Cut the crap 

Atlanta's next mayor better start talking about the city's $3 billion sewer problem -- before your wallet gets sucked down the drain

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"I don't have confidence that a thorough investigation has been done," she says.

The dearth of details is rather surprising considering Franklin's background and her purported strengths as a candidate. She owns her own environmental consulting firm, which specializes in water and wastewater issues. Her supporters also credit her with essentially running Atlanta as city manager under Young.

Franklin claims the Young administration made upgrades and increased water and sewer rates to modernize Atlanta's pipe highways. But if she takes partial credit for the good, she also must take some blame for the bad, including Young's "rain waivers," the shortcomings of the South River cleanup and the general perception that his administration never met a developer it didn't like.

Remember that apartment complex with the sewer back-ups on Ponce de Leon Avenue? Her campaign headquarters are just down the street. Franklin says the complex was a "pioneer" for the intown development that helped revive the inner city. But the complex's construction also jibed with the Young administration's development-first mentality.

It wouldn't be fair to blame the candidates entirely for failing to bring up the sewer issue. How many people seeking office get elected promising to increase your bills? Just ask Walter Mondale.

The candidates at least seemed to have read the AJC coverage of the fight over combined sewers. But unlike the early 1990s, when the daily paper championed the Chattahoochee's cleanup by keeping the issue in the headlines, it's now tucked combined-sewer issues into the Metro section, and it's barely covered the sanitary sewer problems.

Without media attention, the public can't be expected to ask complex questions and hold the politicians accountable.

All the candidates say the city should search for federal and state dollars and look for help from the counties that surround Atlanta. But local governments hardly seem the money tree for Atlanta's sewer projects, and the federal government isn't exactly ripe with urban infrastructure grants either.

There is a $750-million federal loan program set up to help cities across the country with infrastructure problems like Atlanta's. The city could take advantage of that, but it would be one city in a long line of municipalities looking for loan money, Gordon notes.

Those loans also carry a 3 percent interest rate, and because of the administrative expense, the loans would be about as cost-effective as a bond the city could issue on its own, says George Dusenbury, an aide to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta.

The city also has lobbied Lewis and U.S. Sen. Max Cleland for a series of $80 million-$100 million loans at a 1 percent interest rate. There is precedent for such loans, Dusenbury says. But one has to wonder whether the Bush administration is going to be fired up to give hundreds of millions of dollars to a solidly Democratic city during an economic downturn. Peters says Atlanta also will lobby heads of congressional committees who might be able to lay their hands on federal transportation dollars to help with the sewer woes.

Of course, the federal money is still just speculation and so far, there's no money lined up to pay for the sewer repairs. The buck, for now, stops with Atlanta's 120,000 sewer ratepayers, about 80,000 of whom are residential.

To get an idea of how much of a sewer rate hike is in store if money isn't found, take a $300 million-$500 million revenue bond currently in the works that would allow the city to begin work on the sewer upgrades. That bond alone will cost users an extra $10-$12 per month if passed, Peters says. Atlanta's sewer problems are about 10 times that expensive.

In fact, the billion-dollar sewer plan in the mid-1990s that included the deep tunnels would have carried a rate hike for Atlanta residents of an extra $105 per month, according to an internal city memo at the time.

The prospect of a $100 per month rate hike frightens people who work with the city's less affluent. If the city fails to find federal funding, "it's going to drive poor people out of the Atlanta," says Beasley, of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

He thinks City Hall should figure out a way to put to most of the burden on commercial users, so it doesn't "fall on the backs of poor people." He says civil rights groups like his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Council and the NAACP are beginning to look at the issue.

If candidates don't address the burden that skyrocketing sewer bills will place on the poor, Beasley says groups like his will organize to vote them out: "It should be a make or break kind of issue."

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