A Fulton County commissioner on Monday said she's asked county leaders to review their contract with Atlanta's Beltline in the wake of a report questioning the ambitious redevelopment project's use of taxpayer dollars.
Commissioner Emma Darnell, a member of the Beltline's board, said she was infuriated by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution's investigation published on Sunday that found Beltline staffers spent taxpayer money on items such as a wedding gift and alcohol.
"There's no way we can support that kind of waste and extravagance," said Darnell, who said the county has given more than $119 million in property taxes generated in the Beltline and other tax districts to the city's redevelopment agency, Invest Atlanta.
The AJC reviewed thousands of credit card purchases between April 2010 and May 2011 by the Beltline, the Atlanta project that seeks to turn 22 miles of unused railroad lines into a ribbon of parks, trails and transit ringing the city.
The newspaper found that taxpayers picked up the tab for a $106.22 wedding gift for Beltline chief Brian Leary's fiancee, his parking ticket and his dry cleaning bill. They also paid for alcohol, meals at expensive restaurants, pricey hotel stays and elaborate staff retreats, including a $2,100 bill for food at a Braves game.
The Beltline acknowledged some of the expenses were "inappropriate" and reimbursed the city after the AJC requested the documents. In other cases, the agency said the costs were eligible under state law. City officials said in a statement that recent changes will bolster accountability, such as a newly hired accountant charged with reviewing the agency's costs.
Darnell said she's asked the county's manager and attorney to review its agreement with the Beltline.
"We want to see financial controls that will avoid these situations. The commission will review whether or not the participation in this contract will lead to redevelopment of blighted areas," she said. "I'm hopeful the answer is that yes we can proceed, that the money goes to revitalizes and restores blighted areas and not for $2,000 trips to Braves games."
Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves also said the county's agreement with the Beltline is "worth some scrutiny."
Several members of the Beltline's nine-member board deferred comment to John Somerhalder, who chairs the Beltline's board. He said in a written statement that "anything less than conservative, transparent stewardship of taxpayer dollars is simply unacceptable."
The Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation called for "drastic measures" to be taken to rebuild trust in the organization. She said Leary, the Beltline's director, should face swift punishment.
"It's shocking. It undermines the confidence in the Beltline program," said Barbara Payne, head of the organization. "It shouldn't just be a slap on the wrist. I'm sorry, it can't be. I don't know what the next step would be, but I know that, if that happened to me, I'd probably be fired."
Staff Writer Johnny Edwards contributed to this report.
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