A decisive vote approving a new sales tax increase in DeKalb should be seen as a "transformative moment" for a county government trying to recover from years of crisis and controversy, county CEO Mike Thurmond said Wednesday.
The sales tax hike, from 7 percent to 8 percent, won with 70 percent of the vote, sending the government a clear message that residents are willing to pay for long-overdue improvements to roads, parks and fire stations.
"We will not squander this opportunity," said Thurmond, surrounded by mayors and community leaders at a press conference in Decatur. "We will work hard to ensure that the resources that have now been placed within our reach will be used in a way that is transparent, that is on time and under budget, and we will get the job done."
The special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) will raise more than $100 million annually over the next six years. Tax collections, which will be distributed among cities and unincorporated areas based on population, will fund transportation, public safety and other infrastructure projects.
Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett said city and county governments will show voters that they made a sound investment.
“What we look forward to is in six years, coming back together and celebrating the results of this historic vote of confidence and trust,” Garrett said.
The approval might signal that residents are ready to see past DeKalb checkered history. Over the last few years, several elected county officials have been found guilty of corruption-related crimes, while others have been reprimanded for unethical spending of government money for personal purposes.
A large portion of the sales tax, which takes effect April 1, will go toward repaving hundreds of miles of pothole-filled roads. In unincorporated DeKalb alone, the county plans to spend $151 million to resurface more than 318 miles of roads rated in poor condition.
Candace Colclough said after voting Tuesday that she supports the sales tax because she wants roads repaired near her home near Lithonia.
“I love the county, love my area, but the potholes are tearing up my car,” said Colclough, a manager for Comcast. “I’m hopeful as a resident. … I’m not satisfied yet, but with things like this (SPLOST measure), we’re moving in the right direction.”
A Brookhaven voter, Lynn Johnson, said he was convinced the sales tax was important to the county’s future.
“I think that’s something that needs to be done,” said Johnson, a retired insurance agent. “We need to go ahead and do the work that’s outlined.”
Besides the sales tax, voters also supported two other tax referendums on the ballot that will reduce property taxes.
The equalized homestead option sales tax (EHOST) will use proceeds from an existing 1 percent sales tax to shrink homeowners’ property tax bills. In addition, voters passed a proposal to make permanent a property tax break for homeowners called the frozen exemption, which gives them a discount to offset the cost of rising home assessments.
Tucker Mayor Frank Auman said he doesn’t usually embrace tax increases, but he said this one is different because it will have a noticeable impact on residents’ daily lives.
“This tax won’t live forever. It’s good for six years. And, if we don’t do the right thing, it won’t happen again,” Auman said. “If you’re going to do the right thing for infrastructure, this is the way to do it.”
DeKalb Commissioner Kathie Gannon said an oversight committee and regular audits will help ensure sales tax money is spent appropriately.
“It’s all about trust now,” she said. “It’s all about transparency. It’s all about delivering what we promised.”
— Staff writers Janel Davis and Arielle Kass contributed to this article.
Mark Niesse covers voting rights and elections for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He also reports on the Georgia House of Representatives and government. He has been a reporter at the AJC since 2013 following a decade at The Associated Press in Atlanta, Honolulu and Montgomery, Ala.