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Friday, February 17, 2012

Super Tuesday not so super for city watershed vote

Gentlemen, dont you find clean water to be the biggest turn-on?
  • Gentlemen, don't you find clean water to be the biggest turn-on?
When a municipal option sales tax (MOST) was pitched to Atlantans in 2004 as a way to offset spiraling water and sewer rates, more than 70 percent of voters approved the 1-cent tax. When the Franklin administration went back to the polls in 2008 to ask voters to re-up the tax, it passed by nearly a three-to-one margin.

But, as Mayor Kasim Reed told Council members in a mid-day briefing Thursday, that was then.

Reed, a political strategist at heart, explained that since the March 6 ballot doesn't feature a contested presidential primary, most of the voters going to the polls on Super Tuesday will be Republicans, who tend to be somewhat tax-averse. In short, the MOST can't count on an Obama Bump to put it over the top.

In fact, he said, a poll taken in the past week shows that support for re-re-upping the MOST among likely voters has dropped to 59 percent. Although that number would be good enough, it doesn't leave much room for error. And if the MOST somehow got defeated, it would be "a $100 million 'oops,'" the mayor said.

It doesn't help, he added, that the wording of the ballot question — which comes courtesy of the state Legislature — doesn't mention that Atlanta has been under a federal mandate to upgrade its sewers. In other words, the money's already been allocated.

"Either we pass it or we have to raise water rates by 20 percent — or we default on our bonds," the mayor said.

So, the city has overseen the re-launch of the private Clean Water Atlanta to raise money and organize a voter education campaign. Co-chaired by former mayors Sam Massell, Andy Young, and Shirley Franklin, the nonprofit will be spending freely on direct-mail pieces, radio spots, and possibly TV ads to get the MOST passed.

"You will not be seeing much of me between now and March 6," Reed told Council members, "because I'll be off-campus raising money."

Now, for Atlanta newcomers and others unfamiliar with the city's sewer woes, here's the nutshell version: After years of paying federal fines and fighting lawsuits over intown flooding and overflows of raw sewage, the city was forced in 1998 to sign a consent decree to avoid a federal judge placing its water department into receivership. When Franklin came into office, she proclaimed herself the "sewer mayor" and launched a $4 billion overhaul of the city's crumbling sewer system. Originally, Franklin hoped the state and feds would kick in most of the money, but, as Reed reminded the Council, "the cavalry never came." So the city was forced to adopt what are now the highest water rates in the country. In 2004, the MOST was proposed as a way to give ratepayers a break by making suburbanites and other visitors who spend money inside Atlanta help shoulder the cost.

Although the MOST is undeniably an additional tax, it's supported by even the staunchest conservative groups, such as the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation, Reed said.

BTW, the campaign to pass the MOST has already begun, with posters bearing the tagline "MOST. Important." And, of course, there's already been some controversy surrounding said posters. We're told Councilwoman Felicia Moore has criticized the poster pictured above, arguing that the city shouldn't be trying to sell the idea of clean water using a photo of a hot chick. Obviously, Ms. Moore has never worked at an ad agency.

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