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Atlanta: City Council limits rate increases

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City Council guts sewer rate plan

By TY TAGAMI

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

HOW THE VOTE WENT DOWN

Atlanta City Council members voted to substitute Mayor Shirley Franklin's plan to triple water and sewer rates. They opted for a plan that lessens the financial burden on customers:

IN FAVOR

Ivory Young Jr.

Natalyn Mosby Archibong

Felicia Moore

C.T. Martin

Jim Maddox

Derrick Boazman

Mary Norwood

Lamar Willis

OPPOSED

Carla Smith

Debi Starnes

Cleta Winslow

Anne Fauver

Howard Shook

Clair Muller

The Atlanta City Council delivered a blow to Mayor Shirley Franklin's $3.2 billion plan to expand and overhaul the city's water and sewer system.

Franklin's plan to renovate the century-old plumbing relied on tripling the maximum water and sewer fees over five years, beginning with a 45 percent rate increase in January. The plan left both residential and business customers howling.

In response, the City Council late Monday night voted 8-7 to keep the mayor's maximum water and sewer rate increase of 45 percent, but the average rate payer will see a much smaller increase and more ratepayers will see no increases because of an expanded conservation discount.

"The people spoke, and we responded to the people," said Councilman C.T. Martin, a sponsor of the amendment to the mayor's rate increase plan.

As 1 a.m. approached and passed, the council was still in session, leaving open the possibility it could revisit the sewer issue yet again.

And Franklin could veto the legislation. The mayor said after the defeat that she needs time to analyze the financial impact of the council's decision, which would cut deep into the city's water and sewer operations.

Franklin said responsible operations are key to meeting the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act and the city's obligation to improve its sewer system.

"If it doesn't make sense," Franklin said of the council's proposal, "I'm obligated by my office not to sign it."

City staff members said the council's plan would cut $25 million from the Watershed Management Department, which operates the water and sewer system.

It was unclear how those cuts would affect the city's efforts to comply with two federal court orders to clean up the sewers.

Franklin's predecessor as mayor, Bill Campbell, entered into two agreements in federal court in 1998 and 1999 that compel Atlanta to limit the untreated wastewater its ancient sewers dump into rivers.

The amendment to Franklin's plan by four council members, led by Councilwoman Felicia Moore, offers a discount to people who are frugal with water use. The average residential user consumes 6,000 gallons of water per month. The Moore proposal would charge users at the current rate if they use 4,500 gallons or less. Each gallon beyond that would be billed at the 45 percent higher rate recommended by the mayor.

About 15,000 customers use 4,500 gallons or less and thus would see no increase in their bill. The average user would see about a 14 percent increase overall.

Franklin had endorsed a conservation rate, but her plan would have offered a discount to consumers who used 3,000 gallons or less per month. The mayor's proposed discount rates would have increased the average user's bill by about 30 percent in 2004.

Council members who voted for the Moore amendment were critical of what they described as lavish spending on consultants for water and sewer operations and capital programs. "Watershed Management's going to have to get very lean and very mean," Moore said.

Franklin attributed much of the department's increased budget to the cost of taking back operations from a private company. The city eliminated a contract with United Water and began taking the operation in-house earlier this year. Franklin noted that all 15 council members had supported ending that contract because there were so many complaints about service.

Karen Handel, newly elected chairwoman of the Fulton County Commission, welcomed the change to the rate plan.

"This appears to be a compromise that would give the City Council and the city officials an opportunity to work through the questions that remain," Handel said in a telephone interview late Monday night. She has spearheaded an effort by the county to review Franklin's water and sewer proposal.

Handel suggested the council would have more time to address questions about Franklin's plan -- questions that Handel said would make it difficult to lobby for outside funding.

"I think to pass a funding plan with so many questions remaining -- that's not going to help at all," Handel said. The County Commission chairwoman noted that city officials presented a $3.2 billion water and sewer plan that was eight pages long. The county produced a 3-inch-thick document, complete with drawings of sewer components, for a much smaller county sewer project.

Council members got an earful during a public comment period earlier in the evening.

State Rep. Doug Dean told the council he couldn't afford to pay the higher water and sewer fees proposed by the mayor. But Georgia-Pacific President Lee Thomas said Atlanta had no choice but to embrace Franklin's proposal.

The two were among hundreds who packed the City Council's chambers Monday, reminding council members there are strong opinions on either side of one of the toughest debates in recent city history.

"Most of the people sitting here are 20 to 30 years older than I am. You know they can't afford it," Dean said, referring to people awaiting their turn to speak.

Thomas, who heads the environmental committee of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and once was an administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, raised the specter of construction moratoriums and a federal court takeover of the city's water and sewer system if the funds are not raised to fix it.

"It would be devastating for the reputation of our city if, in fact, we didn't step up and deal with the issue," Thomas said. He was referring to the federal court agreements that compel the city to stop dumping sewage.

City officials say they must sell bonds by April to begin construction in July. If they miss that mark, they'll miss the 2008 deadline to complete a required part of the project and will face court sanctions, officials said.

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I've got my fingers crossed on this. There's too much at stake for them to screw this up, but if they do I'm going to be saying hello to Chicago!

No doubt, they need to get this right. A lot is at stake for the growth of Atlanta. Everything positive that has happened in the last 10 years could be erased with the wrong decision on this.

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