An organized effort to urge potential voters to approve Brookhaven’s $40 million parks bond referendum is ramping up as the Nov. 6 election nears, but a swell of opposition is also forming.
A “Yes for Brookhaven Parks Bond” group formed several weeks ago. It is headed up by former Mayor Rebecca Chase Williams and J.D. Clockadale, president of the Brookhaven Police Foundation.
Williams said the group has so far raised approximately $20,000 from individual donors. Money is being used for yard signs that can be seen popping up along major roads and at busy intersections. The money is also being used to maintain a website and to pay for direct mailers that are now being sent out to residents, she said.
“It’s a bold undertaking,” Williams said of the parks bond. “This is an unprecedented opportunity to make this kind of investment in Brookhaven.”
But Jim Dupree, a former Parks and Recreation Coalition of Brookhaven board member opposing the parks bond, said the city’s message that no parks funding will happen unless the parks bond is approved “feels almost like extortion.”
“It may fail,” he said of the bond, “so why is the city essentially holding the citizens hostage? There are other sources of revenue that can be used for parks.”
The Nov. 6 election is the city’s first stab at a bond referendum in its nearly six-year history. It comes on the heels of the city receiving Triple-A bond ratings from Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s Investor Services.
“I see that as a stamp of approval that the city finances are strong,” Williams said.
The city is not funding any of the pro-bond campaign, according to a spokesperson.
The City Council in July approved issuing up to $40 million in general obligation bonds for. If approved, the bond would cover costs for six of the city’s 11 parks master plans. Debt would be paid off over 30 years.
While there is no known organized effort speaking out against the parks bond, an undercurrent of opposition is making at least a few waves. City Manager Christian Sigman recently chimed in on a debate over the bond on the social networking website Nextdoor when questions were raised about how the bond would be audited if approved.
Sigman explained in the post that the city waived using an outside auditor because the city would use its own Audit Committee as well as the city’s independent internal auditor; doing so would save the city about $300,000 over the life of the bond, he said.
“The audit waiver language [in the resolution] is merely to allow the city to use existing auditing capabilities versus contracting with a separate firm,” Sigman stated. “This is a very common approach to address the state legislation requiring an audit.”
Dupree was on that Nextdoor thread with about 20 other people. He said Sigman’s comment did not convince him the city was spending money wisely.
But city officials have been saying for months that the money that can be used for capital projects in parks is limited. The homestead option sales tax that brought in about $2.5 million a year in revenue and was used to fund parks projects in the past was eliminated this year when DeKalb County voters approved the special local option sales tax.
SPLOST funding is expected to bring in $47 million to the city over the next six years, but the bulk of the money can only be spent on transportation projects and public safety. None of the SPLOST money can be used on parks capital projects.
The city has completed several small parks projects this year. The new $3 million Skyland Park officially opened last month. Park construction was fully paid for with money the DeKalb County School District paid the city as part of a land swap deal for the new 900-seat John R. Lewis Elementary School now under construction adjacent to the park.
A new 1.9-acre open space field at Murphey Candler Park was recently completed for nearly $592,000; and earlier this year the city wrapped up a $1.2 million renovation project at the 3.6-acre Georgian Hills Park.
But for Clockadale, the city making small parks improvements here and there means his small children will not be able to enjoy the city’s parks as they grow up. Instead, at the pace the city is going now, it could take decades to complete the parks master plans residents worked on for many months shortly after the city incorporated, he said. With a parks bond, that time could be cut to as few as five years.
“This is the right time to do it,” Clockadale said.
The city’s 2014 Parks and Recreation Comprehensive Plan states a general obligation bond backed by dedicated millage would be the most feasible alternative to completing the redevelopment and construction of new facilities at the city’s parks.
“We knew from the beginning when the city was founded that most parks funding would not be coming from our operating funds,” Williams said.
“And that to really make significant improvements we would need a bond referendum.”
The parks bond would raise the city millage rate by half a mill, or an average of $98.34 a year to the average tax bill of a home assessed at nearly $466,000.
But a current DeKalb County parks bond is slated to roll off property taxes in 2021 and that money coupled with new savings from the equalized homestead option sales tax, approved as part of the SPLOST, should offset the parks bond tax increase for most property owners, according to city officials.
Dupree said he and others are concerned there is no actual project list laying out what projects will begin first if the parks bond is approved and how long each will take.
“There is no accountability for the money,” he said. “I think there is a large part of the community … that maybe doesn’t trust the City Council to follow through on this and instead will siphon off some of the proceeds for other uses.”
Mayor John Ernst denied the city would do so. He said that if the bond were approved, the city would hire a professional project management company with $1.25 million of the parks bond to oversee all projects included in the bond. That company would then assist in determining the order of projects to be tackled.
Three projects Ernst predicted would immediately be bid out if the bond were approved include pool renovations at Briarwood Park and new fences and new entrances to Brookhaven and Blackburn parks.
“Whatever is the most efficient, quickest and cheapest we will do first,” Ernst said. “It is up to the voters to decide.”
Where would the money go?
Ashford Park — $1.94 million
Including a splash pad, granite seat walls and furnishings.
Blackburn Park — $1.3 million
Includes marquee fencing, solar canopy, parking lot renovations.
Briarwood Park — $7 million
Renovations to the community center and pool, a northeast trail bridge, a park-wide multiuse trail and tennis court lighting.
Brookhaven Park — $6 million
Peachtree Road access and beautification, dog park programming.
Lynwood Park — $11 million
Lap pool, open space field, landscaping.
Murphey Candler Park — $8 million
Boardwalk, new community building, trail renovations.
System-wide parks funding — $3.5 million
Project management: $1.25 million; Murphey Candler Park dredging $1 million; invasive plant removal $1 million; park security (such as lighting, fencing, cameras) $220,000.
Issuance cost — $595,026
EDIT: This story has been updated to correct the amount of the bond. The correct amount is $40 million.