John Schaffner

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed entered the highly conservative and mostly Republican world of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation for lunch in Buckhead on March 9, offered a hand of friendship and asked for partners in solving the critical issues facing the city.

“You have an administration and government conscious of the contributions you make to the city,” Reed told the more than 100 attending the luncheon at 103 West events facility.

“I do not view Buckhead as a bank for the city of Atlanta,” he stated.

Those and other eloquent remarks from the new mayor, who received very little voter support from Buckhead in his campaign last year, were warmly received and acknowledged several times with applause.

“The election is over,” Reed told the group. He said the city has very real issues that must be tackled or it will lose out to cities such as Charlotte, “which has a unity in decision making” among elected officials, civic and business leaders throughout the community.

Stating he is up to meeting the challenges, Reed reminded the audience, “I can spend a year polling at 3 percent and still believe I can win.”

He had trailed former City Councilwoman Mary Norwood and other candidates for mayor for many months, but came on strong at the end of the campaign to defeat Buckhead favorite Norwood in the runoff by 714 votes.

Reed characterized the first 65 days of his administration as being “off to a robust start.” He said the hiring of former Bain & Co. partner Peter Aman as COO and other strategic hires since he took office is “sending a clear message that talent and merit rule the day.”

He also referred to the high-level personnel searches under way for a chief financial officer, police chief and fire chief and stated “more than half of the members of those selection committees did not support me” in the mayor’s race.

Reed said when he became mayor, some people close to him suggested he back off from the problems with the city’s pension funds and “choose some topics that are more fun.” But he said that is the biggest issue facing the city and, if it’s not dealt with, Atlanta will never be the city at the top of the mountain.

He indicated the other major issues facing the city are transportation, water, and budgeting operations with reduced revenues. He said he is committed to “moving the city to agreement on what the issues are.”

“We can’t argue about what the numbers are anymore,” he told the group. He indicated the 2011 fiscal budget faces a budget shortfall of $40 million to $50 million.

Reed said he has asked every department heads to identify things they do today in their departments that should not be part of their core responsibilities.

“We are going to do a small number of things exceptionally well,” the mayor said. “I don’t have a laundry list of initiatives that I go around City Hall waving like a flag.”

He said one initiative the people at the luncheon could help with is his plan to reopen the city’s recreation centers so young people will have places to go. His plan is to finance the opening of these centers with private money. He said the program is important to reducing stret crimes, which are being committed by young and younger youths.

Fulton Taxpayers Foundation President John Sherman set the stage for Reed’s address by listing what he felt were the three top problems facing the city: The escalating cost for the city’s employee pensions, unfunded accrued healthcare benefits that total $1.1 billion, and the water and sewer infrastructure costs that have escalated from $3.2 billion to $4.1 billion.

As Reed arrived and spoke to the Taxpayers Foundation, about 100 firefighters were demonstrating outside along West Paces Ferry Road. They were not protesting the mayor – although they did not support him in the mayoral campaign – but were demonstrating against the Fulton Taxpayers Association after some of its members filed suit to stop increased pension fund payments approved in 2001 and 2005 by Atlanta City Council.

Sherman said the city’s fire and police employees have the highest pension multiplier of any city, which is why the foundation supports the lawsuit.

At the end of Reed’s speech, Sherman asked the mayor if he would consider privatizing some of the city’s services to create cost savings and efficiencies. The mayor responded that the 2011 budget will include some efficiencies in the city’s operations.