At the Jan. 2 swearing-in of Sandy Springs’ elected officials, Mayor Rusty Paul announced that two of his next-term goals will become official city policy priorities: better maintenance of the Atlanta-owned water system, even if that takes a lawsuit, and redevelopment of northern Roswell Road with housing affordable to a broad income range.
New City Council members Jody Reichel and Steve Soteres were sworn in at the City Hall ceremony, as were Paul and returning council incumbents Andy Bauman, Tibby DeJulio and John Paulson. Paulson also was elected mayor pro tempore, meaning he formally serves as mayor when Paul is unavailable. DeJulio previously held that position for the city’s entire 12-year history, but said he thought it was time for another councilmember to take the leadership position.
Another council incumbent, Chris Burnett, was still out of town after a trip to the Rose Bowl football game the previous day; he was sworn in early in a private ceremony, according to city spokesperson Sharon Kraun.
The University of Georgia Bulldogs’ dramatic victory in that Jan. 1 Rose Bowl happened to be the metaphor used by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Shawn Ellen LaGrua, who swore in the officials, in her opening remarks. She likened the council to the team and Paul to Coach Kirby Smart, saying, “I realize Sandy Springs is also going into a championship year.”
Paul certainly laid out a complex game plan as he read a lengthy statement about his policy goals for the next four years from the council dais after being sworn in. The three main goals – the water system fixes, northern Roswell Road redevelopment, and regional transportation solutions — are ones he has discussed many times before. But the remarks included some new elaborations and points of emphasis.
The Sandy Springs water system is owned and maintained by the city of Atlanta, and has earned a reputation for leaks that go on for months, despite reportedly higher local water rates. A deal to allow Sandy Springs to repair local waterworks in exchange for Atlanta reimbursement mysteriously fell apart last year.
As he has before, Paul spoke in a combination of sweet-talking and saber-rattling. “I appeal to the new mayor of Atlanta” to strike a deal on water maintenance, he said, referring to Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was sworn in earlier that day. And if she doesn’t the city will sue and believes it can win because it no longer fears federal policy over water controls might get in the way, Paul said, apparently referring to the Trump administration.
In newly specific demands, Paul called for an audit – that Sandy Springs would pay for – of the water system’s share of Atlanta’s Enterprise Fund for infrastructure, and for full accounting of what share of the system’s maintenance budget is being spent locally.
The city’s attempt to trigger redevelopment of the northern Roswell Road corridor, also known as North Springs, has been talked about for years. A vision of mixed-use, higher-density redevelopment of its older shopping centers and apartment complexes is part of the city’s new land-use plan approved last year. But such redevelopment raises new issues of housing affordability in the increasingly expensive city. The city partly addressed the issue with affordable housing incentives in its new zoning code, but, amid some public calls for more and deeper affordability, Paul has said he will convene a task force to develop a full policy.
At the swearing-in ceremony, Paul repeated some of his longstanding statements about the need for housing affordable to first responders and teachers. That “workforce,” or middle-income, housing is the main type of affordability articulated in existing city policy priorities. But Paul also spoke with new emphasis about lower-income affordability, saying the corridor must be affordable to “middle- and working-class families” and citing retail workers as among those the city must find ways to retain as citizens.
He said he has spoken with “housing experts and community leaders” in recent months about housing redevelopment and that he will convene a “citizens experts task force” to advise the city on policies.
The following is the full written version of Paul’s remarks, which he altered slightly while speaking:
On Dec. 7, I celebrated 40 years in some form of public service, and if you have the misfortune of reading my resume, you’d find that my service has been varied, eclectic and covering just about the entire gauntlet of local, state and federal office. But while I’ve been honored to hold each post that I’ve held, none has given me more pride that being the mayor of Sandy Springs.
First, it was an amazing honor to be asked by [the late founding mayor] Eva Galambos to consider running to succeed her, though if you knew Eva, the conversation didn’t involve me considering anything. It was more akin to an order than a request.
Second, it reflected the high regard this community had of her that they gave me an overwhelming vote of confidence four years ago.
Local government is the toughest and most rewarding level of government. It’s tough because you’re accessible to everyone in the community who has a concern or complaint. It’s rewarding because I go home every day looking back over the opportunities we’ve had to create positive impacts in our citizens’ lives. This is reflected in the number favorable opinions about our community that I hear when I’m out.
So, as I start my next four years as mayor, let me reflect on the goals I hope the city pursues over that period.
First, we need more control over our water services. We have always contended that we have the power to assume control of the water system, but we have withheld pushing those claims largely because of concerns that the federal court system might significantly alter the allocation of water across the entire region. We believe that is very unlikely now, and we are ready to pursue more control over the water system. I appeal to the new mayor of Atlanta, my new colleague, Keisha Lance Bottoms, to begin a conversation on how that goal can be obtained.
