Atlanta's wish list: Financial ills that Obama is sure to cure in '09
The metro area's top under-funded mandates that deserve a shot in the arm from the prez-elect.
ATLANTA'S CITY BUDGET WOES: Even before the economy got sucked down the crapper, the city's budget went bust. In mid-January, Mayor Shirley Franklin revealed Atlanta was facing a $65 million shortfall unless City Hall laid off workers and slashed programs. The mayor blamed the recession for falling revenues, but the city's own sloppy accounting practices had also fooled officials into thinking they had millions more than they did. As the recession deepened and City Council refused to raise taxes, the administration closed rec centers, canceled the annual jazz festival and put all remaining employees on a four-day workweek. At last count, City Hall shed more than 900 staffers in 2008 in an effort to avoid a $140 million deficit in '09.
Apart from the lousy bookkeeping, however, Atlanta looks downright proactive in dealing with the economic downturn before the city could be submerged in red ink. President Barack Obama could reward the foresight with grants to cover public works projects that could put our city finances back in the pink.
SOARING SEWER COSTS: With the completion of a $190 million, 8.5-mile tunnel under Atlanta's Westside, the city finally fulfilled a decade-old federal decree to fix its antiquated combined-sewer overflow network. You could call it a watershed event (heh).
Does that mean we can wash our hands of the CSO program and put away our checkbooks? Don't make us laugh. The city actually raised water and sewer rates this summer to compensate for a decline in revenue due to drought-related water conservation – and adopted a brutal new schedule of rate hikes that will hoist our water bills 180 percent over the next decade.
That's what happens when a city is forced to launch a $4 billion infrastructure program with almost no help from state or federal government. This is where Obama's Mainstreet Economic Recovery bill can help. Just in time for Christmas, Mayor Franklin submitted a wish list of projects the new administration is invited to help fund. Granted, they're not very exciting for the giver – unless you get off on paying for 54-inch water mains and electronic switchgear replacement.
All told, the sewer-related wish list items total $850 million. Now that's a crapload of stimulus.
MISGUIDED TAX REFORM: Early naysayers regarding House Speaker Glenn Richardson's proposal to replace property taxes with new sales taxes argued that his plan would make local and state governments more vulnerable to an economic downturn. Man, what a bunch of Chicken Littles.
Richardson wanted to "repeal every ad valorem tax" – property tax, car tax, etc. – in favor of taxing groceries and services such as haircuts and psychoanalysis. Critics charged that Richardson was embarking on a power grab that would put local purse strings firmly in the hands of state politicians. The speaker responded with characteristic diplomacy by asserting that local governments couldn't be trusted with taxpayer money.
The 2008 legislative session melted down from there, leaving a trail of dead programs in its wake as Richardson held up the state budget and other important bills as payback for the failure of his tax measure.
While Obama can't give Georgia new Statehouse leadership, perhaps his spirit of bipartisan cooperation and non-douchebag-ness will trickle down to the Gold Dome Grinch.
TRANSIT SHORTCOMINGS: At the beginning of the 2008 General Assembly, there was hope for an infusion of cash to the state's beleaguered transportation systems. But a widely supported boost in funding for the $2-billion-in-the-hole Department of Transportation failed by just three votes. Lawmakers say in '09 they'll try, try again, – and if they fail, Obama Claus might just be the gift-giver the Legislature ain't.
The DOT has requested $3.4 billion in Obamabucks for some of those needs, even making nice with the city folk and earmarking an unprecedented $1 billion for MARTA improvements. The city of Atlanta has its fingers crossed for funding for two of Mayor Franklin's legacy-building transit projects: the Beltline and the Peachtree Streetcar. Considering that our notorious traffic problem is likely to repel jobs and investment over the next 50 years if nothing is done, a life preserver from Obama could very well save the city. Lord knows the General Assembly can't be relied upon.
MOUNTING FORECLOSURES: Consumer advocates have long whined that Georgia has some of the least homeowner-friendly foreclosure laws in the nation. This year, we've seen what they were talking about. Since the beginning of 2008, the number of Georgia homes in foreclosure surged nearly 5 percent. Georgia has consistently ranked in the top 10 states in both the percentage and raw number of foreclosures. And, in a sign of worse things to come, Georgia recently ranked third for mortgage loan delinquencies.
Home to the lightning-fast 40-day foreclosure, Georgia has moved further away from consumer protections. After passing one of the country's strongest predatory lending laws in 2002, the Legislature yielded to pressure from the banking industry and gutted the law in '03.
In other words, if ever a state were ready for Obama's Troubled Assets Relief Program, Georgia is it. And if the marshals have arrived to carry your sofa to the curb, that's change you can believe in.
CLAYTON'S IMPLOSION: Last year, community leaders in Clayton County swore God would steer them through the perfect storm of foreclosures, crime, and school accreditation woes. Citizens voted the local dunderheads out of office, and now the county's powers-that-be are sending requests to the other man upstairs, Obama.
After Clayton's 50,000-student school system lost its accreditation in late August, 3,335 students withdrew from classes. Because of the enrollment drop, the system could lose $23 million in state and federal funding. School officials last week flouted the idea that Obama would funnel some cash its way, but U.S. Rep. David Scott, the Democrat who represents the beleaguered county, says that might be a long shot – stimulus funds could be used to maintain schools, but not make up for lost operating costs.
Clayton also has an astounding 2,800 foreclosed homes within its borders. Add to that a hospital in danger of closing, and the president-elect might see how badly Clayton could use a hand.
HIGH COST OF CLEAN ENERGY: In 2008, Peach State Democrats lost their chance to elect renewable-energy advocate Jim Powell to the utilities-leaning Georgia Public Service Commission. Lauren "Bubba" McDonald, the Republican who won the contest, is well-known for his pillow talk with the state's biggest coal belchers, and led to a forecast of doom for a greener Georgia.
If Obama truly wants to help Georgians, he could offer increased incentives to homeowners and businesses to retrofit their homes and workplaces – as well as breaks for green-energy and biofuel providers, like the Suniva solar panel company in Norcross or the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy's intown biodiesel operation.
The city's crossing its fingers for a break. Mayor Franklin has requested $158 million in energy-efficiency fixes, including $64 million for a biodiesel fueling station. That's a first step – and one of Obama's admitted goals for the stimulus.