame than 30 years.
A 30-year vision requires an enormous amount of patience and public will.
Is there something there for everybody?
The vision is a good vision but issues of equality and determining whether something is equitable or not is a constant work. You don’t have an equitable standard and walk away. Equitable standards are determined by people who care about that issue, being involved in the process, having a voice in the process, and having power in the process.
If you are a true progressive, it is a constant work. You don’t do one thing and get it and have it. It’s something that you work at every single day because if you turn away from that, then something that was good, equitable, and wholesome can become something that you thought it was not going to be.
Do you have plans to ensure that future Tax Allocation District (TAD) bond proceeds are invested in the three other quadrants of the project? Some complain that the first TAD bond proceeds from Fall 2008 went exclusively into the Northeast quadrant.
Your readers ensure it. That is about transparency. I happen to know a little bit about the investment in the northern quadrant and that had to do with that being an essential piece for development for the whole BeltLine.
Constant vigilance is required and it’s really not meant to disparage any elected officials. Elected officials are human beings. Your readers and others working on us and making sure we stay true to a balanced vision is what’s required.
THE CITY COUNCIL BACKS CASINO GAMBLING AT UNDERGROUND ATLANTA. DO YOU?
I don’t support it at this time. There are better economic initiatives that are more representative of who we are than a gaming casino. I don’t believe the current proposal would provide an appropriate benefit to the citizens of Atlanta.
I happen to think there are other areas we could put our energy into that would yield bigger gains for the City of Atlanta than the current proposal.
WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP LIKE BETWEEN THE CITY OF ATLANTA AND THE STATE LEGISLATURE?
It is better than it has been in the past. Atlanta has been able to get a lot done through the Georgia legislature. That is an area that is unique among the people who are running for Mayor.
I have a record in the Georgia General Assembly of working on important pieces of legislation in a bipartisan fashion.
[NOTE: Reed here listed four examples: the water and sewer sales tax bill; consolidating the traffic court and the municipal court for an annual savings of $6 million; changing the reporting requirements at Atlanta’s school board; and coauthoring the constitutional amendment which worked to address the TAD crisis and allow more TAD money to flow.]
IS THERE ANYTHING THE CITY CAN DO TO HELP GRADY MEMORIAL HOSPITAL WITH ITS PERSISTENT FUNDING ISSUES?
I don’t think that’s an issue for the city. [The Assembly] passed a trauma care funding bill last night [HB 160] that I think will help raise significant [trauma funds].
Anytime you substantially increase the overall pool of money for trauma, you help Grady because Grady gets a disproportionate amount of the dollars because of the nature of its mission.
The Mayor can play a role because the Mayor is an opinion shaper and an opinion influencer. The Mayor should be adding their voice to make sure there is appropriate trauma funding and walking in front of this thing and walking behind this thing on any legislation that is related to trauma care
At the Capitol relationships matter a great deal. I have a record of converting those relationships and making them beneficial for the City of Atlanta in the four specific examples that I laid out.
IS THERE ANYTHING MORE THE CITY CAN DO TO HELP MARTA?
(NOTE: MARTA benefits from sales taxes collected in Atlanta, Fulton County, and DeKalb County.)
MARTA should be in the forefront of the Mayor’s mind. It is vital to what Atlanta wants to be.
Working with a future governor of Georgia to begin to secure money for light rail [would be important].
About the author:
Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for The Atlanta Progressive News, and is reachable is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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