Atlanta residents seemed to favor continuing to tax themselves -- and visitors to the city -- rather than face huge rate increases to pay for a range of water and sewer projects, some of them required by federal regulators.
With only a portion of ballots counted, voters appeared to back by a large margin a measure to reauthorize a 1 percent sales tax for an additional four years. To see final results, go to ajc.com.
It appeared to be a major victory for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who had embarked on a public relations blitz in favor of the tax. He argued that it would allow ratepayers to spread the cost of sewer projects to hundreds of thousands of tourists and commuters who visit the city but don't pay its water bills.
An Atlanta family using about 6,000 gallons per month pays roughly $150 on water and sewer bills, the heftiest combined bill in the country.
Without the tax, water and sewer bills in Atlanta would have to rise by as much as 30 percent to cover debt carried by the city's Department of Watershed Management, Reed and other officials said. The department took out about $2 billion in debt to fund required sewer projects.
"We felt that, as long as we explained it, we'd be fine," Reed said Tuesday afternoon after voting at Ralph J. Bunche Middle School in southwest Atlanta. "I feel reasonably good about today. But I'm always nervous on Election Day."
The tax encountered heavy resistance among some Republicans who voted in the party's hotly contested presidential primary.
"The money in the city is so mismanaged to begin with, I can't fathom giving them another $750 million," said David Miller, 52, of north Atlanta. "I just have a huge mistrust of city government."
Jeff Graydon voted against the tax at a Knights of Columbus meeting hall on Buford Highway. He said he didn't believe the city would use the funds wisely.
"They're threatening to raise water and sewer rates," said Graydon, 48, who sells high-tech biometric equipment. "I'll take the gamble."
Sherry Bennett, a retiree living in southwest Atlanta, said she voted for the tax because city officials indicated they would not raise water and sewer bills for at least four more years if the tax was renewed.
"I hope it's true," she said. "I'm counting on that."
City voters backed the tax by wide margins in 2004 and 2008, when it passed with 75 percent and 71 percent support, respectively.
Asked before the vote whether the city had any plans to prevent rates from skyrocketing if voters struck down the sales tax, Jo Ann Macrina, Atlanta's watershed commissioner, said the city was constrained by federal consent decrees to spend money on major upgrades to stop sewage spills.
Without the tax funding, the city could suffer more sewer line collapses and water main breaks, Macrina said.
It's unclear how Atlanta's 8 percent sales tax rate could influence a July 31 vote expected to be even more heated: a referendum on a 1 percent sales tax to fund local and regional transportation projects.
Charlie Harper, editor of the Peach Pundit political blog, said renewal of the sewer tax might make it a little harder to ask Atlanta voters for another 1 percent sales tax. But he said the biggest challenge for the transportation tax is not the difference between 8 percent and 9 percent sales tax rates; it's the urban-suburban split in the Atlanta region over MARTA and mass transit.
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