A landmark decision to determine the future of Brookhaven’s parks for the next 30 years happens Nov. 6 when voters cast their ballots on a proposed $40 million parks bond.
Signs popping up in yards, a protest paper being thrown on lawns, an “education” booth at an arts festival and an anti-bond website — all those voices and more are joining the debate on the crucial vote.
Joseph Knippenberg, a professor of politics at Oglethorpe University who is a longtime Brookhaven resident, says the bond vote shows the city’s “ambition” and is a test for its leadership.
“Brookhaven … wants to make a name for itself,” he said, and funding state-of-the-art parks is one way to set the city apart from others in metro Atlanta.
Knippenberg said a defeat of the referendum would not damage what attracts people to the city — primarily its location and amenities — but it would send a “big vote of no-confidence in city leadership.”
“It would certainly be a blow to the civic leadership and government and there would need to be serious repair work,” he said. “And it would make the city think twice about taking on any big initiatives in the future.”
If approved, the parks bond would fund several parks master plan projects: Ashford Park, $1.94 million; Blackburn Park, $1.3 million; Briarwood Park, $7 million; Brookhaven Park, $6 million; Lynwood Park, $11 million; Murphey Candler Park, $8.98 million.; and systemwide funding for security, maintenance and invasive plant removal, among other things, $3.47 million.
As Election Day nears, the players in the campaign are rushing to get their message out. They include a well-funded pro-parks bond group headed up by a former mayor and former interim city manager; opposition bubbling up from a handful of parks advocates; and a city-led parks “education” blitz. (Cities are prohibited from attempting to influence an election and cannot directly advocate for ballot questions.)
Four of the five members of the Parks and Recreation Coalition of Brookhaven who served on an ad hoc “funding task force” that helped create the proposed $40 million parks bond are now opposing it.
They decided to reverse their previous neutral stance in response to the Yes for Brookhaven Parks group headed up by former mayor Rebecca Chase Williams and former interim city manager J.D. Clockadale.
“PARC of Brookhaven has determined that it is imperative to change our position from neutral information source to advocate for a ‘no’ vote on the upcoming potential bond,” PARC Chair Sue Binkert said in an Oct. 16 statement.
Williams said she was “surprised and saddened” to hear some PARC of Brookhaven members are now publicly opposing the parks bond.
“But I respect their opinion. They have been in the trenches a long time,” she said.
The four members are Binkert, Terrell Carstens, Greg Trinkle and Steve Peters. The fifth member of the funding task force declined to take a public stance, Peters said.
Carstens represents Clack’s Corner and Briarwood Park. Trinkle is president of the Briarwood Park Conservancy. Peters is volunteer coordinator of the Murphey Candler Park Conservancy.
Peters explained the public PARC opposition was coming from just the four from the task force and no vote was taken of the wider coalition. He added his own conservancy, the Murphey Candler Park Conservancy, is supporting the parks bond.
Two recent editions of the free community paper “a: Times News” label the parks bond the “Brookhaven Bamboozle” and warns that passage of the bond means to “give into the control of our Brookhaven government.”
A writer of one story in the paper attacks the city’s decision to include a “lazy river” at Lynwood Park — described as a “magical mote [sic].”
Included in the proposed $11 million for Lynwood Park is a $3.25 million lap pool and “lazy river.” A lazy river is a shallow pool that flows like a river in a loop. The PARC members oppose the addition of the “lazy river” because it was not part of the parks master plan approved two years ago.
A city spokesperson said when consultant GreenbergFarrow began designing Lynwood Park following the public master plan process, they realized not all the approved amenities, like the basketball and tennis courts, could be added while also preserving historic and heritage structures. The lazy river was added as a “compromise to remain in the spirit of the master plan,” the spokesperson said.
The city is not allowed to advocate for the parks bond, but it can educate. That includes Parks and Recreation Director Brian Borden working the city’s booth at the recent Brookhaven Arts Festival, answering questions of passersby and handing out packets of information.
The booth was packed with illustrated posters of new playgrounds, open fields, new pavilions and more that would be paid for by the parks bond — if it is approved —Borden explained to visitors.
The city is not shying away from saying there will be no money for parks unless the parks bond is approved. City officials say the elimination this year of the homestead option sales after DeKalb voters approved the special local option sales tax erased their only source for parks capital projects. No money for parks is currently budgeted in the city’s proposed $47.5 million budget for next year.
“These are sort of diverging concerns,” Steve Chapman, the assistant city manager and chief financial officer, said in February when public talks began about a parks bond. “Do [residents] want parks or do they want low taxes? By financing the parks, the people who are getting the benefit of the parks will be those paying for it.”
SPLOST, HOST funding
The backdrop to the debate is major changes to the way capital projects in city parks are currently funded. A sales tax known as HOST that was the city’s main park funding source was eliminated this year after DeKalb voters last year approved the SPLOST. And a DeKalb County bond that funded the parks prior to the city’s 2012 incorporation is expiring in two years.
The parks bond would raise the city’s 2.74 millage rate by half a mill, or an average of $98.34 a year to the homeowner with a home assessed at about $466,000, according to city officials. The millage rate is used to determine local taxes and is the amount taxpayers pay per $1,000 of assessed value.
The total estimated cost to complete the city’s entire parks master plans is $80 million. The funding task force supported a parks bond — but in the smaller amount of $26.5 million — to complete the master plans for Ashford, Briarwood and Brookhaven parks and part of Murphey Candler Park.
But city officials boosted the final proposal to $40 million. That includes an additional $11 million for Lynwood Park, $2.5 million to hire a professional project management firm and $1 million to dredge Murphey Candler Park lake.
Peters said the funding task force agreed to support a $26.5 million bond referendum because the tax increase was essentially a “one-for-one” replacement of the DeKalb parks bond, which rolls off property tax bills in 2021.
General obligation bonds are backed by the credit and taxing power of the city to pay off the bonds and opponents fear the city could someday find itself in trouble and not be able to pay its bonds.
“They [the city] need to remove the obligation off the homeowners,” Peters said.
Supporters say homeowners’ overall tax bills won’t go up due to other taxation changes this year. The city millage increase would be offset by this year’s new equalized homestead option sales tax. The EHOST freezes property values and dedicates 100 percent of its revenue to reduce property taxes for qualified homeowners, according to DeKalb officials.
And in 2021 when a DeKalb County parks bond expires and rolls off property taxes for Brookhaven homeowners, city officials are estimating an overall savings of about $514 for homeowners with $466,000 homes.
Supporters also argue the city’s recent triple-A credit rating from Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s indicates that the city is in strong financial shape and is fiscally responsible enough to be able to pay off the bonds.
“The city has done this in a fiscally responsible way,” Williams said.
Brookhaven expects to receive $47 million in SPLOST revenue over the next six years, but the money supporting the SPLOST limits spending the sales tax revenue to only transportation, public safety and a small amount for maintenance of existing capital projects.
Councilmember Bates Mattison, who cast the lone “no” vote to putting the bond on the ballot, earlier this year voiced his dismay that the SPLOST funding could not go to parks. City leaders are hoping in six years when the SPLOST may be renewed that it will include funding for parks.
State Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), author of the SPLOST legislation, said in an interview he purposely restricted capital projects from the legislation because he did not want DeKalb County to build a government complex on Memorial Drive.
Advocacy and Information Contacts
Yes for Brookhaven Parks
Vote No on Park Bond
City of Brookhaven parks bond site