Reed scores big win on sewer tax vote

Without the tax, Atlanta's already high water and sewer rates would jump by 30 percent, Reed warned.

The "municipal option sales tax" sailed through a contested Republican primary with a larger margin of victory -- 86 percent support to 14 percent opposed -- than in two previous votes in 2004 and 2008. The tax, in place since 2004, will last at least another four years.

AJC: How were you able to increase the support for the tax? It had 75 percent support in 2004 and 71 percent in 2008, when Democrats had their own contested primaries to vote in.

Reed: I'm really excited about that. My goal was to exceed that performance in the past. I think we run a good program -- we reduced the number of spills into the Chattahoochee River . . . and that this was worth communicating effectively with all of our citizens.

AJC: It seems as though the game plan to advocate for the tax was very similar to past campaigns in 2004 and 2008.

Reed: No, we changed the game plan significantly. We had very targeted messages, we had very targeted data. Our polling showed that the ballot question was troubling, particularly with Republicans, and if we didn't communicate repeatedly and effectively, we could be in for a very bad surprise. I did more than 40 events between Feb. 2 and today (March 6).

We significantly improved Democratic (turnout) over our model, and we held very strong with our Republican friends. We placed more than 110,000 phone calls over the last five days. The City Council members definitely activated their networks. Sally Bethea (executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper), (environmental activists) Laura and Rutherford Seydel and (Buckhead businessman) Charlie Loudermilk really stepped up. Him getting involved was key: just letting folks know that this was a bipartisan effort.

What our research showed was that, if we had not explained the potential for rate increases, we could have been in for an unpleasant surprise. It would have cost the city about $110 million per year. I think our residents would have held me responsible, because I would have had to go to City Council and immediately ask for a rate increase to cover our bonds. That's why I took this so seriously. We would not have gotten a second try -- the state law would not have let us ask again if the vote failed.

AJC: The city has said there are no plans to raise water and sewer rates over the next four years. Is there any discussion of actually lowering them, now that the MOST has passed?

Reed: The answer to that is no. We still have to fulfill our plan. But what we can do is change direction and keep rates from rising. I don't want to play games with you and tell you they'll go down. We're basically going to keep the rates steady.

AJC: Water and sewer bills in the city have been a real source of frustration for residents for some time. How do you and the city plan to rebuild trust in the Department of Watershed Management?

Reed: You'll be reporting soon on a complete audit of our residential meters. We've actually gone through and checked every meter. (Rebuilding trust) is going to be a lot of work. We've been working at it. And to be honest, the media has played a role in that. The print and electronic media coverage of our water issues has been fair, needed and necessary and has caused us to change.

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