The largest field of contestants in 2017 this side of “The Bachelor” — hey, there’s no Republican presidential primary this year — is shaping up to be the candidates for Atlanta’s mayor. About a dozen folks have said they’re running. More may jump in.
It’s enough to make you ask: What do they think they’re going to do once they get there? Nothing that costs money, I hope.
I don’t say that only as a penny-pinching taxpayer. I say it as someone who recognizes the current administration of Kasim Reed has already used up just about every available pot of money on its own initiatives, short of raising taxes (again). To wit:
The city’s sales tax rate is due to rise to 8.9 percent after voters approved increases for MARTA and other transportation projects. That’s easily the highest rate in Georgia and nearly as high as the 9.25 percent rate in Chattanooga, Tennessee, whose residents pay no state income tax.
A year earlier, Atlanta voters approved $250 million in bonds for other infrastructure. City Hall earmarked pretty much all available cash to make those bond payments.
The city’s also running out of other taxes to raise. A huge chunk of the hotel/motel tax is committed to the new Falcons stadium. The rental-car tax is being re-upped to renovate Philips Arena, which is getting a total of $142.5 million in taxpayer funding — three-quarters of the project cost, with nary a public pledge from the Hawks’ owners to make other investments nearby (as the Braves are doing in Cobb County).
How about selling off big tracts of land? The pickings are slim there, too. Georgia State and a private partner are buying Turner Field, with almost half of the proceeds tabbed for the Philips face-lift. The arena is also reportedly getting $20 million from sales of other, smaller parcels. A deal for Underground Atlanta has yet to close, and one for the civic center fell apart, so some money might be had from those sales.
Many of the city’s fastest-growing areas are in tax allocation districts, meaning the revenue sparked by their growth is already spoken for. Tax abatements are such an overused economic-development tool that they’re practically a developer entitlement at this point rather than leverage to induce investment that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred.
All of this leaves a few main possibilities, as campaign promises go, for the would-be mayors:
1. Promise to implement the existing vision for the city with efficiency and competence. (Not the sexiest campaign slogan.)
2. Promise to halt some of these projects and/or renegotiate them. (Good luck getting those horses back in the barn.)
3. Promise to raise taxes. (Or, after being elected, break a promise not to.)
4. Focus on something else entirely.
Option No. 4 would be a departure from the usual Atlanta way, which historically has been to build, build and build some more. From the city government’s perspective, that has meant catering to the builders.
Getting away from that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Committing hundreds of millions of dollars over a period of decades to replacing barely worn sports stadiums, for instance, has meant putting off other needed improvements — or raising taxes to make them (see those recently approved sales-tax hikes).
But it may also mean a different kind of promise we’re more accustomed to seeing in other large cities, such as a steeply increased local minimum wage that drives jobs out of the city.
We’ll have to wait and see, but I’m sure of one thing: A dozen people aren’t running for the job to sit around idly after winning it.