DeKalb opponent to sales tax referendum extends olive branch

DeKalb County Commissioner Lee May said Thursday he could support a regional transportation sales tax if county officials would earmark $120 million for a MARTA rail line to serve his constituents.

His comments Thursday at an "educational" forum in Decatur on the sales tax referendum suggested he was willing to compromise in his opposition to the proposed 10-county regional 1 percent sales tax, which would be a win for its supporters. Political experts contend DeKalb County voters could be decisive in determining whether the referendum passes when it comes up for a vote on July 31.

May and other south DeKalb leaders have voiced opposition to the proposed sales tax because the $6.14 billion project list doesn't include a long-promised rail line in south DeKalb County. DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis is campaigning for the referendum, noting the project list includes $700 million for a light rail line from Lindbergh Station to the job center around Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and $225 million for an express bus service from south DeKalb to job centers around metro Atlanta.

"People don't ride buses," May said.

May was on a panel hosted by Leadership DeKalb when he said he thought the referendum would win support from south DeKalb voters if the county would use the approximately $120 million in discretionary funding it would receive from the 10-year sales tax for a rail line from Indian Creek Station to the Wesley Chapel Road intersection, which he said was projected to cost $560 million.

May also suggested DeKalb support could be won if the political leaders in the 10-county region and the Atlanta Regional Commission would make I-20 rail a top priority when seeking federal transit grants.

Other south DeKalb opponents said a promise to target the discretionary funding toward seeking a federal grant for rail for south DeKalb wouldn't persuade them to back the referendum. DeKalb NAACP President John Evans said in a telephone interview he couldn't support the referendum unless he had a guarantee the I-20 rail project would come to fruition.

"We're against the referendum, period," Evans said Thursday. "These elected officials will trip you up. ... You can't trust nobody."

Ellis also was scheduled to be on Thursday's panel but did not attend the meeting. His chief of staff, Jabari Simama, said Ellis would have to weigh whether a $120 million commitment to the rail project would be worth forgoing other county transportation projects. The $120 million would be less than half the necessary 50 percent local match that the federal government usually requires for rail projects.

Ellis has contended that the $225 million for a proposed express bus service from south DeKalb to job centers around metro Atlanta would help the county leverage federal funds in part because the money would build infrastructure that can later be converted from bus to rail. May said Thursday that another $120 million would go further in winning a federal grant because it could be combined.

But Simama said May's comments at the panel were encouraging because it was critical for the county not to be divided if the referendum was to be likely to pass. Previously, May had said the I-20 rail had to be on the project list for him to support passing a regional sales tax. A meeting is scheduled between May and Ellis to discuss the issue Monday, Simama said.

"I think that is progress," Simama said. "Lee had been pretty rigid on his position. I don't know if his comments [on the panel] represent a softening."