Brookhaven city leaders knew a new county tax was flawed and would end funding for parks improvements, but say they couldn’t do anything about it because it was destined for the ballot.
“It is hard to make perfect legislation,” Councilmember Bates Mattison said in speaking of the 1 percent special local option sales tax overwhelmingly approved by DeKalb voters last year. “But it was going to go on the ballot regardless of what objections Brookhaven may have had.”
The SPLOST referendum was touted as a windfall of money into Brookhaven’s coffers to pay for transportation improvements, a new police station and $1.3 million to go toward maintenance of capital projects. The money can be used for parks maintenance.
But not one cent of the SPLOST can go toward covering costs for the city’s parks master plan due to restrictions put on the referendum by the state legislature. And that has irritated some city officials.
Assistant City Manager Steve Chapman said the $47 million the city is expected to receive over the next six years from SPLOST funds should be spent the way the City Council wants and voted on, not how legislators in the General Assembly decided.
And Mattison said the “unintended consequences” from SPLOST unfairly hurts Brookhaven residents by not funding the one area the city desperately needs money for — its parks master plan.
“Now we have this extra money, but we can’t use it for what people really want us to, and that’s the parks master plan,” he said.
The City Council voted unanimously Sept. 19 to enter into an intergovernmental agreement with DeKalb County to show support for the referendum on the SPLOST. There was never any discussion about concerns over park funding raised in public.
Mattison said there was no real time to inform voters of the lack of parks funding because the bill, authored by state Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) along with DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, moved rapidly through the General Assembly, Mattison said.
“It happened very quickly. It was very fast-moving,” he said.
Mattison said he talked to Millar and Thurmond about the restrictions and his concerns, but the referendum was already headed to the ballot. “Hindsight is 20-20. I wish I would have made it apparent [about lack of park funding],” he said.
With no revenue stream for funding the parks master plan — estimated at $28 million two years ago but now estimated at more than $67 million — the city is considering asking residents to vote on a parks bond, perhaps as soon as this November.
The city formerly received about $2.5 million a year from the former homestead option sales tax for parks master plan funding. But HOST was eliminated with the SPLOST in favor of the new equalized homestead option sales tax (EHOST) that provides more property tax relief to DeKalb homeowners. HOST funding from the county also grew smaller each year for cities as more cities incorporate.
There was no way the city could fund its parks master plan with the former HOST funds anyway unless residents want to wait 50 years to see the plans completed, Chapman has said. A parks bond could see the parks master plan completed in as little as three years. But the parks bond could come with a property tax increase for Brookhaven homeowners amounting to about $210 a year for a $300,000 home.
So while the SPLOST provides more property tax relief at the county level, funding a park bond could mean a city property tax increase.
“It’s an unintended consequence of trying to restrict governments,” Mattison said.
Millar, who boasted about his working with Thurmond, a Democrat, on the SPLOST bill, said no other cities have complained about the sales tax increase because the money goes toward needed transportation projects.
And, he said, the state legislature approved Brookhaven’s request to raise its hotel/motel tax from 5 percent to 8 percent to fund the Peachtree Creek Greenway, a linear park that will run along Buford Highway within the city and is slated to eventually connect to the Atlanta BeltLine.
“I don’t know the particular finances of the city of Brookhaven, but at the end of the day they are getting more money than they ever got before,” Millar said. “And now they are getting all that Greenway money they didn’t have before.”
“[Brookhaven] is the only city I’m hearing there was an issue, and I’m not saying they are wrong,” Millar added. “All the cities signed off on SPLOST … and that is the first time all the cities agreed on something.”
Thurmond agreed with Millar that the SPLOST was a result of a collaborate process involving all of DeKalb’s cities.
“The voters overwhelmingly approved this consensus decision which will provide critical funding for transportation and infrastructure projects as well as preserve 100 percent of EHOST proceeds for property tax relief for all residents in DeKalb County,” Thurmond said in a statement.
Mattison said the city has budgeted well to cover paving over the next several years as well as for other transportation projects such as sidewalks.
“Now we have SPLOST and frankly I’m concerned if we have enough projects,” he said.
Mattison noted that the city of Decatur, unlike Brookhaven, was allowed to pay for bond debt through SPLOST funds. That was because Decatur’s bonds were already approved and issued. Mattison said the county and state agreed to Decatur’s request to have its bond debt paid with SPLOST funding because it needed the city to be on board with agreeing to the sales tax increase.
“But SPLOST excludes new debt,” Mattison said. “I argued that was not fair … and our city is getting penalized because we did not issue debt in time.”
Mattison added he believers overall the positives outweigh the negatives of the bill, especially because of the EHOST property tax relief it provides to Brookhaven residents. “It’s still an overall gain in our revenue stream,” he said.
This story has been updated. It was incorrectly paraphrased that the city’s Assistant City Manager Steve Chapman expressed “total dissatisfaction” with the SPLOST. The story is also clarified to include that SPLOST funds can be used for parks maintenance, just not the parks master plan.