DeKalb commissioners reject stimulus bonds

Political infighting and limited public involvement caused DeKalb County commissioners to reject $36.3 million in federal stimulus bonds.

The low-interest loan money was considered for proposals ranging from turning the former Doraville GM plant into an Atlantic Station to upgrading the sewer system. There also was talk of a convention center near the Mall at Stonecrest, some relief for the crowded Recorders Court or a new police academy.

In the end, all of those ideas were killed, and the money will likely go back to the state.

With only two weeks left to allocate the money, the DeKalb County Commission decided on Tuesday to do nothing with it. Other metro area counties, such as Gwinnett and Cherokee, have already found uses for their federal stimulus bonds.

DeKalb commissioners say the money couldn’t be used without raising taxes to pay back the bonds, something that the county is not in the position to do right now.

“Some people think this is federal money with no strings attached,” said Commissioner Jeff Rader. “It was a loan.”

But it was a loan where the federal government agreed to subsidize 45 percent of the interest -- something that doesn’t come along often, CEO Burrell Ellis said.

“This money was given to us by the Obama administration and the federal government to build infrastructure and put citizens back to work. It would be irresponsible to not use this money,” Ellis told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday.

After interest and fees, taxpayers would be responsible for repaying $55 million for the bonds, Commissioner Elaine Boyer said.

It’s unclear whether the money would have benefited DeKalb residents, Boyer said. The commission, which was offered only the GM idea by Ellis, didn't have the opportunity to weigh it until August, and the public didn’t have much of a chance to give input, she said.

“This is total mismanagement,” said Boyer, who represents north DeKalb and is the commission’s lone Republican. “You do not take taxpayers’ dollars and randomly throw crap at it. ... If you don’t vet it with the public, you will be crucified. It’s their money.”

Ellis denied those claims and said the commissioners had opportunities to propose their own projects. Despite the majority of commissioners against using the money, Ellis said Wednesday that he is convinced that he can still put together a winning proposal to use the bonds for public safety, transportation and sewer upgrades.

John Steinichen, who frequently comments at public meetings, planned to speak against the bond project in general on Tuesday, but was denied the chance. County officials said they spend only 30 minutes taking comments at each meeting.

“They need to be careful about using the stimulus funds for certain projects. They need to think about future cost that may not be subsidized with stimulus money,” said Steinichen, who has lived in DeKalb for almost 50 years.

The federal government gave Georgia the money last year to allocate to counties with blighted areas. The money became available to DeKalb County last year.

Of that money, $85 million has been used, including $24 million to upgrade sewers in Gwinnett County and $10.7 million for parks in Cherokee County, officials said. The Gwinnett commission will vote Tuesday on giving its remaining $15 million in stimulus bonds to Lilburn and several other cities.

Cobb, which got the highest amount in the state at $37 million, has not used the money, said Bobby Stevens, bond allocation manager for the state Department of Community Affairs.

“Time is running out, unless they can show us that there is a set use for this money,” Stevens said. “If you don’t use the money, it comes back to state and is reallocated.”

Stevens said DeKalb’s money likely will go toward state projects.

Ellis had planned to give the money to a private developer to redevelop the 165-acre GM plant in Doraville. The idea was that it would add value to the tax digest and create jobs, Ellis said.

But commissioners, Doraville city officials and residents weren’t consulted until the end of the process.

“I agree the process was messed up,” said Commissioner Lee May, who represents south DeKalb and voted against using the bonds, “but I think we missed an opportunity to spur development and create jobs.”

May and other commissioners complained about giving public money to a private developer and the lack of study and voted against the GM project last month.

Since then, county officials have scrambled to propose other uses for the bond money, including applying some of it to the $1.5 billion in water and sewer upgrades already planned.

As of this week, those plans still had not come together.

Jack Sartain, who served on the CEO’s transition team, told commissioners Tuesday that the bond money should be used for a new justice center.

“If you don’t ponder quickly, we’ll see the money go to Gwinnett or Henry County,” said Sartain, a Stone Mountain resident.

DeKalb’s deadline for using the money was June. The county got it extended twice.

“The CEO mismanaged it and put all their eggs in one basket with no backup plan and then started scrambling for extensions,” Boyer told the AJC. “You can’t scramble with money that doesn’t belong to you.”