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Atlanta’s legislative wish list includes higher alcohol taxes

The city of Atlanta’s legislative wish-list for the 2013 General Assembly includes changes in state law that would allow the city to increase taxes on alcohol, sell condemned and blighted property to private parties, designate sales tax revenue disbursements by tenths of a cent rather than a full penny, and charge the public school system for the cost of running school board elections.

The city also wants Georgia’s environmental regulators to be required to use $1 tire fees for cleanup of scrap tires, which pile up in abandoned lots and creeks around the city.

A document obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows a wide range of requests, some of which — like the ability to raises taxes on beer, wine and liquor — have been requested before, only to fall short under the Gold Dome.

“A lot of this comes down to local control,” said Megan Middleton, Atlanta’s intergovernmental affairs manager. “We’re asking for the authority to make changes. You still would have the local input.”

One proposal — such as slicing penny sales taxes into smaller increments of one-tenth of a percent, which could go to different purposes — is similar to those pushed this year by Cobb County.

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A sales tax levied in Atlanta at a tenth of a percentage point could generate about $11 million or $12 million in revenue per year.

After the 2010 legislative session, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed met with arts backers, including the Woodruff Arts Center and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, to discuss the merits of a partial penny tax. He now cites Denver’s fractional tax for the arts as a model for Atlanta.

“It is getting some momentum,” Middleton said of the fractional sales tax proposal.

Yolanda Adrean, who represents northwest Atlanta on the City Council, said the proposal would provide municipalities with much-needed flexibility.

“If a penny of tax could be split between more than one priority, it could allow the city to move on some very crucial needs,” Adrean said. “I’m not suggesting that we add a penny of sales tax. In a time where there’s a great deal of sensitivity to how much you’re taxed and where that money goes, this gets everyone focused. There are lots of pressing needs that are not getting funded.”

The city plans to ask for a number of other changes to state law, which could give the city flexibility and cash on a number of fronts.

The city wants citizen review boards — including the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, which has oversight over the city’s police department — to be exempted from the requirement to release documents under an open records request until all the entities involved have finished their respective investigations.

Some of Atlanta’s requests are sure to attract opposition. Proposals to increase alcohol taxes were criticized last year by restaurants and their representatives at the Gold Dome. And this week, open-government advocates criticized the city’s request to create more exemptions to the state’s open records law.

“The general rule of the open records law is transparency, and the law discourages any additions like this proposal which would provide further impediments to public access,” said Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia first Amendment Foundation

Meanwhile, Atlanta says it needs clarity about what it can do with blighted properties after it uses eminent domain to condemn and seize them. The city’s department of planning and community development wants the state to allow the city to transfer title to private parties once the blight is remedied. The current law seems to require the city to retain ownership for 20 years, according to city officials.

The city also wants to be able to charge higher fees to recoup the true cost of maintaining a 911 program, which is about $16 million a year in Atlanta. The city says it has been operating its 911 emergency service at a deficit for years.

Atlanta again seeks several tax increases on alcohol. One proposal, a 5 percent excise tax by-the-drink on beer and wine, would raise an estimated $4.5 million every year. The proposal is similar to others that have failed to make headway under the Gold Dome in years past.

“What we run into is a lack of action,” said City Councilman Howard Shook of Buckhead. Previous requests for heftier alcohol taxes have generally “arrived dead and stayed that way.”

Atlanta also says it needs help with cracking down on illegal scrap tire dumping. City officials and residents have complained that funds for enforcement and environmental cleanup are being diverted to other purposes.

Revenue raised by a $1 charge added to the cost of every new tire sold in Georgia is supposed to be deposited into the state’s Solid Waste Trust Fund, which pays to clean up scrap tires, prevent littering and close abandoned landfills.

In fiscal year 2008, about $6 million generated from tire fees were deposited into the trust fund. But the next year, only about $2 million of the $6 million generated by the tire fees was deposited into the trust fund and used for the intended purposes.

Then in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, the situation became critical. No funds generated from tire fees were deposited into the trust fund in those years, according to Atlanta’s legislative brief.

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