By John Schaffner
Atlanta City Council President Lisa Borders presented a far-ranging update on the state of city and major projects—such as the water and sewer system upgrades, the BeltLine and expansions at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport at the Buckhead Business Association’s Sept. 20 breakfast meeting.
Atlanta native Borders, who is likely to be a candidate for mayor in 2009, started by discussing how ethics in city government has changed during the present administration.
“Prior to the Franklin administration, we were a little bit ethically challenged in the city of Atlanta,” she told the audience of about 100 members and guests of the BBA. “But we are no longer ethically challenged. We lead by example as a city. We have an ethics officer, something most cities do not have.
“I personally believe you can’t legislate behavior,” she explained. “But you can have rules on the books that remind you that if you misbehave what will happen to you.” That is what the city of Atlanta has.
Borders explained that there is a separate ethics officer that is accountable to a board. The ethics officer is not accountable to the mayor or the city council.
“We have the strongest ethics model of anywhere in the country,” Borders stated. “It’s about doing the right thing every single day.”
Turning to finances, Borders explained that when Mayor Shirley Franklin took office in 2002 she inherited a $82 million deficit. “She told me at one point that every time she opened a can, there were worms in it.”
The $82 million deficit was erased and the city has had balanced budgets for the last six consecutive years.
“We recognize that the residents of the city of Atlanta are our shareholders and we must spend their money judiciously,” Borders stated. “So, we also have rolled back the milleage rate two consecutive years in a row. It has only been a little bit, but the message we are sending is that we have the discipline to spend money judiciously.”
She also said the financial reserves in the city are at an all-time high. “So the message we are sending to markets all across the country is that Atlanta is a good place to invest your money. We want the economy to grow so that we can decrease your taxes even more.”
Borders referred to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as the “economic engine for the southeastern United States.” She said the fifth runway is “the most important runway in the United States.”
Borders explained that when planes are late in Atlanta, it has a reverberating effect all across the country. She said legislators on the hill say, “We’d like to have that airport. The mayor and all of us say ‘not on our watch, my friend’.” She pointed out the airport is running well and is self-sustaining. “The money at the airport stays at the airport to run the airport.”
Borders explained that the proposed BeltLine touches every council district in the city. “We believe it will serve as an economic engine also. It will touch areas of the city and encourage investment where there has been disinvestment or no investment for 10, 20, 30 years. Buckhead does not have that challenge, but there are other parts of the city that do,” she added.
Borders said the BeltLine “offers up the opportunity, through a very structured way, of driving a more even distribution of development all across the city.”
The second part of the BeltLine benefits is to create new parks and green spaces for the city. “We know that drives development as well and real estate values,” she added. Agreeing that the BeltLine will not displace cars in the city, Borders explained it will “offer a transportation option….an alternative to the car. It will connect over 45 neighborhoods,” as it creates a 22-mile loop around the central core of the city.
“We have one of the highest asthma rates in the country,” Borders stated. “The transportation issue is choking us. We are actually choking now on our own success.” She said she hopes the BeltLine can serve as a complementary system to the MARTA system. MARTA would act as the spine and the BeltLine would be the distributor system enabling residents to get all around the city without getting in their cars, she explained.
Transitioning into a discussion of projected growth for the city and region, Borders reported that it is projected that another 2.3 million people will come to our region over the next generation, which is defined as 25 years. She said the Atlanta Regional Commission also projects that organic growth in the region—birth over death—will add another million people.
“For you business owners, what does that sound like? Cha-ching,” she said.
She explained that we need to be able to “sustain” the growth, which is why investing in the water and sewer projects in the city is so important. That will be on tap until 2013, when it is due to be completed. “It is important that we look beyond today and plan for the future,” which she added, “we haven’t done that well.”
She explained that the 15 members of city council all “share a passion for the city.” The difference sometimes “is in their approach.” As for her position, Borders told the group, “I was not elected to be in the newspapers. I was elected to move the agenda of the city forward.”
Asked by BBA President Geoff Friedman to list her top 3 priorities for items to be accomplished for the city, Borders listed creation of the BeltLine; improving the water and sewer systems to ensure clean, safe and affordable water; and doing a better job with creating affordable housing in the city. “We don’t do a good job providing a variety of housing types and levels of cost,” she added.