Brookhaven residents will have the chance to vote on a $40 million parks bond referendum in November, the first bond referendum in the city’s nearly six-year history.
The City Council voted 3-1 at its July 24 meeting to put the referendum on the Nov. 6 ballot. The original parks general obligation bond proposal was closer to $42 million, but the council through some last-minute changes before the actual vote negotiated the total to $40.2 million.
Councilmember Bates Mattison cast the lone dissenting vote after it was decided during the council work session to approve funding for Brookhaven Park, which is in his district, at $4 million rather than $7.8 million. Another $2 million was also approved for land acquisition, bringing Brookhaven Park’s total amount in the parks bond to $6 million.
Mayor John Ernst recommended lowering the amount after Mattison asked the council delay voting on the Brookhaven Parks master plan submitted at the meeting due to an ongoing debate over dogs at the park.
For many years, Brookhaven Park, at the corner of Peachtree Road and Osborne Road, has been a de facto off-leash dog park.
While Mattison was hoping he could gain approval for on-leash and off-leash hours at the July 24 meeting, consensus on the council during the work session was to fence off about 5 or 6 acres at the back end of the park for off-leash dogs.
The city has already budgeted $250,000 for a fence that is expected to go up in the near future after the city gathers public input on where to put the fence. However, the fence was not included in the Brookhaven Park project list as part of the parks bond and Mattison said more work needed to be done before approving a final master plan now that fence is included.
With the delay in approving the Brookhaven Park master plan, the mayor and other council members said it was unwise to promise nearly $8 million in the parks bond to Brookhaven Park when there were no master plan and specific projects to tie the money to. The other parks included in the bond have master plans with specific projects outlined.
“We are bonding out for known improvements we can identify … and residents know for certainty where their money is going,” Councilmember Linley Jones said. “My hope for Brookhaven Park is for it to be improved and the [residents’] dreams be realized for $4 million. We can’t fund something that is not specific.”
Mattison said the nearly $8 million was a number that was put out to the public and to make a last-minute change was setting a bad precedent.
“Is this punitive because we do not have a plan? It seems punitive,” Mattison said.
“This is not the way to handle a parks bond referendum. Do not penalize Brookhaven Park because there is not consensus to move forward with the [master] plan we have,” he added.
Ernst said he believed the $4 million would cover the master plan design and the improvements and amenities residents want to see in the park. He said the city has also built in $9 million in contingency funds in the parks bond that likely will not all be used. Some of those remaining contingency funds can be used at Brookhaven Park if needed, he added.
“I believe in the end Brookhaven Park will have the best dog park and the best fence in front of Peachtree Road … and people will realize it is Brookhaven Park,” Ernst said.
Mattison asked how the city staff came up with the $7.8 million figure. City Manager Christian Sigman said they came from previous Brookhaven Park plans done over the years and submitted to the city by Mattison.
Then Mattison said he didn’t know where the $4 million figure was coming from either, noting the first time that number was raised was at the council meeting. He went on to say the city should delay putting out a parks bond to voters to allow residents more time to review the projects.
By reducing the Brookhaven Park amount, the city was able to get to a $40 million parks bond rather than $42 million.
“From the bottom of my heart, it is not my intent to see this effort fail. My intention is to hit the pause button … and let this be citizen driven rather than city driven,” he added.
Sigman said the parks bond was not city-driven because the master plans included in the parks bond referendum already went through a public process in 2015 and were approved by the City Council in 2016.
“When a community passes master plans … I would hope there is some desire to get them done and I hope it was not just a wishing exercise,” Sigman said.
Terrell Carstens, a volunteer with the Brookhaven Parks and Recreation Coalition (PARC) and who worked on the parks bond projects list with city staff over about 10 months, said she was upset with the parks bond process.
“I cannot believe what has gone on here tonight,” she said during public comment at the close of the meeting. “This process is what’s wrong with the city. It is not transparent.”
The mayor and council at the end of the meeting said now it is up to the voters to decide if they want to approve the $40 million parks bond.
“My position is that we should have done more than $40 million,” Councilmember Joe Gebbia said.
The parks master plan projects to be voted on in November:
Ashford Park — $1,943,954
Blackburn Park — $1,279,810
Briarwood Park — $7,013,100
Brookhaven Park — $6,000,000
Lynwood Park — $10,977,393
Murphey Candler Park 1 — $8,984,138
Systemwide parks funding — $3,470,000
Issuance cost — $595,026
Total — $40,263,420
City gains ‘triple A’ credit rating from Moody’s, S&P
The city will go into November asking voters to approve the $40 million parks bond with triple A credit ratings from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s.
The city was notified it received the ratings on Wednesday morning.
“It doesn’t get better than that,” Ernst said of the ratings. He thanked previous councils and mayors for the city’s success.
The triple A ratings are used by municipalities to borrow at lower interest rates.
Updated: The language on the ballot will read: “Shall general obligation bonds for Parks and Park Improvements in an aggregate principal of up to $40,000,000 be issued by the City of Brookhaven, Georgia for the purpose of financing the cost of Citizen driven and City Council approved Parks and Recreational Master Plans and other related park amenities, equipment, and real and personal property useful or desirable in connection the parks therewith?”
The recommended project lists, park bonds referendum report and other documents can be found at https://www.brookhavenga.gov/parksrec/page/parks-and-recreation-future-funding.