Six years ago, when Gov. Sonny Perdue and state lawmakers agreed to help Atlanta fix its leaking sewers, the assistance came with a small dig at Atlanta itself.
“It’s not my intention that these loans or monies become a pocket liner for architects, consultants, contractors or anyone else,” Perdue said.
The remark accompanied a modest, no-cash offer of assistance for Georgia’s biggest city. A nod to Atlanta’s reputation for cronyism, the remark followed a principle of state politics:
Insulting Atlanta plays well. Helping Atlanta does not.
Add one more issue to the challenges facing the city: As Atlanta struggles to reduce crime, steady its finances and fix its infrastructure, it does so with little help from the state it put on the national economic map.
A product of the state’s political and racial history, partisan politics, economic envy and city officials’ own behavior, the relationship between Atlanta and the state is unusually dysfunctional.
It costs the city — tangibly.
Atlanta residents shoulder financial burdens alone that would be shared at least in part by state and regional taxpayers in most states.
Studies by the National League of Cities and consultants Bain & Co., the latter done for Atlanta, found Georgia trails most of the nation in state support for cities.
The 2006 Bain study showed Georgia contributing 5 percent to its cities’ operating budgets and less than 2 percent to Atlanta’s.
Nationally, the average city got 15 percent of its budget from the state. Many, including Michigan, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana and Minnesota, do so with revenue-sharing mechanisms that remit a specified portion of state income or sales tax revenues to cities.
Fifteen percent of Atlanta’s budget is about $81 million, enough to lop yearly taxes on a $250,000 home by $340 or to avoid the recent 3 mill property tax hike and hire 100 police officers.
Atlantans also pay more for special projects like the $4.1 billion sewer overhaul because of the state’s stance toward the city.
Atlanta isn’t the only U.S. city to outgrow an aging sewer system. It’s one of few to bear the repair costs almost entirely alone. Ohio, Michigan, Massachusetts, New York, Minnesota and North Carolina gave cities grants for sewer work.
Georgia offered loans for less than half of what the city sought in grants and allowed the city to levy its own sales tax.
The ensuing high-fives still gall Bain consultant Peter Aman.
“I continue to be astonished that the governor and rural legislators believe they significantly helped Atlanta solve its sewer problems by loaning the city money and allowing it to tax itself. It shows you just how far the state government sees itself as divorced from Atlanta when they view this as massive aid.”
State leadership’s fiscally conservative philosophy and strapped budget both limit aid to Atlanta. The current downturn has cut state funding even in more generous states.
The state’s fiscal stance would matter less to Atlanta if not for two other facts: The city is small for its metro region, and it’s surrounded by many jurisdictions competing for business, development and tax money.
Just 10 percent of metro Atlanta’s population lives inside city limits, census data shows.
Other growing urban areas, such as Denver or Charlotte, have 24 to 40 percent of their populations inside city limits and chipping in on costs of the city.
Census data show only one of 16 comparable cities, Miami, had a smaller portion of its metro area inside city limits. None had both a small city-metro population ratio and minimal state aid.
Bashing, back in the day
Georgia’s attitude toward Atlanta dates back to the days when rural counties held sway over state politics and Atlanta-bashing was a road to higher office.
Atlanta, said history professor and former state Rep. Bob Holmes, was “the Sodom and Gomorrah, the gambling, the nightclubs. You could be elected by running against Atlanta.”
Georgia’s election system made the strategy work. “County units,” not individual votes, decided elections. Rural areas had five times as many assigned units as urban ones, giving them control over state politics not supported by population numbers.
It made Atlanta-bashing easy, said state Sen. George Hooks (D-Americus), the Senate’s longest-serving member. “Nothing would roil the crowds at the county barbecue as to point the finger to the big city in Atlanta. Most of it was fiction. But it was the political thing to do.”
The county unit system died in 1962, after the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that it violated the one-man, one-vote principle. But the contention lived on.
In Hooks’ South Georgia district, the whole metro area is the culprit and any suggestion that Georgia should support it more is ludicrous: “The feeling is that Atlanta, the eight to 10 counties that make up that area, gets more than its share of the state’s tax dollars. Every street you have up there is paved. In 50 percent of my district, they drive on unpaved roads.”
That state resources go to a region full of transplants also “galls people. People think, ‘Why in the world are you down here and getting all of our stuff?’ ”
A 2009 Georgia State study found that metro Atlanta gives more than it gets: The 10 metro counties contribute 51 percent of the state’s tax revenues and get 37 percent of its spending. (Figures aren’t available for the city.)
