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DeKalb County may spend $40 million on library, park and road projects

By Mark Niesse, Staff Writer

The DeKalb Commission is planning a building boom by spending as much as $40 million for libraries, parks, sidewalks and a senior center, a move that would exhaust the county’s bond proceeds.

The vote on the construction projects could come as soon as Tuesday, when the politically divided commission is scheduled to decide which items get built.

The projects may include new libraries in Brookhaven, Ellenwood and near Stone Mountain, but commissioners representing north and central DeKalb worry that the commission’s south DeKalb majority won’t provide funding for the Brookhaven branch.

Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May has urged commissioners to work together for their districts’ mutual benefit.

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“Commissioners across the board have a lot they can point to in this project list,” May said during an Oct. 20 committee meeting. “Everyone can see something, whether it’s in parks, transportation or library needs.”

About $19 million would come from unspent bond proceeds approved by voters in 2005. The remaining $21 million would be generated through a one-time windfall by refinancing bond debt.

Commissioner Jeff Rader said he prefers spreading the savings over the next 16 years, which the DeKalb Finance Department estimates would result in an additional $1 million for the county. Instead, he said the commission’s majority wants to fund its pet projects.

“It’s just $21 million more to be spent on the ruling majority’s priorities, and it’s at the expense of the taxpayer,” said Rader, who represents Decatur and surrounding areas.

But Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton, who has pushed for a new library south of Stone Mountain, said spending the money now will give residents more bang for their buck.

“People deserve it, and it’s something we can do,” said Sutton, whose district covers the Stone Mountain region. “$1 million a year … we can’t even feel it” in the county’s $1.33 billion annual budget.

The scramble for project funding comes after the DeKalb Commission learned it had much less money to spend than it previously thought. The commission voted in May to appropriate $35 million in unspent 2005 bond proceeds, but the county’s accounting was inaccurate.

“We thought we were dealing with $35 million, when in fact the number was $19 million,” said DeKalb Chief Operating Officer Zach Williams during an interview. “There was not effective enough communication to make sure those things were reconciled on the balance sheet.”

The $35 million amount didn’t account for $10 million that the commission had already spent in February to buy Briarlake Forest for preservation, Williams said. Another $4 million has since been distributed to Dunwoody to settle a legal dispute over parks, and the remaining $2 million in missing money went to various smaller infrastructure projects.

The proposed projects include $6.3 million for a new recreation center at Tobie Grant Park in the Scottdale neighborhood, $4.3 million for the Brookhaven Library, $4.2 million for the Ellenwood Library, $4 million for a senior center in Lithonia, $4 million for road resurfacing and $3.4 million for the Stone Mountain Library.

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