Sales tax on ballot would repave DeKalb’s broken roads

DeKalb County workers fill a pothole. Photo credit: DeKalb County
DeKalb County workers fill a pothole. Photo credit: DeKalb County

As she's driving across DeKalb County, Rhonda Mangum tries to avoid the jarring impact of frequent potholes in her path. But it's even harder to dodge the large metal plates covering them up.

“My husband had to stop just to make sure we didn’t bust our tire,” said Mangum of the plates on Rainbow Drive, near I-285 and I-20. “The roads are in bad shape in DeKalb.”

Mangum and other taxpayers are voting on a referendum raising sales taxes in DeKalb to pay for repairs of hundreds of miles of cracked and pothole-filled roads. If approved, the special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) on the Nov. 7 ballot would raise the county's sales tax to 8 percent.

DeKalb County CEO Mike Thurmond, surrounded by mayors and government officials, speaks about ballot measures to increase sales taxes and cut property taxes during a press conference at the DeKalb Roads and Drainage Division on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM
DeKalb County CEO Mike Thurmond, surrounded by mayors and government officials, speaks about ballot measures to increase sales taxes and cut property taxes during a press conference at the DeKalb Roads and Drainage Division on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM

While it's clear that many of DeKalb's roads are breaking down, voters must decide whether they're willing to pay higher taxes to fix them. No organized group has emerged in opposition to the SPLOST.

There are about 320 miles of roads rated in poor condition in unincorporated DeKalb, according to county government data analyzed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That's about 16 percent of county-maintained roads in need of repairs. In addition, there are many other dilapidated roads within cities, which will also receive SPLOST money if it passes.

The sales tax hike would raise money for road resurfacing, public safety facilities and other infrastructure over the next six years. More than $151 million of the $388 million allocated for unincorporated areas would fund repairing roads rated in poor condition. City governments, which would receive $249 million in SPLOST funds, have set their own spending priorities for local infrastructure improvements.

Nearby areas that already have SPLOSTs in place, like Gwinnett County, have smoother roads. Gwinnett, which first passed an infrastructure sales tax in 1985, has 76 miles of road in poor condition, which is 3 percent of its total, according to the county. Comparable figures for Cobb and Fulton counties weren't available.

“With a SPLOST, we’ll have an opportunity to be on an equal level with the other large metro Atlanta counties,” said Peggy Allen, associate director for the DeKalb Roads and Drainage Division. “They’re able to resurface more roads, where we do a lot more patching.”

The condition of DeKalb’s roads has steadily worsened over the years as government funding for repaving them has dried up. The county in previous years received as much as $20 million annually for infrastructure from sales taxes, but that amount has declined to about $1.5 million because of an old tax formula that distributed most of those funds to the new cities of Dunwoody and Brookhaven.

It costs $300,000 to $400,000 per mile to repave asphalt street, and the county budgeted $8.4 million for road resurfacing this year, with about half of that amount coming from the state. That’s enough money to resurface 20 to 30 miles each year, far short of the amount needed to put a dent in the county’s road resurfacing backlog.

Drives are already paying the price for their broken roads.

TRIP, a Washington-based transportation research group, estimates that uneven streets cost the average driver in metro Atlanta $502 annually for vehicle operation and maintenance, according to the group’s analysis of 2015 pavement condition data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Rough roads wear down tires, front-end alignments and routine parts while increasing fuel costs, said Rocky Moretti, TRIP’s research director. The biggest cost of shabby roads is faster depreciation of car values.

“The worse shape the pavement is in, the faster the vehicle is going to wear out,” Moretti said.

DeKalb referendums

  • Sales tax hike: The special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST) would increase the sales tax rate from 7 percent to 8 percent.
  • Property tax break: One penny of existing sales taxes would go toward property tax relief through a measure called the equalized homestead option sales tax (EHOST). That would be an increase from the 80 percent of that penny that now goes to homeowners.
  • Assessment freeze: If the EHOST passes, a separate property tax discount for homeowners will be made permanent. Known as the frozen exemption, this tax break offsets DeKalb property tax increases caused by rising property assessments.

The one percent sales tax increase would generate $44,000,000 for improvements to buildings and equipment.

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