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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Gold Dome scorecard: How did Atlanta fare?

click to enlarge Reservoir bill could affect Atlanta's sewer system revenue
  • Reservoir bill could affect Atlanta's sewer system revenue

At the beginning of each year, state lawmakers converge on Atlanta to dine in our restaurants, chase after our daughters and occasionally get DUIs on our pothole-filled streets. Here and there, they'll also pass legislation that, for better or worse, impacts our beloved city.

In past years, the General Assembly has been either blissfully ignorant or downright hostile toward its capital city. But thanks in part to Mayor Kasim Reed (a former state senator who tried to bridge the gap between City Hall and the Gold Dome), things weren't as bad this year.

Sure, there were several bills that could've benefited the city failed. Among them: a one-cent sales tax that would've funded arts programs; a bill that would help local governments determine who owns the vacant house down the street; and a tax credit for homeowners in such neighborhoods as Inman Park and Midtown who pay for private security patrols. But lawmakers approved a hotel/motel sales tax extension that could renovate the Georgia Dome (or build a new stadium altogether) and that might keep the Atlanta Falcons downtown — and thankfully stopped a bill that would've ripped Fulton County in half to re-create Milton County. And we finally saw progress on transportation and property-tax issues.

Here's a snapshot of how the city came out of 40 days of General Assembly craziness:

TRANSPORTATION

After years of failure, state lawmakers — assisted by the intense lobbying efforts of the mayor — were able to pass a transportation funding bill that could help the state begin to address its notorious congestion woes.

House Bill 227 allows voters in metro Atlanta and 11 other regions to approve a penny sales tax that could raise money to build roads, bridges and transit. A roundtable of local officials, including Atlanta's mayor, would select projects within the region (i.e. the Peachtree Streetcar or Beltline). The bill also allows cash-strapped MARTA more control of its finances for the next three years, which might help it avoid drastic cuts to more than half its bus routes.

The bill won't make an intowners' transit dreams come true overnight, however. The referendum wouldn't take place until 2012 and the length of the proposed tax — 10 years — is a decade shy of what the feds require for states to get assistance for transit projects. Commuter rail would also be a difficult proposition, as endpoints for proposed routes lie in different regions.

The proposed tax — which in metro Atlanta could generate an estimated $750 million each year — only lasts a decade. Because many cities for proposed commuter rail lines sit in different regions, getting two different "roundtables" to iron out financial details might be difficult. And, aside from a three-year break on its finances, MARTA sees very little long-term financial benefit. According to the bill, any money generated from the one-cent sales tax can't be used for existing MARTA projects.

For all its flaws, Tom Weyandt of the Atlanta Regional Commission says the bill is a significant step for a state that's found itself a top of national lists for gridlock and overlooked for federal rail money. The legislation also gave life to a regional transit study committee — and recognizes Concept3, a regional transit plan that could catapult metro Atlanta out of the automobile age.

Should lawmakers remember that the work isn't done — and the next governor be interested in offering a real tool that will help get people moving around the state —  state lawmakers could revisit the legislation next January.

WATER

Transportation wasn't the only issue that motivated Reed to walk across the street to the Gold Dome from City Hall. Forgotten for most of the session was House Bill 406, a holdover from last year's session that opponents say could encourage suburban cities and counties to build more reservoirs — potentially impacting Atlanta's court-ordered, $4 billion sewer overhaul project.

The bill was tabled last year thanks to city lobbyists and environmentalists who saw it was merely a measure to allow three South Fulton cities — Palmetto, Fairburn and Union City — to band together to build their own reservoir. Atlanta officials opposed the proposal because the South Fulton cities currently buy water from the capital city, helping pay off the bonds that fund Atlanta's court-ordered, $4 billion sewer overhaul project. The city and its bondholders don't want to see as much as $5 million in revenue disappear. What’s more, the city’s taken the area’s future growth potential into account for bonds it’s already issued.

Much to the city’s chagrin, lawmakers this year revived — and ultimately passed — the bill.

Now the city waits to see if the governor signs the bill. Rob Hunter, commissioner of the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management, says it's unlikely any other water customers would follow South Fulton's example because reservoirs take way too long to build.

But Gold Dome insiders say there’s nothing in the bill’s language to prevent the city’s other suburban water customers from partnering with surrounding counties. Glimmers of hope: State lawmakers gave Atlanta the OK to ask voters to renew the penny sales tax in 2016, which could generate as much as $126 million a year for the sewer program. And the federal judge overseeing the sewer work said last year that he'd do everything in his power to stop the same bill that passed this year.

PROPERTY TAXES

Inspired by an AJC series that argued metro Atlanta homeowners were paying an estimated $200 million more in property taxes than they should have in light of falling home values, Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers this year pushed a substantial overhaul of the assessment and appeals system. His efforts culminated in Senate Bill 346, which is overdue justice for homeowners — particularly those who’ve seen their property values plunge and nearby houses get scooped up at fire-sale prices.

But one provision — capping the assessed value of a home at its sale price for at least a year — could potentially be bad news for city and school budgets. Atlanta — one of the development boom's casualties — could find itself with more residents contesting property taxes. The inevitable writedowns and new values could ripple throughout the city — and potentially cause substantial revenue declines over the next several years should the housing market not improve. City officials could feel pressure to raise the tax rate and increase user fees to alleviate the financial crunch.

SHOOTIN' IRONS

It wouldn't be a true legislative session if lawmakers hadn't loosened the state's gun laws. Following on last year's bills that allowed guns on MARTA buses, lawmakers this year approved two bills to permit licensed gun owners to carry firearms in more places.

One bill by state Sen. David Shafer, R-Lilburn, allows people to carry their weapons in non-secured areas of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, a possibility that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on May 7 called “worrisome.”

Another piece of legislation by state Sen. Mitch Seabuagh, R-Sharpsburg, offers several new areas where gun owners can tout their shootin' irons, including some bars, rec centers and near schools and churches. An earlier version — which was later rewritten — even permitted guns at City Council meetings.

(Photo by Jim Stawniak)

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