Pro/Con: Atlanta’s infrastructure vote

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Atlanta residents get to vote Tuesday on a bond referendum worth up to $250 million. If approved, the city says the money will address a nearly billion-dollar backlog of repairs to streets, bridges and municipal buildings. Mayor Kasim Reed encourages voters to cast a “yes” ballot to make Atlanta a more livable city. But an open-government advocate wonders if we can trust the city to be above-board without a binding project list and transparency, given its recent history. In our third column, a country doctor writes about the huge benefits of increasing our state’s tobacco tax.

Make Atlanta most livable city in U.S.

By Kasim Reed

On Tuesday, Atlanta voters will decide whether to allow the city to make the most significant single investment in modern times through support for a $250 million infrastructure bond.

Currently, the city faces an infrastructure backlog of more than $900 million. If we do not take this on, it will grow to be $1.5 billion and then $2 billion, and soon, we will face a crisis we cannot solve. Over the next 30 years, studies show, U.S. metros will grow in population by 32 percent or nearly 84 million people. Atlanta’s population is projected to grow by 68 percent by 2042.

Increasingly, our success as a city depends largely on how we address our transportation and infrastructure needs. Without raising one penny in taxes, a “yes” vote will allow us to rebuild our roads and bridges, synchronize and modernize traffic lights to connect communities and manage traffic, improve our parks and recreation centers, and bring new businesses and jobs to Atlanta.

Over the last year, the city has held or participated in more than 100 public meetings to hear from and educate Atlantans on our infrastructure needs. Thousands of comments from across the city, combined with “Connect Atlanta,” our comprehensive transportation plan, has resulted in a list of priority projects that will improve the look, feel and experience of our city.

We will resurface Atlanta’s major roads and repair city streets with a Complete Streets approach that addresses curbs, sidewalks, bike lanes, crossing signals and ADA ramps — all to decrease congestion, improve mobility and provide transportation options.

We will design and repair our streets for all users, not just cars; synchronize thousands of traffic lights to address congestion bottlenecks and reduce traffic; replace and repair bridges to connect communities; upgrade fire stations, police stations and recreation centers, and replace thousands of street lights to make neighborhoods safer.

I do not come to the voters lightly on this issue. My administration has spent four years getting the city’s financial house in order.

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We closed a $48 million budget gap in the first year and now have more than $138 million in the bank — growing city reserves from just $7.4 million in the bank when I first came into office. We have passed five straight balanced budgets, proving we can do more with less. We are implementing recommendations from a blue-ribbon panel of business, city and labor leaders to reduce waste and improve efficiency in government to the tune of $15 million to $17 million in savings each year.

And most important, your property taxes have not been raised in five years. In fact, the FY 2015 city budget included a rollback in the property tax rate.

This important work has resulted in the city’s strongest credit rating in at least 12 years. We are in a position now to pay the total debt service — principal and interest — on these bonds without requiring one additional penny from taxpayers.

Since January 2010, my administration has worked tirelessly to restore your confidence in efficient government. From re-opening the city’s once-shuttered recreation centers to passing comprehensive pension reform, we have set Atlanta on a path to greater prosperity. Once approved, we will work to ensure that all infrastructure projects on the final list will be completed.

We could not be in a better position to take on this challenge. On March 17, a “yes” vote on Questions 1 and 2 will help us make Atlanta the most livable city in the United States.

Kasim Reed is mayor of Atlanta.

Accountability, binding project list needed

By William Perry

On the surface, tomorrow’s $250 million bond vote in Atlanta appears to be a straightforward one. There’s no question that the city is in desperate need of major infrastructure upgrades, and it’s difficult to argue against investments that would improve the quality of life in Metro Atlanta.

Unfortunately, Atlanta citizens have to ask themselves another question as they go to the polls: Can the city administration spend the bond funds responsibly?

Voters must have confidence in our elected leaders and deserve to have accountability measures in place before investing tax payers dollars. After all that you’ve been through as a city, you need more robust accountability around a bond of this size.

Even with a favorable vote within city limits, in the wake of the overwhelming defeat of the T-SPLOST measure in all of metro-Atlanta in 2012, Mayor Reed emphasized the need to boost the public’s faith in government for these types of measures. As he told an election-night crowd, “We have to get at the issue of why so many good, decent, honest women and men don’t trust their government enough to take on a big problem.”

Regrettably, this administration has done little to address the concerns he said were so important that evening.

Before you vote, consider the lack of a finalized project list. Your vote will authorize the funds being raised, but it does not guarantee that certain projects — even the ones discussed at informational meetings held on the issue — will be selected or fully funded. The message from the city has been “Trust us, we’ll make the right call.”

