Financial woes dog DeKalb budget chairman

The DeKalb County Commissioner charged with overseeing a $559 million budget has managed to shield himself from nearly $1 million of personal debt after a series of bankruptcies, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned. .

Among Commissioner Lee May’s debts: a $35,000 loan from the DeKalb Enterprise Business Corporation, a nonprofit affiliated with the county that makes small business loans. Records show May paid just $8,500 of that money back before defaulting.

May, who heads the commission’s budget committee, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday that the debt stems from his failed effort to run a movie theater near Lithonia. But May, an outspoken critic of county finances, he said the struggles make him more understanding of taxpayers’ and the county’s financial woes.

“It was an entrepreneurial risk I took,” said May. “I have not mismanaged my own personal finances and I am not mismanaging DeKalb County’s finances.”

As budget committee chairman, May is an influential voice in setting the county's annual spending plan.

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Court records show that May used his southeast DeKalb home and his parents’ home in Arizona to come up with the $250,000 needed to open the 8-screen Cinefe theater at Panola Road and Covington Highway in 2005. The DEBCO loan and small investors also helped with the purchase.

The business struggled from the start. County tax records show May didn’t pay his 2006 and 2007 business property taxes until 2008. Shortly after he covered the $3,500 payments, May closed the theater.

May first filed bankruptcy then, agreeing to court-ordered payments to repay his debt. His $38,000 salary as a county commissioner was garnished to pay back the nearly $850,000 owed for his purchase of the business and rent for the space.

Salary garnishments also were set to repay $79,500 in student loans and $700 in federal taxes, according to county records.

May said Wednesday that he was slowly paying down his bills when his Kilkenny Circle home near Lithonia was among those that suffered major damage in 2009 floods. Without flood insurance, May lost everything. He said he was still paying on the debt and trying to rehab the house when a sewer spill backed raw sewage into his home in 2010. Records show he held out until 2011, when he filed for a different kind of bankruptcy, asking all debt be forgiven.

“It just became too much,” May said. “We were taking too many hits.”

Even with the debt written off, the financial problems continued last year. In September, May’s home sold in a short sale for $34,900, almost a quarter of what he paid for the house in 2003. He and his family now live in a rented home in southeast DeKalb.

May acknowledges the debt may create political fallout but said he has never hidden his struggles. He also doesn’t believe there is any conflict with is elected office and debt, including the default to DEBCO.

That loan dates to 2005, a year before he was elected to office.

Still, he said, he is ashamed that is the one loan he couldn’t pay back.

“It troubles me because by me not paying that debt back it hurts their ability to help others,” he said.

May, 36, is up for re-election this fall. His commissioner's salary, which has been released from all garnishments, is now his primary income which he supplements that with speaking fees and book sales.

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