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Atlanta pushes for U.S. sewer funds
Since 1990, federal grants like the city needs are hard to come by

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin sounded almost desperate, wearing a hard hat and speaking to a crowd gathered last month at the entrance to a $146 million tunnel under Buckhead, a neighborhood plagued by overflowing sewer lines.

"We are not getting federal support in the way of funds to fund clean water," she said. "There are some who say to me that it is impossible for us to fund this initiative without federal dollars."

The next day, Franklin announced that the city would have to triple water and sewer rates over the next five years to pay for $3.2 billion in sewer and water fixes, more than half of them required by federal court orders.

She called it "unjust" that Atlanta was not getting the same help given to Boston, New Orleans and San Diego. "No other city in the history of America has been treated this harshly," she declared.

But few cities have asked for so much at one time. Atlanta wants a 10-year, $1 billion federal handout.

Years ago, the request might not have looked like such a long shot. Sewer money was like road money is now; the federal government routinely paid 75 percent of construction costs. But that easy money, doled out in large grants, started getting scarce in 1990.

Atlanta has received more than $18 million in federal grant money since then. But the city was forced to return $2.3 million to the Environmental Protection Agency, in part because it could not produce documents on how the money was spent.

The grants were further offset by more than $20 million in fines that Atlanta paid during the last decade because of sewer-related violations of the Clean Water Act.

Cities that got bigger chunks of the limited grant dollars available in the 1990s generally were well connected on Capitol Hill. No city has received big payments in recent years, since the economy stalled and Republicans gained control of the White House.

The prospects for Franklin, a Democrat and a new mayor, to woo major grant money out of Washington seem slim.

Most federal water and sewer dollars now come in the form of small low-interest loans that wouldn't dent Atlanta's problems. Besides, Franklin says, the cash-strapped city -- already carrying about $2 billion in sewer-related debt -- needs help it doesn't have to pay back.

To that end, Atlanta has hired lobbyists to do its begging on Capitol Hill. The mayor and City Council members have visited Georgia's congressional delegation. But lobbying for federal grants is a long-term game.

So far, the city's lobbying efforts barely break even. Atlanta will spend $1.6 million on Washington lobbyists this year; in return, it has received about $1.8 million.

Janet Ward, a spokeswoman for the city's Watershed Department, said, "$1.6 million is a bargain if you can get real money out of Congress."

While the city waits for a return on that investment, people who get Atlanta water and sewer service will foot the bill for overhauling the systems, possibly starting with a 45 percent rate increase in January. The Atlanta City Council is scheduled to vote on rate hikes Monday.

Other cities got grants

Between 1972 -- when Congress passed the Clean Water Act -- and 1990, the federal government handed out about $60 billion in sewer grants.

Since then, a handful of cities have found ways to get large grants from Washington. The ones Franklin highlighted were among them, and all, like Atlanta, have been under federal court order to clean up sewer messes.

In the early to mid-1990s, metro Boston received nearly $1 billion to build a sewage treatment plant on an island in Boston Harbor and a 10-mile pipe to discharge wastewater into the Atlantic Ocean. Jonathan Yeo, spokesman for the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority, said the state's representatives in Washington were key. The congressional delegation, which includes high-profile Democrats such as Sens. Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, was able to persuade the Clinton administration of Boston's need, Yeo said. Down south, New Orleans was cashing in, too. Since 1996, the Crescent City has gotten $39.6 million for sewer work from the feds.

Joe Puglia, a spokesman for the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, said then-Mayor Marc Morial, a Democrat, had an "excellent" relationship with the Clinton administration. In 2000, $3.8 million rolled into New Orleans; now the money is dripping in. Only $2.8 million has arrived in the past three years, and most work outlined in the city's $625 million plan, scheduled to be finished in 2010, has yet to be done.

Out west, San Diego's director of sewers often picked up the phone and called the California delegation, including Sen. Diane Feinstein, a darling of the Democratic Party in the early 1990s. The efforts helped bring in more than one-third of the funds to pay for the city's $200 million sewage treatment plant. The feds "couldn't put that burden totally on the rate payers," said Mick Gammon, supervising management analyst for the city's metropolitan wastewater department. San Diego's paid advocates helped. "High-priced lobbyists can do some miraculous things," Gammon said.

But the city no longer is raking in money from Washington. With the exception of an "oddball" $17 million grant awarded because of its proximity to the Mexican border, San Diego hasn't received any significant federal aid since 1994, Gammon said.

"The grants people, even at the federal and state level, have gone away," he said. "There are no people to even administer it."

A nationwide need

Without outside help, Atlanta's water and sewer customers, who include Sandy Springs and south Fulton residents, will bear the burden alone.

The city has put faith in the wing-tipped lobbyists. Its nine-firm team is led by Vance Hughes, a former legal consultant for the city who helped write the consent decrees. Atlanta's best chance may come as more cities go begging on Capitol Hill. Across the country, municipal sewer systems are starting to age and leak. The EPA puts the cost of needed upgrades at up to $500 billion.

As it stands, municipalities cover 90 percent of the cost of those overhauls, according to the Association of Metropolitan Sewerage Agencies. Adam Krantz of the association said it is more than most cities could bear, and that means a lot of work isn't getting done.

The Water Infrastructure Network, a coalition of more than 40 groups including the AMSA, is lobbying Congress to beef up federal support.

"The federal government realizes it needs to recommit, especially as EPA goes through and requires cleanups," Krantz said.



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