Really? Here’s a sampling of recent judgment calls by the city: allegedly improper (perhaps illegal) payouts to members of the administration involving sick and vacation time, along with the Mayor’s refusal to make documents transparent; missing and stolen equipment at Public Works and Watershed Management; ethics investigations into council member spending; the former CFO’s questionable personal finances; the allegations of a conflict of interest involving the city pension fund’s former financial advisor; and the mayor’s decision to pit the students of APS against the Beltline over a disputed $13 million.

Given this track record, voters would be wise to be hesitant to hand the city a large chunk of money without strict guidelines on how it will be spent.

How about the smoke and mirrors in the city budget? We often hear about how well this mayor has built the reserve fund, currently around $142 million. But that includes $60 million still owed to the Department of Watershed Management out of the $139 million originally borrowed (some claim illegally) to beef up the city’s reserves.

Then there’s the $13 million owed to APS for the Beltline and approximately $500,000 due to the neighborhood of Ansley Park. Can you really trust that your taxes won’t be raised in order to pay back these bonds? Remember, the city is borrowing $250 million — because of interest, the total amount to be paid back will be significantly higher. This is a debt you will have to pay long after the administration changes hands.

Most troubling, perhaps, is the risk of “pay-to-play” politics in a $250 million bond purchase. Just a few years ago, the process of awarding concessions contracts at the Hartsfield-Jackson airport suffered from practices that were secretive and politically motivated. Four of the big contract winners, representing about $1.38 of the $3 billion pie in the 10-year projected revenues, were politically and financially connected to the Mayor’s office, as were most of even the smallest contract winners. Many, including Common Cause Georgia, felt that the administration was continuing the culture of pay-to-play, where those who make big political contributions get the biggest rewards. When the administration selects contractors for big-ticket infrastructure projects, why would we expect anything different?

Among the most urgent repairs are four bridges the mayor has warned are “near the point of collapse.” But those same four bridges were in desperate need of attention when the city was leading the charge to for an estimated $1.4 billion in public funding for the new Falcons stadium. This happened when almost two-thirds of Atlanta voters did not support public financing of the new stadium – and those voices were ignored. The stadium effort was prioritized ahead of this bond package, and the money secured for the stadium from the hotel/motel tax could have solved these problems with hundreds of millions of dollars to spare.

Before casting your vote tomorrow, consider this: does this administration have the accountability in place to trust this bond will serve the people of Atlanta?

If this bond issue is defeated, it will send a message to the city administration: Give us a bond issue with accountability and transparency and project list that is binding.

William Perry is executive director of Common Cause Georgia.

Higher tobacco tax: What the doctor ordered

By Jacqueline Fincher

What is more important to Georgia’s lawmakers — great access to great doctors and health care, or a cheap pack of cigarettes?

As a physician, I have asked myself that question for the last 12 years — the last time Georgia nudged the state tobacco tax from 12 cents per pack to a still-dismal 37 cents per pack, currently the 47th-lowest tobacco tax in the country.

We know cheap cigarettes are more accessible to kids and place a huge burden on our health care system. Numerous studies show 89 percent of adults who smoke today started before they turned 18. In other words, adults don’t start smoking; kids do. Kids are most likely to quit smoking, or never start, in response to a price increase.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia spends more than $500 million per year in Medicaid funds treating tobacco-related disease.

Since the last increase in the tobacco tax, payment rates for doctors caring for Medicaid patients in Georgia haven’t budged, even as the cost to deliver that care has soared. These rates make it unaffordable for me and my primary care physician colleagues to accept more Medicaid patients, and make it very difficult for these low-income children, parents and elderly Medicaid enrollees to find a doctor.

If these people can’t find a doctor, they will go to the emergency room, the highest-cost center, for care that most likely could be handled in a primary care office at a much lower cost. For two years, the federal government equalized Medicaid rates to Medicare rates for primary care services, but that policy expired Dec. 31. Now, Georgia physicians are left holding the bag again trying to provide the same care with a 30 percent payment cut.

Rural areas like mine are disproportionately impacted by these low Medicaid and Medicare payment rates, in addition to the many poor and uninsured patients we treat at reduced rates. These issues, along with changing health care policies, are creating the perfect storm — causing the closure of at least four rural Georgia hospitals already, with another 15 to 20 hospitals on the critical list.

Just recently, a potential cure for all of these issues was discovered. It came in the form of a fiscal note requested by a state senator, indicating that Georgia could increase state revenue by $585 million per year by simply increasing our state tobacco tax to the national average. That’s right. Georgia can reduce youth smoking, improve Georgians’ access to high-quality, lower-cost primary care, and rescue our failing hospitals, just by having an “average” tobacco tax.

Perhaps one thing we can all agree on is that kids’ access to tobacco shouldn’t be easier than Georgians’ access to health care. A tobacco tax is just what this doctor is ordering. I hope our state lawmakers will “fill the prescription” so our state will get on the way to better health.

Dr. Jacqueline Fincher, an Atlanta native, practices in Thomson.

 


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