DeKalb sales tax may pay solely for roads

Plans to raise sales taxes in DeKalb County to pay for a long list of construction projects may be scaled down, possibly to focus exclusively on road repairs.
DeKalb commissioners agreed during a Friday meeting that residents strongly support filling potholes and repaving crumbling roads, the county's most glaring infrastructure needs.

But the government's elected leaders are divided on whether they should also spend sales tax money on other projects, including a new government center, a police academy, fire stations, sidewalks, libraries and parks.

Commissioners will decide later this month whether to put a sales tax referendum on the ballot in November. If they can't agree on a project list, the special purpose local option sales tax proposal wouldn't move forward.

Interim DeKalb CEO Lee May said he hopes commissioners fully fund the recommendations of a citizen panel, which suggested spending $162 million on road resurfacing while also setting aside $35 million for a DeKalb government center, dedicating $20 million for public safety training facilities and $34 million for parks.

"People's highest priority is roads and transportation, but they also want better fire coverage and higher investment in parks and libraries," May said.

He urged commissioners to negotiate rather than scuttle the proposal, which would increase DeKalb’s sales tax rate to 8 percent, putting it on the same level as the city of Atlanta and Clayton County. In all, the SPLOST would raise roughly $550 million over the next five years, including $174 million that would be distributed to city governments.

Commissioner Jeff Rader said he wants to dedicate the SPLOST to roads and prove to residents that the government can be trusted to manage their money. About 417 miles of county roads are in need of resurfacing, and DeKalb’s budget only pays for some 25 miles of repaving each year.

“The only element that has broad consensus in the county is road repair,” Rader said. “We should limit the scope of what we want to do.”

Because a SPLOST for roads alone wouldn’t cost as much, it wouldn’t last the full five years. If the county government proves it can deliver road upgrades, then voters could be asked to renew the SPLOST to pay for other infrastructure, Rader said.

The DeKalb Commission is split into two factions, with three on each side. The seventh commission seat is vacant since Commissioner Stan Watson resigned to make an unsuccessful run for tax commissioner.

Commissioner Sharon Barnes Sutton urged her peers to look beyond road funding.

“Roads are a priority, but they’re not the only priority,” she said. “When we went down this road of asking for the SPLOST, we knew there were projects that needed to be done besides the roads.”

But Commissioner Kathie Gannon said she’s worried about the county taking on too many infrastructure projects after problems with oversight of park and watershed improvements.

“People are supportive of transportation and roads, and then they start asking questions,” she said. “If we bite off more than we have the capacity to deliver, we’ll never see a SPLOST again.”

DeKalb’s county government has never had a SPLOST before. Voters renewed a separate education SPLOST during last month’s election.

“We have ignored our infrastructure and our maintenance for such a long time that, at some point, you have to concentrate on it,” said Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson. “I think we can all get together and agree on what the priorities are.”

Proposed SPLOST spending

Roads and drainage: $162 million

Transportation: $55 million

Fire: $46.7 million

Facilities: $44.3 million

Parks: $34.3 million

Police: $24.2 million

Libraries: $11.3 million

City infrastructure projects: $173.7 million

Total: $551.5 million

Source: DeKalb County