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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Reed supports selling land to help fund $250 million bond package, mum on parking and billboard taxes

Sometime in March 2015 Atlanta residents will be asked to vote on whether the city should take out a loan of up to $250 million to begin fixing its bridges, sidewalks, roads, and other long overdue projects that are a part of the city's nearly $1 billion infrastructure backlog. Yesterday afternoon Mayor Kasim Reed shared part of his plan to get City Hall financially prepared for that massive undertaking.

Reed pledged that the city would cut $21 million from its annual budget to help pay for an estimated $16.5 million in annual debt payments related to the bond package. Last March, Reed assembled a 16-person "blue-ribbon" panel of corporate execs, elected officials, and labor group reps to offer recommendations on exactly how to find those savings without raising taxes. The group, co-chaired by Atlanta City Councilman Howard Shook and Delta CEO Richard Anderson, met several times over the course of three months. The panel recently sent its final report - we've embedded it after the jump - to Reed's office for consideration.

At a commission meeting yesterday to discuss the recommendations Reed said that his focus would remain on ensuring that City Hall was in the best financial position possible when it asks voters to approve the $250 million bond package. The mayor said that the city had already lined up an estimated $11 million in annual savings proposed by the panel, and was well on its way to rolling out some of the panel's other ideas. Once an initial round of short-term decisions are made, Reed said he would focus on long-term efforts to make Atlanta's government run more efficiently and spend less money. Because of that goal, the mayor said, he wanted to keep the efficiency commission intact through at least the end of 2015.

"We're going to make sure that the funding for the infrastructure bond, which is the No. 1 priority for the people of Atlanta, can be funded without a budgetary impact on the city," Reed said. “[In the] short term, we’re lining up funding for the infrastructure bond. Once we get our arms around that initial push, we can get deeper into the weeds [on the smaller savings proposals]."

The panel's recommendations included a combination of short-term proposals that could free up as much as $80 million in public funds. The largest chunk of that cash would come from selling city-owned properties such as the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center, Turner Field, and Underground Atlanta. The relocation of the historic Cyclorama painting to the Atlanta History Center is expected to save the city an estimated $8 million, plus annual savings of as much as $1 million in salary and maintenance costs. Reed added that city officials were slowly moving department employees into Two City Plaza, the former AJC building gifted to the city by Cox Enterprises in 2010. Moving the employees could reduce leasing expenses by around $3 million every year, he said.

Aside from the real estate recommendations, Reed said he backed efforts to reform the Atlanta Municipal Court's fine structures and fee collections processes. He also supported potential cost-saving initiatives such as changes to city employee health care benefits, an immediate hiring freeze, the elimination of funding for long-term vacant positions, and the outsourcing of selected city services to third-party businesses.

The final report also included three major recommendations — a billboard, parking, and Fulton-DeKalb transportation tax — that would require approval from the General Assembly. The three taxes, the panel says, could eventually generate nearly $150 million in new revenue per year. Reed has previously stated his support of a small-scale, regional transportation tax in the wake of T-SPLOST's failure in 2012. On Tuesday Reed declined to elaborate when asked by CL whether he might support a potential billboard or parking tax.

"I'm not stating my opinion on [the parking or billboard tax proposals] yet," he said. "What I came to this commission to do was to tell you what I'm going to do. I've publicly stated what recommendations I'm immediately looking to implement. And we're going to implement them in phases. One thing that I've learned about politics is that the system only takes so much before it regurgitates. The system only tolerates so much change in politics before it just starts to push back."

Reed said the three taxes requiring approval from state lawmakers would not be a top priority leading up to the March 2015 referendum. Because the General Assembly doesn't convene until mid-January, the mayor said that it would be too late to pass any laws enabling the city to introduce such taxes before residents vote on the $250 million bond package.

In recent months city officials have hosted a series of public meetings to explain the infrastructure bond package to residents and receive feedback on what projects they want the city to build first. Two more rounds of public meetings are expected to be scheduled later this year and early next year. Reed has previously said that he intends to give Atlanta City Council a final list of projects to be included in the bond package. Voters will head to the polls in March to decide whether they support the first of what's likely to be several infrastructure bond packages over the coming decades.

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