Voters asked to decide DeKalb sales tax hike in November

Sept 26, 2017
DeKalb County commissioners (from left) Larry Johnson, Kathie Gannon, Steve Bradshaw and Mereda Davis Johnson discuss during a commission meeting at the Maloof Auditorium in Decatur on Tuesday, September 26, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

DeKalb County voters will decide on both a sales tax increase and a property tax discount in November’s election.

The DeKalb Commission voted 5-1 on Tuesday to put the measures on the Nov. 7 ballot.

One would increase DeKalb’s sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent. The other would give part of existing sales tax revenues to homeowners to reduce their property tax bills.

The special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) would bring in $100 million a year for infrastructure improvements — primarily, repairing hundreds of miles of the county’s most cracked and potholed roads.

In addition, voters will consider increasing the amount of sales tax that’s dedicated to property tax relief. Of the current 1 percent homestead option sales tax (HOST), 80 percent goes to property tax relief, with the rest distributed mostly to city governments. If approved by voters, all of the HOST will go toward providing a discount on property taxes.

The tax overhaul would be DeKalb’s most significant in 20 years, when voters first approved HOST and a sales tax to fund school infrastructure. That change moved the county’s sales tax rate from 5 percent to 7 percent.

This year’s tax proposals — the sales tax hike and the increased property tax relief — will be paired together on the ballot so that if voters reject either, they both fail.

“I see this as an opportunity that will bode well for us in the future, where we can have smooth streets, roofs that don’t leak and parks that have proper maintenance,” said Commissioner Larry Johnson.

DeKalb County CEO Mike Thurmond speaks about SPLOST agenda before county commissioners during a commission meeting at the Maloof Auditorium in Decatur on Tuesday, September 26, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The sales tax increase would last for six years, raising an estimated $636.8 million for local governments to spend on infrastructure projects. Proceeds would be distributed based on 2016 population estimates for each city and unincorporated DeKalb.

Much of unincorporated DeKalb’s share of the funds, $388 million, would go toward public transportation. The county’s project list includes $151 million to repave 318 miles of the county’s worst roads, along with another $89 million for trails, bridges, sidewalks, traffic signals and other transportation projects.

In addition, the county also dedicated about $48 million for fire station repairs, $27.3 million to repair or replace the Bobby Burgess Building on Memorial Drive, $16.5 million to expand the Decatur courthouse complex and other funds that will be dedicated to parks, senior centers and libraries.

RELATED: View DeKalb’s proposed SPLOST project list

Each city approved its own project list for how to spend the combined $248.8 million incorporated portion of SPLOST proceeds.

Commissioner Kathie Gannon supported the SPLOST, but said it has flaws.

Unincorporated taxpayers are taking on the burden of repairs to fire stations, the courthouse complex, the Bobby Burgess Building and libraries, without any guarantee that city governments will contribute funding even though city residents also use those services, she said.

The cost of those projects amounts to about $93 million, which is about $36 million more than unincorporated taxpayers would have to contribute to those projects if the cost were shared proportionately by city taxpayers.

“I’m glad we have it (SPLOST), and I’m going to support it. But I really hope our municipal leaders step up to the plate and provide some of the funding for our countywide services,” Gannon said. “The citizens of all of DeKalb County benefit from it.”

Several city governments, including Stonecrest, Stone Mountain and Tucker, have told county officials they want to partner with the county to help fund DeKalb Fire Department improvements. But the level of their future support is largely unknown based on project lists passed by their city councils.

Ronald Johnson, a resident of unincorporated Ellenwood, said the community has a “dire need” for SPLOST to pass for long-sought infrastructure improvements.

“We need it for roads and recreation centers. It’s worth it,” said Johnson before the DeKalb Commission’s vote. “The roads are in bad shape.”

But Stephen Binney, a resident who lives near Clarkston in unincorporated DeKalb, said he was disappointed that the county didn’t spend consistently on roads. Funding for unincorporated road resurfacing drops off after the first five years of the SPLOST.

“All these problems have developed over years and years of neglect and inaction,” Binney told commissioners in his public comments. “Instead of roads, the sixth year money is to be spent on improving Bobby Burgess and downtown courtroom facilities, to be used by city residents as well. Why aren’t they funding it as well?”

DeKalb CEO Mike Thurmond said city and unincorporated residents should unify around improving the county’s facilities and services.

“This is a game-changing, transformational moment for our county,” Thurmond said. “It’s not perfect, but clearly a step in the right direction.”