DeKalb commissioner stalls coronavirus aid in clash with local city

DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader listens to citizens speak during a board of commissioners meeting in Decatur on March 13, 2018. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader listens to citizens speak during a board of commissioners meeting in Decatur on March 13, 2018. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Brookhaven mayor says maneuver is reminiscent of county’s corrupt history

A DeKalb County commissioner is using millions of dollars in coronavirus relief money as “leverage” to try and force a local city to discuss another long-standing dispute.

That city isn’t taking the maneuver kindly.

On Tuesday, DeKalb Commissioner Jeff Rader orchestrated a two-week delay on the vote to finalize an agreement giving the city of Brookhaven around $6.3 million of the county’s federal coronavirus aid. The county is set to vote on similar agreements with other local cities during a special-called meeting on Thursday.

Rader made it clear that he pushed to delay the Brookhaven vote in an attempt to force the city to the negotiating table on another unrelated issue: annexations and tax abatements.

“I’m hoping that in the next two weeks while we wait for this item to come back on our agenda ... that we can initiate some discussions and get a favorable resolution to that,” Rader said. “But that remains to be seen and I look forward to Brookhaven taking the first step.”

That appears to be wishful thinking.

In a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst said he was shocked that Rader would “hold his own constituents hostage for political gain.”

Rader’s commission district includes Brookhaven and its roughly 55,000 residents.

“The CARES Act funding amounts to $6.3 million that Brookhaven would use for rent relief, business support, personal protective equipment for government employees and COVID-19 testing for the public,” Ernst said. “Jeff Rader’s approach harkens to the days when DeKalb County was nationally known for incompetence and corruption. I thought we closed that chapter in the region’s history.”

Rader’s maneuver is an attempt to force a discussion on an issue that has emerged often in DeKalb County and elsewhere in the state.

In recent years, Brookhaven has annexed unincorporated parts of DeKalb into the city while simultaneously offering developers lucrative tax incentives to build there. A pair of deals struck near the new Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta campus at North Druid Hills Road and I-85 have particularly irked Rader, who has said the arrangements impact county and school tax bases without them having a say in the matter.

Earlier this year, the commissioner went as far as creating a new ordinance making it a county policy to challenge in court any city development deals that offer tax abatements that would result in the county getting less money than it needs to provide services to the finished project.

Steve Bradshaw, the county commission’s presiding officer, tried to dissuade Rader from delaying a vote on the Brookhaven aid agreement and said he was concerned about conflating two unrelated issues. But the decision went forward.

“What we want is to bring Brookhaven to the table on these two unresolved issues and work to try to achieve a goal that is in the mutual benefit of all stakeholders,” Rader said.

DeKalb County received $125 million in coronavirus relief funding from the federal CARES Act earlier this year. The money is aimed at helping local governments address unexpected costs resulting from the pandemic.

DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond and municipal leaders ultimately negotiated an agreement to distribute about $32.6 million of the county’s funding to local cities, on a per capita basis. The county commission approved the arrangement in general terms last month, but still must ratify intergovernmental agreements with each of the cities.

Thurmond said Tuesday that he was happy the commission was set to approve those agreements with 11 cities later this week — and that he was hopeful things would work themselves out with Brookhaven.

“I know that those municipalities need the money for their various initiatives,” the CEO said.