But the metro area hasn’t made that case well because it doesn’t stick together. The suburbs have their own problems with Atlanta.
Suburbs don’t trust ATL
Suburban efforts to keep Atlanta at bay include the 1961 creation of a 10-foot wide Cobb County “city” on the Chattahoochee River as a barrier to annexation. It finally lost its charter in 1995. And the Legislature cleared the way for Sandy Springs, the first of a slew of new cities blocking Atlanta to the north, five years ago.
The suburbs don’t trust Atlanta, said former City Councilman Lee Morris, a Republican.
“There’s a tremendous amount of animosity toward Atlanta on the part of the suburbs,” he said. “I’m not sure the city is any more badly run than any other government. But there’s certainly that perception.”
Party and race differences are likely part of it, said state Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta). “If race is not everything in Atlanta, it’s at least in everything in Atlanta.”
The city hasn’t helped itself.
Years of foot-dragging on its sewer problems sent filth flowing downstate, making the whole region look bad. High-profile public corruption trials, including one that put former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell in prison in 2006, reinforced the city’s reputation for corruption.
City attitudes hurt, too. If disdain for Atlanta played well in the state, disdain for the state played well inside city limits.
Former City Council member Doug Alexander says he was the only Atlanta official at state municipal league meetings because of his peers’ “attitude that civilization stops at the Perimeter.” Atlanta would get a “tremendous round of boos” during roll call, he said.
Sam Olens, chairman of the Cobb County Commission and the Atlanta Regional Commission, said the city’s disengagement peaked under Campbell, who skipped most ARC meetings “and if he did show up, it was only to criticize the rest of us.”
The resulting suburban-rural legislative bond works against Atlanta. The new cities movement is an example, said Fort.
“The creation of Sandy Springs, Dunwoody and now the issue of [a new] Milton County are all examples of suburbs not wanting to deal with Atlanta and all examples of [anti-Atlanta] things that needed and got legislative help.”
Supporters are critics, too
State lawmakers don’t agree that they’re hard on Atlanta.
“We consider Atlanta to be the economic engine of the state,” said state Rep. John Lunsford (R-McDonough).
The Legislature helped create that engine in the 1960s and 1970s, under powerful former House Speaker Tom Murphy, who pushed the World Congress Center, the Georgia Dome and MARTA.
But support for Atlanta comes with criticism.
“We’re very proud of Atlanta,” said Lunsford. “We’re not very proud of their money management skills or what we perceive to be nepotism in government or their priorities sometimes. But we’ve done everything they’ve asked.”
To local officials, though, it can seem as if lawmakers flock in every January bent on making mischief for their hosts.
City Council member Ceasar Mitchell, who believes the city should reach out more, says the council greets the legislative session with low-grade dread: “[We] wait for the Legislature to come to town and brace for them to do things to us. One year, it’s the trees, trying to undo our tree ordinance. Almost every year, it’s the airport.”
The hostility predates Atlanta’s emergence as a majority-black, Democrat-controlled city in a majority-white, Republican-controlled state.
Former Mayor Sam Massell remembers wooing hostile lawmakers with a city hospitality desk at the Legislature. A hostess doled out free event tickets to legislators, shopping tips to their wives and, “I’ll confess, helped with a parking ticket or two.”
It paid off, Massell said. The state let Fulton and DeKalb counties levy a sales tax to fund MARTA, the first time the Legislature allowed an entity other than itself to tax sales. In thanks, Massell buried a hatchet outside City Hall and sent female staffers in hot pants to give lawmakers keys to the city.
As with the sewers years later, the gratitude itself said something. The two-county sales tax was all MARTA got. It remains the nation’s only mass transit system with no dedicated state funding.
One effort in particular came to symbolize the city-state feud.
The Legislature’s regular runs on Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport are so reliable that city officials joke about it. Bills to privatize the airport or put it under state control pop up almost annually.
George Berry, who left as the airport’s chief in 1983, remembers dealing with such bills “since at least the early 1970s ... It never got anywhere. But every year we would make it a point to head over there and point out the difficulties it would bring.”
This year’s bill came from state Rep. Bob Smith (R-Watkinsville) and caused a raucous March hearing before dying. The airlines, especially Delta, have steadfastly opposed any change in airport control.
Smith said he introduced his bill because the airport serves the whole state, because a promised international terminal isn’t done and because of the city’s reputation for linking airport contracts and politics.
The reputation is earned. Two big public corruption prosecutions that bracketed the Campbell years both involved airport contracts, campaign money and alleged bribery.
Fort said the airport raids are about money. Hartsfield has a rich trove of private vending, engineering and other contracts, all under the city’s control.
