During a televised debate last week among candidates for Cobb Commission chairman, incumbent Tim Lee was asked if he approved of using Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax money to pay for construction costs of the I-285 bridge to SunTrust Park.
Lee said definitively that no SPLOST cash would be used for construction of the $10 million project.
“The bridge construction costs will have no SPLOST dollars in it whatsoever,” Lee responded during the May 11 taping of The Atlanta Press Club’s Loudermilk-Young Debate Series.
But two days later, Lee sent an email to County Manager David Hankerson and his fellow commissioners urging a change that “takes the project accounting for the multi-use bridge out of SPLOST.”
“The construction of the bridge is not dependent on SPLOST dollars and unfortunately, this issue has become a distraction to the project,” Lee wrote in the May 13 email. “A project accounting question is preventing us from focusing on what is really most important here — moving forward with project construction.”
“Project accounting” is Lee’s term for saying that the county was going to use SPLOST dollars to cover up-front costs of more than $6 million, and then be repaid when funds from other sources become available — literally making a bridge loan to the Cumberland Community Improvement District ($5 million), the Federal Transit Administration ($1.3 million) and the Braves ($380,000).
The Cumberland CID money won’t be available until two, $2.5 million payments are made in December 2018 and December 2019. And emails among county staff members from early April indicate that Cobb had not applied for the FTA grant at that point, and it was unclear when the Braves would make payment for their share.
Cobb commissioners approved the bridge’s funding plan April 12, and decided to stick with using SPLOST revenue two weeks later even after the County Attorney’s Office and the Finance Department recommended against it.
An April 26 proposed agenda item would have changed the funding from SPLOST to the county’s Public Utilities Projects fund. That item was ultimately pulled from consideration. County Attorney Deborah Dance provided it to the AJC through a public records request.
“After further analysis, it is recommended by both the County Attorney’s Office and the Finance Department that this project be accounted for apart from the SPLOST fund as revenues identified are non-SPLOST related,” it says.
Dance declined to comment when asked if her office’s recommendation came after studying the SPLOST law, which dictates that levy proceeds only be used on projects listed in advance of the vote. Likewise, Cobb Finance Director Jim Pehrson did not respond to an email asking several questions, including whether the Braves had made payment for their portion of the bridge and whether the county had applied for the $1.3 million FTA grant identified as a funding source.
Lee refused to answer an AJC reporter’s questions about bridge funding after last week’s debate, saying he was late for a lunch appointment. The AJC emailed a series of questions to his spokeswoman, Kellie Brownlow, including: why did he say no SPLOST money would be used for construction when the plan was to use it to fill a funding gap, and why didn’t commissioners follow the county attorney’s advice against using SPLOST money?
“The majority of your questions are not policy related and should be directed to the County Manager’s Office,” Brownlow responded. “If you have any questions that are within Tim’s purview, related to policy-level matters, I’d be happy to get you a statement.
“The elected officials rely on recommendations from county staff for details of funding and project accounting.”
But an April 5 email from a county budget administrator titled “agenda prep” says that a meeting was scheduled that day between Lee, Pehrson and County Manager David Hankerson regarding “cash flow” for the bridge project.
Tom Cheek, a Marietta resident and active county government observer, filed an open records request last month and asked a number of questions that revealed SPLOST funds were being used for the bridge. Cheek said he supports the bridge, but doesn’t think it is appropriate to use SPLOST money because it was not on the projects list approved by voters.
“I think the Braves Bridge is necessary … but the rushed process Chairman Lee employed when negotiating the Braves’ move left him thinking the bridge was included in the stadium bond total,” Cheek said. “Taxpayers should not have to pay for this mistake by having SPLOST funds pillaged. I’m a little discouraged that the chairman is avoiding responsibility for this chain of events.
“Even when a County Manager is in place … the Board of Commissioners is ultimately responsible for managing taxpayer dollars, and the chairman is the leader of that board.”
Go to www.ajc.com/videos/news/new-braves-bridge/vDhYMg/ to watch a video of what the bridge will look like.