Atlanta dedicates $6.4M for MLK Drive upgrades

Ugly politics marr vote on street bearing name of civil rights icon

There was a crash this week at the intersection of Martin Luther King Drive and Atlanta City Hall politics, as the process of awarding $6.4 million for improvements to the historic in-town thoroughfare overshadowed the baby step toward fixing streets and sidewalks in one of the city’s most impoverished areas.

The work is a first step toward a larger effort known as the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive Streetscape Improvement Plan, which involves tens of millions in upgrades throughout the seven-mile street, including synchronized traffic lights, a multi-use trail, historic signage, street furniture, distinctive paving, public art displays and more.

The first phase was pushed quickly, administration officials have said, to create efficiencies with the Georgia Department of Transportation which has work planned in the area. MLK Drive will get $4 million of the work, the rest will be on Lynhurst Drive.

But after Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration asked the city council to rush through approval of the project funding, it could not demonstrate that there was enough money to cover the project in the account it identified to pay for it.

In response to the hard-line questioning by Councilwoman Felicia Moore — during a meeting of the city’s Transportation Committee last week, and again at an agenda meeting Monday before the full council meeting — Councilman C.T. Martin organized about 20 members of the community to speak in favor of the project. All wore yellow ribbons.

“I am still in shock over some of the questions that came up,” resident Sarah Walker said during the council meeting. “There is value in asking tough questions, but it’s also easy to stall and stall and never get anything done.”

The questioning started at the March 16 Transportation Committee meeting, when Moore asked from which account the project would be paid, and the fund balance of that account. The administration said they would report back on the fund balance.

After that meeting, Moore said she went into the city’s financial software system and found a negative fund balance of more than $500,000 for Public Works’ professional services account.

During the council meeting, deputy chief financial officer John Gaffney said the Public Works’ general fund was the account out of which the project would be paid, and produced a screen shot showing a balance of $5.4 million — still $1 million short of the project cost. Gaffney said there was actually an additional $1 million in the account, but a technical glitch prevented him from showing it.

Then Katrina Taylor-Parks, Reed’s deputy chief of staff, blasted Moore for not letting go of the issue.

“I just hope we show equity across the board when we do this” type of questioning, Taylor-Parks said. “There have been times when [ordinances] have been passed with no account numbers, nobody verifying the cost, or [the] dollars that are in there. This is, in my opinion, unfair, unmerited and it’s wasting time and energy.

“The funds are available.”

Martin, sponsor of the resolution and whose District 10 includes MLK Drive, did not respond to messages left by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But during the council meeting, he said the planned improvements are about creating a “street of dignity,” a phrase that was repeated by many of the citizen speakers during the meeting.

“There is a history on this council of sometimes even when people get information they still vote no,” Martin said. “I am sure that in a city with a budget of $400 million, we can find a million dollars. I’m sure the administration will work out the mechanics of this.”

Moore, who is considering a run for council president in 2017, read the organizing of citizens as an attempt to shut down her questions and get her to vote in favor of the project. It did neither; she was the lone vote against.

“I hope the public … knows that there’s more to it than meets the eye,” Moore said. “I will not be threatened. You can save your threats and just do what you’re going to do. Unfortunately, I had to vote no, when I wanted to vote yes, because I wanted the answer to my questions.

“The politics that are being played are unfortunate, they’re distasteful. So go on and mischaracterize my vote out in the community.”

The first phase of the project is expected to get underway in the next two months. Reed first proposed the project in 2013, and his office has since unveiled detailed plans. The total project budget is expected to be about $45 million, and it will take about five years to complete.

Reed’s communications office issued a press release about the project Thursday, with a prepared statement from the mayor saying: “Atlanta is the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The street bearing his name should represent his legacy and stand as a source of pride and excellence for all who travel on it.”