Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, halfway through his first term, addressed the Atlanta Press Club at a luncheon in his role as cheerleader in chief. Not just as a booster for the city, Reed continues to be a man expressing a vision for the region and the state.
Reed has held consistent themes during his tenure as mayor, and they run the gambit from small task oriented successes to big picture visions of what the future can be. He understands the cooperative role between an urban inner city and the suburbs and state which surround it are mandatory if full potential is to be achieved. As such, his first mission seems to be one of establishing trust in the competence of a city that can run itself.
Before tackling the big picture, Reed will often run over some statistics from the micro-level to demonstrate his city is functioning and improving. Metrics for on-time trash collection and 911 response time were citied, as well as the progress of hiring additional police officers as the city moves toward a 2,000 member police force. All of this while the city’s budget has run with surpluses the first two years of his tenure without tax increases despite a continued challenging economy.
Reed fundamentally understands that the image of a city that can govern itself successfully and with financial responsibility is critical to gain suburban acceptance if the region is join in Reed’s bigger picture goals. Above all, Reed wants to establish Atlanta as the logistics center of the Western Hemisphere.
He continues to work with Governor Nathan Deal on expanding the port of Savannah. Hartsfield Airport keeps Atlanta within a 2 hour flight of 80% of the U.S. population. Georgia’s geography and infrastructure makes it a natural candidate to be an entry point to not just the Southeast, but to the country as a whole for international business.
Yet closer to home, the logistics break down. Decades of indecision and neglect have a region that contains more than half the state’s population with near gridlocked surface transportation. He spoke of how as a State Senator and then as Mayor, it took 4 years to get a bill for a regional sales tax vote, and noted that failure would set the city and state back decades. He challenged the room with “excellence is a choice” and “let’s not miss this moment.”
During his speech, he told a amusing anecdote of when he was pushing for the bill as a Senator, and amendments were bogging the bill down and sending it to yet another defeat. One of his rural Georgia supporters came up to him and told him that he still supported him “Win or tie”. The message was clear. He had the Senator’s support up until it was clear the bill was a loser, at which he would not extend his political capital for a lost cause. In politics, you don’t put your supporters into positions which cause them problems on the home front unless you are able to deliver for them.
Mayor Reed is a dynamic spokesperson who exudes confidence and a strong vision of where we need to be heading collectively as a state. He’s the guy you want to side with, win or lose. You believe him when he talks of his conversations with a former Seattle Mayor who still resents Atlanta for getting MARTA rail decades ago (and the much more rich federal matching funds than what are offered today) when his city voted it down. You agree after his talks that all must be done to pull out the stops to make sure the city and state seize this moment in time. You’re ready to go all in, but then, you ask, is the city?
The Atlanta region is looking to raise almost $9 Billion with an extra 1% sales tax, with a bit over $6 Billon dedicated to regional projects and the remainder reserved for local government projects. Much of the divisiveness is from suburbs thinking there is too much for inner city transit, and Cobb County upset that their portion will be used to extend MARTA rail to only the Cumberland Mall area in the southern area of the county, with much of the county seeing few road improvements. The Cobb rail line alone is just above $600 Million.
The state, meanwhile, is continuing to prepare to give the Atlanta Falcons $415 Million to build a new open air stadium next door to the Georgia Dome, further from MARTA trains and taking up some of the limited parking available for tailgating.
The regional T-SPLOST is being sold as an economic development tool, yet City and State are ensuring that another football stadium is guaranteed, while the future of logistics in the Atlanta region will be the subject of a close vote. Our priorities are either mixed up, or the essential nature of the T-SPLOST is being over sold.
With federal matching funds, the $400 Million of hotel motel taxes could be used to fund an additional $720 Million of transportation projects. More than likely enough of a sweetener to either swing Cobb County voters or further solidify Fulton & DeKalb voters who already pay a 1% additional sales tax for transit.
Mayor Reed, however, says the stadium is not on the table. He “will not be the mayor who loses the Falcons.” He “will not play that game”, noting every other mayor who has has lost.
His response to the issue was direct and candid. That is refreshing and appreciated. But the response from suburban political leaders who are feeling heat from a Tea Party who has organized against the T-SPLOST will likely be equally as candid. A T-SPLOST that is being sold as one where the cost of failure is too high should have everything on the table, supported win or lose. Protecting a taxpayer gift to a billionaire during current economic times demonstrates where the real priorities are. As such, support from the suburbs for regional T-SPLOSTS will likely remain, win or tie.