By Kelly McCutchen
As has been well reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta’s next mayor faces a ticking time bomb – the city’s water and sewer system. Due to years of neglect and poor design, raw sewage continues to flow into Atlanta’s rivers and streams, polluting the waterways for both Atlanta citizens and Georgians living downstream. Even more frightening is the recent finding that the city’s drinking water is at risk of contamination. In addition, the lack of sewer capacity threatens to freeze economic growth – growth that is crucial to Atlanta’s and Georgia’s future.
Where is the public outrage? Where is the Sierra Club? If the Dow Chemical Company had flagrantly dumped more than two million of gallons of raw sewage into the Chattahoochee River, the national news media and hordes of protesters would have descended upon Atlanta long ago. But since Corporate America is not the culprit, sadly, nothing happens despite the overwhelming evidence that something must be done.
Two candidates for governor, one Democrat and one Republican, think the problem will be solved if the State of Georgia gets involved. Based upon the city’s track record and the scope of its current problems, this may be the only option that will ensure a workable solution that won’t soak city taxpayers.
The city issued bonds this year to fund capital improvements for the water and sewer system. The city’s financial condition is such that the bonds issued were subordinate bonds – the equivalent of taking out a second mortgage on a house. Bond investors were told that fee increases would fund the additional debt service, meaning that the average residential resident in Atlanta will be hit with an increase in their combined water and sewer bill of 20.8 percent in 1998, 9.9 percent in 1999 and 5 percent in 2000. This is in addition to the 9.4 percent combined water and sewer rate increase that went into effect in March of this year.
A recent report prepared by the engineering firm of Brown and Caldwell estimates that privatizing both its water and sewer departments could save the city as much as $38 million a year. Although it would go a long way toward minimizing the need for a fee increase, privatization is not a popular word in the city. It is quite conceivable that any effort to privatize will be derailed by city politics. This is where the State of Georgia needs to step in.
Although the state has complete authority over local government, it has wisely used this authority sparingly over the years. Atlanta’s situation could be the exception to the rule. The city’s poor management of the water and sewer system over the years has not only endangered the health and safety of its residents, but also the many Georgians living downstream. In addition, it poses a severe threat to the growth and development of the state’s economic engine. The state has every right to intercede to ensure that this problem is corrected as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Kelly McCutchen is executive vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an nonprofit, nonpartisan research and education organization dedicated to keeping all Georgians informed about their government and to providing practical ideas on key public policy issues. The Foundation believes in and actively supports private enterprise, limited government and personal responsibility.
Nothing written here is to be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature. © Georgia Public Policy Foundation (October 28, 1997). Permission is hereby given to reprint this article, with appropriate credit given.