Sandy Springs is in an untenable, unsustainable situation. One, we have leaks that go unrepaired for months, or sometimes years, that waste a precious resource at a time when water access and consumption are under more and more scrutiny. Two, we have a dangerously high number of fire hydrants that are inoperable or below standard at any one time, and the three to four months it takes to get repairs literally puts the lives of our citizens at risk every day those hydrants remain unrepaired.
These situations indicate that the enterprise funds Atlanta maintains from its water revenues for system repair, maintenance and upgrades are not being fairly and appropriately expended here. We want a complete audit of the water system enterprise fund to ensure that funds collected are being reinvested in the system serving our people.
Three, this need to understand how repair, maintenance and upgrade funds are expended is particularly acute given that Sandy Springs residents pay a premium — we believe, of up to 20 percent over other users of this system. We find no justification in these higher rates, particularly since we have seen little evidence that any of the enterprise funds are being used for routine maintenance, much less upgrades, and the only evidence we see of any use of those funds in Sandy Springs is in emergency repairs. A thorough audit, that we are willing to pay for, should give us that complete picture.
Again, I’m holding out the hope of friendship and amity to my new colleague to the South, believing we can resolve these issues amicably. I will be sending a letter to Mayor Lance Bottoms shortly outlining these concerns and expressing a desire to work cooperatively to resolve them.
Another major objective is the revitalization and reinvigoration of the North Springs area of our community. This is a hidden gem, but it needs more and varied retail, a better balance of housing, and more homeownership and housing opportunities for our middle and working-class families. Over the past several months I have been talking to housing experts and community leaders seeking ideas, input and goals for this area of town.
The North Springs region has excellent, popular upscale neighborhoods, but it is overpopulated with aging Class C apartments. We need a better mix of housing opportunities. This is not the first time I’ve talked about this. In fact, I stood in this chamber four years ago to say that it is immoral to ask firefighters, police officers and other first responders to risk their lives in a community in which their families cannot afford to live.
My thanks to Councilman [Andy] Bauman for his innovative idea to offer the housing we purchase for long-term public works projects to our first responders. It is a small, but important, symbolic step toward our larger goal.
But this also applies to our teachers, the hospital personnel who care for our sick, the people who work in our retail establishments. If we are successful and make this goal a priority, we can improve the quality of life in a key area of our community, improve the quality of our schools, build a more diverse community, and revitalize an area before in becomes a problem area, and create more opportunity for middle and working-class families to begin building the wealth that homeownership affords. I will be appointing a citizen/experts task force to examine and recommend a path forward on this key priority.
If done right, and in conjunction with transit options that will allow hospital personnel and others to live here, using MARTA as a shuttle between home and work, it also reduces the number living outside Sandy Springs who work here, but must drive through out city their jobs. A properly designed program can also help reduce the traffic impacts we face.
That brings me to the third goal, [which] is to continue working regionally to improve mobility. Far and away, the biggest complaint I get involves traffic. This is not solely a Sandy Springs problem, but a regional affliction. We are a crossroads for people coming from North Fulton and Forsyth, Cobb and Gwinnett to work in the Perimeter market.
We no longer have the luxury of moving everyone in one-person-per-vehicle increments, and I am delighted that I have led in the conversations among mayors about looking at alternative transportation means.
Not only have the Fulton mayors successfully collaborated with the county commission and the legislature to develop the TSPLOST program the voters approved, but now other local leaders are talking as well about how we more effectively move a growing number of metro Atlantans in the 21st century, how we remain economically viable and protect our quality of life from drowning in a tangled cluster of immovable vehicles.
I want to continue to play a positive role and see Sandy Springs become a leader in innovative mobility solutions, particularly as we stand on the cusp of some exciting new transportation technologies that will be evolving over the next several years.
I have asked staff to add water and North Springs revitalization to the agenda for our council retreat later this month and will ask council to add them to the city’s official list of official priorities. Transportation remains a priority and we will execute the TSPLOST plan and other initiatives to address our needs in this critical area.
This is enough for now. Let me conclude by congratulating my old colleagues who have returned for another term and welcoming our new colleagues. I use colleague purposefully, because we have occasionally disagreed, but have never been disagreeable in our deliberations and decisions. We have treated each other with respect, valuing the ideas and opinions of each one of them. We have maintained an atmosphere of collegiality and I am convinced these six individuals will continue that approach to decision-making.
Finally, let me thank the citizens of Sandy Springs for their continued confidence and support. This belief in our ability to properly manage resources and projects was shown in the TSPLOST vote. An overwhelming vote in Sandy Springs reflected the community’s confidence on our city leadership and staff. That solid vote was the margin of victory in that initiative for all of Fulton County.
We are keeping the promises made when we started this city. We have used the revenues responsibly as our recent audits have shown. We have continued to invest those resources in improving the quality of life for all our citizens and focused our every decision on what council and I believe will benefit the community over the long-run.
Like everyone else…I’m excited and looking forward to the opening of the City Springs project later this year, and I’m thankful that the voters are allowing me to be around to finish that project.
With that…let’s get down to business.