DeKalb soapbox derby project veers into contention

The clash between CEO Burrell Ellis and commissioners over a proposed soapbox derby track north of Lithonia could wind up costing DeKalb taxpayers. The tally of unapproved work as of June 1: $91,819.

“There are bills coming in for a project we never voted for,” said Commissioner Elaine Boyer. “It’s inexcusable.

Since the idea of a soapbox derby track was first brought to the board last year, the commission has approved $585,000 to buy the land and $130,000 to design the track. But in January, when Ellis asked for approval for the construction of the track to begin, commissioners balked. The total project is expected to cost $1 million for a 900-foot, two-lane track through granite outcroppings along Rock Chapel Road.

Although the commission has voted four times this year to delay a contract to begin construction, Richard Stogner, the county’s chief operating officer, said the board did not specifically vote the project down.

“It has not been approved. It has not been rejected. It’s simply been held,” Stogner said.

A vote on the next step could come as early as Tuesday, when the contract again comes before the commission. Commissioners on Thursday wouldn’t speculate on how the vote would go but noted that three members have repeatedly questioned how much use a soapbox track would get. It would take four votes against the project to reject it outright.

Ellis, who enjoyed racing derby cars as a child, authorized the work to begin this spring because the track is on a list of potential projects to be built with money from the 2001 parks bond, Stogner said. The track’s inclusion on that list and the purchase of the property amount to tacit commission approval, Stogner said.

Between 25 and 60 children race in two derbies held each year in Dunwoody and Marietta on temporary tracks set up in parking lots. An administration report estimates the permanent track could host eight races and make the county about $15,000 a year.

Faced with those figures last month, commissioners asked the county’s parks director and infrastructure chief to come back with a plan to add other activities that would draw more use, such as a bike motocross track or skate park.

They were awaiting those plans when they saw the payment invoices for tree cutting and clearing work.

“We were trying to play nice and work together,” Commissioner Lee May said. “This work they’re doing tells me they’re going to do what they want to, no matter what we say.”

Outside attorneys said it was unlikely state law would allow the county administration to spend the bond money without board approval, though the question could most likely only be solved in court.

If the county lost that court battle, it would mean the cost of the site work and maybe the $130,000 in track design would fall to DeKalb taxpayers, not the parks bond.

While taxpayers fund both accounts, they may have been misled on the bond vote because the derby track was not on the original project list, said state Rep. Mike Jacobs, a north DeKalb Republican who sponsored a state law that requires a public vote on bond sales.

When the state Supreme Court agreed that the county’s development authority could not sell bonds on work already done, the county in 2009 had to take on $4.3 million in debt on the Sanford Performing Arts Center.

“The question is, if the commission rejects this spending, will the county still be on the hook for it?” Jacobs said. “I can’t imagine it’s legal that a countywide bonds fund would become the CEO’s discretionary fund. It’s become a slush fund.”

On Thursday, as both sides debated the project, trucks loaded with brush and small trees trundled from the bottom of the sloped site. A handful of drainage pipes were spread across the ground, awaiting installation.

Stogner questioned whether the county would need a contract to do the work and added Ellis would likely veto any denial. It was not clear how the CEO could adopt that tactic, effectively a denial of a denial.

“If four people vote to stop the project and the CEO vetoes that, it takes five to override the veto,” Stogner said. “I would hope in the meantime, some amenable solution can be worked out.”

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