Fulton to Atlanta: Your sewer plan stinks

County Public Works says city would overspend by $1.8 billion

The new ruler of Fulton County, commission Chairwoman Karen Handel, is a staunch Republican and Gov. Sonny Perdue's former deputy chief of staff. The ruler of Atlanta, Mayor Shirley Franklin, is a Democratic up-and-comer from Georgia's den of liberalism.

Not even a common interest — namely protecting the region's ability to attract and retain new residents and businesses — has done much to make up for rivalries between their parties, and between the suburbs and the city.

Three times City Hall has asked Fulton County to approve a special sales tax to help fund court-ordered upgrades and expansions to Atlanta's sewer system. If approved, the new tax would have substantially offset the coming increase in sewer rates.

Three times Fulton County said no to the tax, even though almost all county residents use some part of the city's sewer and water systems.

Now comes another wedge to widen the rift. At Handel's request, Fulton's Public Works Department looked at the city's sewer plan, line by line, and concluded that the cost could be reduced by nearly half, $1.8 billion. The county's assessment, which was leaked to Creative Loafing, questioned the costs, timeliness and necessity of 85 of the 168 projects that make up Franklin's $3.7 billion plan.

"In our review, we found many projects that could be deferred or that may be a possible duplication of effort, or were, in our opinion, over-estimated," wrote the lead author of the analysis, Assistant Public Works Director Tim Equels.

For example, regarding a $39,639 project that would replace a 26-year-old water pipe, the Fulton team asked, "Is it possible to address the critical issues now and defer the rest? What is the driver?"

The analysts concluded that not only are some of the projects unnecessary, but the mere volume of them would be impractical and overwhelming. The analysis says the city's plan "would result in a multitude of water and sewer infrastructure projects going on at the same time to an extent and covering an area never seen before in a major city. It is doubtful that this amount of work could occur or that it could even be awarded in the timeframes described in the plan."


It's difficult to say how much of Fulton's scathing review is political, and how much is an unbiased, engineering-based assessment.

Clair Muller, one of the city council members most familiar with the sewer issues, says it could be a bit of both. The city probably could shave some dollars off the plan's final cost, she admits, but nothing close to the $1.8 billion that the county claims is unnecessary.

"They [Fulton County] did this analysis without calling to ask any questions or have any discussions with Watershed Management," the city department responsible for wastewater services. "And it seems to be based on a cursory review of the information we gave them," Muller says.

Handel's spokeswoman said the chairwoman would return phone calls, but she didn't.

Considering that the financial health of Fulton County, and the rest of the state, is directly linked to the health of Atlanta, you'd think this would be the perfect time for a bury-the-hatchet love fest. It doesn't look as if that's happening any time soon.

Franklin asked for grants from Handel's old boss, Perdue. All the governor offered were loans that wouldn't make a dent in the city's problem until 2009, at the earliest.

In November, Franklin herself went to the county commission meeting and publicly asked for Handel's help with the special sales tax. But Handel and the majority of the commission rejected Franklin's plea.

Instead, Handel set up a task force charged with generating ideas that could help the city.

A task force. Yippee.

The task force's chief accomplishment so far has been to get Public Works to do its highly critical assessment of the mayor's plan.

"There're jokes over here at City Hall," says Muller. "The mayor didn't say this, but we had some people saying, 'Do you think we need to put together an emergency task force to help them [Fulton County] with their budget?'"

Touche. The county ended last year $5 million in the hole.