Tensions between the city and state eased during Mayor Shirley Franklin’s tenure. The payoff was the state’s sewer help, announced just before Christmas 2003.
“She really deserves a lot of credit,” said Olens. “She reached out to the rest of the state.”
But the goodwill didn’t last.
Franklin’s 2006 participation in an incendiary “robocall” to black voters infuriated Republicans. The taped call included Franklin and two other politicians, one of whom — not Franklin — suggested that a Republican-led Fulton County Commission would return black voters to the days of police dogs and firehoses.
The ad is the first thing many Republicans mention when asked about Atlanta. “State taxpayers helped her, through the legislative process, with Atlanta’s sewer mess,” said Rep. Smith. “Then the very next election, she’s throwing sticks at us.”
Alexander, the former councilman, said the ad gave traction to a campaign to split North Fulton into a separate county, further isolating Atlanta.
“Elephants never forget,” he said. “She really did herself in.”
Water war and peace?
Meanwhile, Georgia’s governor is moving in another direction.
Perdue declined an interview for this article, as did Franklin.
But the governor has been going around the state recently urging a retreat from Atlanta bashing. The reason is the July federal court ruling limiting the region’s access to Lake Lanier water.
“We’ve got some parts of Georgia that like to blame Atlanta for a lot of things,” he said in an August speech in Columbus. “But if we get to squabbling among family members, people are willing to take [the Chattahoochee River] away from all of us.”
“This is not a partisan issue. This is not a geographic issue. This is a Georgia issue. And it’s a Georgia family issue as we move forward.”
To Bain consultant Aman, that’s good news.
A healthy Atlanta needs “real support” from state government or a bigger footprint, he said. The relationship between city and state will improve, he said, once the state understands that it needs the city.
MAYORAL CANDIDATES' VIEWS
I will work to improve the city’s relationship with the state by building coalitions across jurisdictions and party lines. As council president, I have built strong relationships with city, county and state leaders around Georgia. During a recent trip to Washington, D.C., I was welcomed by both Republican and Democratic members of the Georgia Congressional Delegation to discuss federal funding for various programs. As Mayor, I will continue to bring divergent parties together to build consensus on vital issues affecting Atlanta.
Politicians outside Atlanta get votes at our expense. They froze MARTA, blocked suburban contributions to our safety and infrastructure upkeep, covet our airport we built, and lately Republican John Oxendine even resurrected the eastside highway. As mayor, I will hold them publicly accountable for lost opportunities and higher taxes. A rational and equitable fiscal burden shift in metro Atlanta is a must. It is not fair, and it is no longer financially sustainable to expect Atlanta to pay more than its fair share.
It is critical for our future that Atlanta has a good working relationship with the state of Georgia. As a state senator, I have delivered concrete results for the city of Atlanta on some of our most critical issues, including work on water/sewer, transportation, education and crime. I have the most experience working with the state out of anyone running for mayor. And I have a proven track record of working through complex issues on a bipartisan basis. Over the last 11 years, I have built solid relationships with our state leaders and will use those relationships to continue to deliver for Atlanta.
As the youngest of 13 children from a farm in Henry County, I am accustomed to overcoming difficult circumstances to achieve outstanding results. I will use these lessons to improve Atlanta’s standing with other governments in the region. While I will be forthright and relentless in my advocacy for Atlanta, I will also remain open to developing a better understanding of all involved. I can work with all members of state government in crafting the policies that are best for Atlanta and Georgia. Since Atlanta is clearly the economic engine of the state, why not its pride as well?
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution used 2008 census data to compare Atlanta and its metro area with 16 other cities. The cities included those identified as comparable in a series of “benchmark” studies done by Bain & Co., a consulting group. The AJC then added others that were either in the South, fast-growing, or both. The newspaper used the Bain & Co. analysis and a 2008 National League of Cities report to assess state aid for cities and a 2009 analysis from Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies’ Fiscal Research Center to address the metro region’s benefits and costs to the state.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Atlanta has always been a city with vision — the kind of vision that concocts the world’s favorite soft drink, sees beyond race, invents cable news, produces the world’s largest airport and hosts the Olympics. But it takes more than vision; it takes a commitment to solve problems. On Nov. 3, Atlanta will choose a new mayor for the first time in eight years — a change of guard that comes at a critical juncture. A veteran team of AJC reporters is looking deeply into the key challenges ahead, issues that resonate far beyond Atlanta’s city limits. A team of outside experts also will offer its suggestions and solutions.
Nov. 1: Advice from experts, who will offer their solutions to city woes.