Everybody's freaking out about the city jacking up sewer fees. Average homeowner bills would jump $36 a month to $102 by 2008, an increase that threatens to ruin the intown renaissance and drive fixed-income homeowners out of the city.
What perplexes Echols is that she's been telling City Hall for four years how to halve the final price tag of the $3.2 billion sewer fix that has the city in such an upheaval.
Echols, some City Council members and even Atlanta's former top environmental officer have tried to convince Mayor Shirley Franklin that separating stormwater drains from sanitary lines -- rather than building an enormous tunnel to store overflows under much of the city -- would be a better way to stop spills into the Chattahoochee. And, because the city says it's going to separate the sewers eventually anyway, skipping the tunnel would save ratepayers money.
But Echols can't even get anyone in Franklin's office to return her phone calls. And for her efforts, she gets no "thank you." Instead, she's treated as if she's an enemy of the city.
"We're persona non grata," says Echols, a public administration professor at Clark Atlanta University and a leader of the Clean Streams Task Force. "One thing [city officials] have said to me is, 'We have a plan that the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] has authorized, and we aren't interested in anything else.'"
Ever since a federal judge imposed a 2007 deadline for Atlanta to meet the Clean Water Act -- or face millions of dollars in fines -- hired consultants have pushed the tunnel option. And by the time Franklin arrived in City Hall two years ago, the bureaucrats were firmly committed to it.
The city has good reasons to avoid separation of the sewer and stormwater lines. Separation entails laying new pipes and digging up most downtown and Midtown streets -- a traffic nightmare that could cause migraines for years, warns Public Works Department spokesman Manuel Gomez.
Obviously that kind of construction doesn't come cheap. The city says it would cost $1.6 billion -- roughly the same as the tunnel. And it would take longer to complete than the tunnel. If construction got started today, separation wouldn't be achieved until 2014.
As it is now, the city is "committed to achieving complete separation by 2025," Gomez says. But, to get out from under an EPA consent decree, the plan is to first construct the tunnel, which they say will be competed in 2007.
As the city's environmental director, David Peters once argued for the tunnel plan. But Peters, who left Atlanta this year for a job in Houston, now agrees with Echols.
Complete separation, without the tunnel, "is the only way they can afford to fix the problem without breaking the bank," he says. "Why spend so much money on a quick solution when, if you had more time you could implement the long-term solution?"
Besides adding cost, the tunnel scheme allows four sewage overflows into the Chattahoochee and South rivers, while separation would stop the spills altogether. (Tunnel advocates counter that their plan would reduce overflows seven years before separation could be completed.)
When Peters quit in March, his resignation letter urged Franklin to ask the EPA for a time extension so the city could develop a plan for separation only. But he was taken about as seriously as Echols.
So was Councilwoman Felicia Moore, who in May introduced a resolution that sought an extension from the EPA. It passed the council 10-4, but Franklin vetoed it.
Soon though, their quest may become less quixotic. The news that sewer rates were shooting up three-fold has awoken a powerful force: Atlanta property owners.
Facing public outrage and a potential council mutiny, the administration announced last week that it would seek an extension from the EPA -- not to complete a separation project, but to spread the cost over more time.
"The mayor has made it very, very clear that this [tunnel plan] is the program the city is going with," says Janet Ward of the city's Watershed Management Department. "More time is just going to lower the burden on the ratepayer. There's no way they're going to stop and say, 'Never mind [the tunnel plan].'"
But for tunnel foes, the extension could offer a tiny opening. If public outrage over fee increases spreads to the tunnel itself, she says, officials may reconsider the solution they've settled on.
"When you talk about raising people's rates 300 percent, and not solving the problem and not even having enough money even when you raise rates 300 percent, that's a hard sell. And from what I've seen, it's not selling very well," she says. "There is time to turn this ship around. All it takes is going to the EPA with a reasonable plan for separation, one that actually solves the problem, and ask for a time extension and they will listen."
The City Council votes on Franklin's plan Nov. 17.
Public hearings and council meetings on the sewer plan will be held Nov. 10, 9 a.m., Council Utilities Committee, City Hall, Room 2; Nov. 10, 5-7 p.m., public hearing, City Hall council chamber; Nov. 10, 7 p.m., public hearing on city's 2004 budget, City Hall council chamber; Nov. 17, 1 p.m., City Council meeting and vote, council chamber.
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