EconSouth - Second Quarter 2008
Q & A
"I Hope That We Have Set an Example"
An Interview With Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin
Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin has many distinctions. She is the first woman elected Atlanta mayor and the first black woman to be elected mayor of any major Southeastern city. Spearheading projects including Operation Clean Sewer and Clean Water Atlanta, Franklin intends to rehabilitate a part of the city's infrastructure that had fallen into disrepair after decades of neglect. The political and fiscal pressure from undertaking these projects is significant, but she says the cost of inaction is greater still and that the overhaul of the city's water system is essential to Atlanta's future quality of life.
EconSouth: As mayor of Atlanta, you've been called the infrastructure mayor, and you've even dubbed yourself the "sewer mayor." How do you feel about the progress you've made on Atlanta's water and sewer infrastructure?
Shirley Franklin: We've made significant progress. We've drastically reduced sanitary and combined sewer overflows across the city. We've separated the sewers into three sewer basins, leaving only the downtown area with combined sewers. We've built more than 120 miles of new water mains. We've inspected more than 1,000 miles of sewers and rehabbed about a quarter of them. Because of this effort, the Chattahoochee River is cleaner than it was 10 years ago.
ES: Before your election as mayor, you likely had some serious concerns about Atlanta's faltering infrastructure. What brought Atlanta to the brink, resulting in the 1998 consent decree against the city for sewer overflow and pollution to Atlanta-area rivers and streams?
Franklin: The Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper [an environmental advocacy organization] sued the city for violating the federal and state Clean Water Acts. And we were getting fined daily. Everyone knew the system had been neglected for decades. But it was the lawsuit and the subsequent consent decrees that made everybody sit up and take notice.
ES: One of your first acts as mayor was to set up the Department of Watershed Management. Why did you feel that was so important?
Franklin: The concept of watershed management is a fairly recent development that charges us to look at everything that makes up a watershed in a holistic way. When I became mayor, the sewer system was under Public Works, the drinking water system was under United Water, and the stormwater system really didn't exist. It just made sense to put "all things water" under one operational umbrella.
ES: Tell us a little about Operation Clean Sewer.
Franklin: Under Operation Clean Sewer, we vowed to clean 25 percent of our system every year and to put a comprehensive grease management program in place. Many people don't realize that when you put your bacon grease, ice cream, or even mayonnaise down your sink drain that mess hardens in your sewers and can cause blockages and backups. This program is particularly important for restaurants. So we established a grease management program. We've issued 1,130 wastewater discharge permits to food service establishments, conducted more than 6,000 grease trap inspections, and issued 160 notices of violation and 138 citations. We've prevented more than five million gallons of grease from entering our sewer system, and grease is no longer the leading cause of sewer spills in the city.
ES: Funding for infrastructure projects seems to be the key to the castle. How did you secure the kind of multibillion dollar funding needed for infrastructure repairs in Atlanta?
Franklin: We got some very minor federal grants and some low-interest state loans. But mostly we've had to rely on our residents. We've raised our water/sewer rates, and they are now among the highest in the country. Atlantans have really done this on their own. They overwhelmingly approved a one-cent sales tax to help fund the work. It's a serious hardship for many Atlantans, but the work has to be done, and it has to be done in an extremely short time period. Other cities doing this work have 20–30 years, and that time allows them to spread out the expenses. We basically have 15 years, an unheard-of time period for such a massive undertaking.
ES: Atlanta's sewer and water systems are not as old as those in other major cities, particularly cities in the Northeast, yet the problems were ignored for more than 30 years and through seven prior administrations. Besides the consent decree facing you, where did you find your passion for the infrastructure projects?
Franklin: I'm not a politician; I'm an administrator. Politicians want to pay attention to the flashy things, but administrators know that it's the relentless drudgery of the stuff you can't see that makes a city work. I always use the example of a leaky roof. Your roof leaks, so you spend $10,000 or $20,000 putting a new roof on your house. That's a lot of money, but no one is going to walk by your house and say, "Hey! Great roof!" But if you don't put the roof on, really bad things can happen to your house.
ES: Are there trade-offs to focusing on infrastructure issues? For instance, does public safety or other important aspects of the city's bailiwick have to suffer because of funding limitations?
Franklin: Not really. The water and sewer work is funded through water/sewer rates, not through the city's general fund, under which police, fire, and public works fall. So spending money on sewers doesn't affect the city's bottom line.
ES: You recently said in a speech to the Atlanta Rotary Club that "Atlanta can't be great unless we invest." How do you think your infrastructure legacy will play out in future administrations?
Franklin: I hope that we have set an example that future administrations will follow. I think people understand for the most part what we're trying to do here. They know that the sewers are an intrinsic part of Atlanta's quality of life. They realize the work has to be done.
ES: Where do you stand on your implementation schedule and paying for the water and sewer upgrade project?
Franklin: We are on schedule and basically on budget. The entire undertaking, including the water projects that are not federally mandated but are absolutely necessary, is right at $4 billion. We've done some amazing work to keep costs under control. The entire budget for the Clean Water Atlanta projects has increased just 1.27 percent over the past five years. With the incredible rise in gasoline prices and the cost of steel, concrete, and other construction materials, I think that's something to be very proud of.
ES: Atlanta has raised water and sewer rates an average of 10 percent a year. How do you balance the benefits of infrastructure improvements with potential tax or user fee increases? Can taxpayers see the long-term benefits or just the short-term financial squeeze?
Franklin: It's been extremely hard on our customers, but I think they see the long-term benefits. Our residents know that the work is necessary for their quality of life, and our businesses know that economic development is impossible without clean, safe, reliable drinking water and sewer systems. That doesn't mean rate increases don't hurt; they do. We are very sympathetic, but we know this program is the right thing to do.
ES: We've talked about water and sewer infrastructure, but what about roads and bridges? Does the city face the same infrastructure challenges there, or has there been more ongoing upkeep over the decades?
Franklin: Atlanta's roads and bridges are in pretty good shape. However, anyone who's been paying attention knows that traffic is the bane of our existence as Atlantans. So I fully expect that we as a city, in concert with the state and the Atlanta Regional Commission, will be dedicating significant time and resources in the future to solving our congestion issues.
ES: You have been on both the national and international stage during your tenure as mayor, having been named in 2005 as one of the top ten world mayors and being a recipient of the John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award the same year. How much of that recognition do you feel has come from your commitment to infrastructure issues?
Franklin: I think my interest in and commitment to Atlanta's infrastructure is a large part of the reason that I have gotten the attention. Infrastructure sure isn't sexy, but I do think it is on the national radar screen. It just doesn't get the focus, day in and day out, that flashier projects get. But just let a bridge collapse in Minnesota or sewage foul a beach in Hawaii, and you'll hear about the country's infrastructure. Unfortunately, that inattention has been reflected in our federal government, which has steadily decreased funding for roads, bridges, and water systems.
This interview was conducted by Lynne Anservitz, editorial director of EconSouth.