Atlanta’s $250 million bond referendum to be decided by a few

The penny-pinching and public belt tightening is done. More than a year of public meetings have concluded. An 11th hour, half-million dollar campaign is in high gear. Now it’s up to Atlantans to decide whether to approve Mayor Kasim Reed’s plan to issue $250 million in bonds to help fix the city’s aging infrastructure.

The issue could be decided, however, by just a fraction of Atlanta’s electorate. Though Reed first began talking about the infrastructure bond well over a year ago, the measure has so far failed to gain significant traction with voters — perhaps because no property tax increase is planned.

Just 1,310 people cast early ballots through March 12, according to Fulton County Board of Elections data. No one expects a high turn-out on Tuesday, either, when voters will be asked to approve two separate bonds that will address a growing backlog of needed repairs to the city’s roads, bridges, sidewalks and buildings. The first, worth $188 million, will be spent on transportation. The second bond, about $64 million, will fund municipal buildings and recreation centers.

Polls suggest an all-but-certain victory. Still, the stakes are high for Reed, who is seeking to define his second term by improving what he describes as the “look and feel” of a city with a physical infrastructure long ignored. It’s been well over a decade since Atlanta has issued bonds to address its major infrastructure needs, and city leaders estimate the backlog has grown to more than $1 billion.

Reed has turned to an independent expenditure committee run by a handful of political allies to ensure the most ardent voters turn out. Citizens for Better Infrastructure has raised more than $400,000 in recent weeks, he said. The committee is targeting up to 45,000 “super-voters” with robocalls, TV commercials, direct mailings and public events.

The mayor paints a dire picture of Atlanta’s future without a victory on Tuesday, comparing the growing backlog to the pension problem he tackled in 2011. Without reform, it would’ve set Atlanta on a “path to insolvency,” he said.

“Similarly, if we leave the backlog unattended, it’s going to grow exponentially,” he said.

But for residents like Linda Guthrie, a more convincing argument would be a final project list. City leaders said they would complete such a list before the vote, but that now seems unlikely with only days before the polls open.

“Government has got to understand that people want to see how the money is going to be spent,”said Guthrie, 73, of Virginia-Highland. “Even if they are doing the right thing, whatever that might be. … I’m just floored that there’s not a final list.”

Reed’s administration has identified more than 200 proposed projects that they say the two bonds will address, such as synchronizing traffic lights, repaving streets, installing bike lanes and upgrading buildings. His administration also has proposed projects that some council members say are far less critical, including a $17.5 million natatorium in the King District and a $12.3 million public art initiative.

The Atlanta City Council isn’t required to finalize the list of projects until the city heads to the bond markets for approval. Nor has Atlanta typically finalized lists before previous bond referendums, several city leaders said.

Sally Flocks, head of the pedestrian advocacy organization PEDS, hopes the lack of finality will work in her favor. She’s seen the amount of proposed funding for sidewalk and curb repairs dwindle from tens of millions to just around $5 million since last year, she said.

“Public Works leaders have told me for nearly a decade that bond funds will be the best way to address the backlog of broken sidewalks,” she wrote to the council this week. “…It’s disappointing to see how poorly the funds will actually address the wants and needs of people on foot.”

Patrick Berry, development committee chair of the Westview Community Organization in Southwest, is optimistic.

His neighborhood organization successfully worked with city leaders to include a stretch of Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard in the proposed projects list and anticipates other projects to come to fruition with the bond money, he said.

“I think people are excited that we’re actually going to see some improvements, because we’re in Southwest Atlanta, and sometimes it seems like we’re forgotten about,” he said. “The fact that we were able to get three relatively large projects on this list is kind of a big deal for us.”

Reed said though the list isn’t finalized, his office has held multiple meetings with residents to familiarize them with potential projects and to solicit feedback. The administration has also created a website where Atlantans can scan and comment on potential projects.

“One of the things I’ve been criticized for in the past is not having larger conversations. That’s certainly not the case here,” he said. “… I think that the projects are well known to voters who have been engaged.”

Still, city leaders have acknowledged that the list is still evolving, and that the website doesn’t have all of the latest information.

With little doubt that the referendum will pass, City Hall has turned its energy toward overseeing how the funds will be spent.

Council members C.T. Martin and Mary Norwood are each sponsoring ordinances to form a bond oversight committee.

“I think this brings a level of comfort because, as an elected official, I want to make sure we do all of the right things,” Norwood said.

District 8 Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean said she plans to introduce legislation on Monday to hire an internal auditor specializing in construction projects, noting: “I don’t think the city has ever spent $250 million in five years, so it will be a challenge.”

William Perry, executive director of taxpayer watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, agreed. “I think there has to be significant watchdogging of the processes from groups like mine, and as many citizens that care to pay attention.”

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