DeKalb road repaving and government center in doubt

Almost everyone acknowledges that DeKalb County’s potholed roads need repairs, but a proposal to raise sales taxes to pay for the repaving might not make it on November’s ballot.

That’s because county commissioners fiercely disagree over whether that sales tax should also be used to help pay for a new, $90 million government complex, along with various other infrastructure projects.

DeKalb commissioners must resolve their differences next month in order for special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) to appear on this fall’s ballot.

The government center would be built near the DeKalb Jail on Memorial Drive. Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May says it’s long overdue in a county with aging offices in need of costly repairs. Others say it’s a wasteful extravagance.

The building, part of May’s vision for a Downtown DeKalb, would be partially funded through $35 million in SPLOST proceeds, along with the sale of up to seven existing buildings that would be consolidated in the new facility. The county could also save $7 million in maintenance on those buildings, along with $20 million over 10 years in lease costs for existing facilities.

“We should make government more accessible to the lion’s share of county residents” with a Memorial Drive building, May said in an interview last week. “Everyone — north, south, east and west — would say roads are priority No. 1, and I agree with that. Then what’s next? … We have to address our facility needs in the near future.”

But Commissioner Nancy Jester called the government center nothing more than a “Taj Majal for politicians.”

“You’ve got all kinds of bells and whistles” among the proposed projects, Jester said in a YouTube video. “It’s not just focused on transportation issues and paving and perhaps public safety. It’s got all kinds of other things that we don’t need.”

In all, the 1 percent sales tax would raise about $552 million over the next five years for DeKalb’s government, with $378 million allocated to the county government and $174 million for city governments. If approved, DeKalb’s sales tax rate would rise to 8 percent, putting it at the same level as the city of Atlanta and Clayton County.

Road repaving and transportation projects account for $217 million, or 57 percent, of the county’s proposed spending. The rest would be dedicated to the government center, a police and fire academy, fire station repairs, parks and libraries.

In votes Tuesday, the DeKalb Commission couldn’t agree on either the full project list or a scaled-down proposal by Commission Jeff Rader to focus the tax exclusively on roads and transportation over three years. Both measures will reappear on the commission’s agenda next month.

“We need to bite off what we can chew and do something that’s relatively straightforward that we can do on time and on budget with no controversy,” Rader said.

Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton said the county shouldn’t waste this rare opportunity to rejuvenate infrastructure, including the government center.

“This is an opportunity for DeKalb County to be more effective and efficient in how we serve our constituents,” she said. “The government center is much needed.”

Commissioner Kathie Gannon said she hopes she and her colleagues can negotiate a compromise.

The DeKalb Commission is often evenly split, with three people on each side of key spending decisions like the SPLOST. The commission’s seventh seat has been vacant since Stan Watson resigned in March to run for tax commissioner, a race that he lost.

“We should not and cannot get into an all-or-nothing position. That’s not good for anyone in DeKalb County,” Gannon said. “We don’t have to address everything right away.”

The board’s presiding officer, Commissioner Larry Johnson, said he’s still weighing options, including the government center.

“If we can save money in the long term and sell some of the properties that we’re on, maybe it’s worth looking at,” Johnson said. “The verdict is still out with me.”

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