By David Pendered
DeKalb County is a close-to-home example of communities across the country that are in the vice grip of hard times – DeKalb’s tax digest has plummeted and the school district is on probation.
Despite the times, DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis is pushing ahead with an ambitious infrastructure agenda – just a month after his uncontested reelection bid in November and five months after voters rejected a proposed regional transportation sales tax.
To DeKalb’s current $1.345 billion water and sewer program, Ellis would add roads and sidewalks; an animal shelter; and police facilities. The state Legislature will be asked to approve methods of paying for the some of the projects.
In addition to the proposed roads and sidewalks, Ellis’ budget proposes $900,000 to renovate the Bobby Burgess facility on Memorial Drive for a Central Police Precinct; and $9 million for a new facility to replace the police precinct in Lithonia and to provide space for a joint training facility.
There’s also up to $7.6 million for a new animal shelter that has been in the works for several years. It’s slated to open in July 2014, according to the budget proposal.
At this time, the road program doesn’t have a list of specific projects it would fund. But a few things appear certain:
- The proposed sales tax would pay for road and sidewalk projects intended to improve mobility, rather than induce development;
- The tax would not pay to expand MARTA service or operations, or other transit projects.
The county has a long backlog of transportation projects that are ready for construction, according to Ellis budget proposal.
Many are eligible for matching funds from the state and/or federal governments. The matching funds can be drawn only if the county has the money to put up its share.
As the CEO wrote in his recommended budget:
- “In 2013, we will seek the Georgia Legislature’s approval for a local option sales tax for Transportation purposes, in order to address this growing backlog of street resurfacing, sidewalks, intersection safety and congestion relief and related projects.”
Meanwhile, DeKalb is proceeding with its water and sewer improvement program and is in “excellent standing” with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Georgia Environmental Protection Division, according to the budget proposal. The work is slated to last 8.5 years.
The county has encumbered $300 million of the $1.345 billion bond package the Board of Commissioners approved two years ago. The status of the projects includes:
- Under construction: Replacement Snapfinger wastewater plant;
- Under construction: Lower Crooked Creek forced main;
- Ready for bids: Phase two of the Snapfinger project.
Nonetheless, DeKalb continues to encounter major sewer spills.
An estimated 33,420 gallons spilled into Indian Creek from a broken main on Dec. 5, according to a county report of just one recent major spill. Crews worked more than four hours to contain the spill, and finally determined that the main had been clogged by more than 200 pounds of rubble rock.
All this construction, both planned and underway, is unfolding at a time the value of the county’s portion tax digest has fallen by half since 2008, according to the budget recommendation Ellis unveiled Dec. 14. Some of that is due to depressed property values; some stems from the incorporation of Brookhaven and Dunwoody.
Another major challenge is the announcement Monday that the region’s accrediting agency has placed the county school system on a 12-month probation.
In addition to the impact on students, which goes with out saying, the threat could play havoc with home sales in Georgia’s third most-populated county.
“The loss of accreditation is imminent. This system must take decisive and proactive action, beginning today,” said Mark Elgart, president/CEO of AdvancED, the parent company of accrediting agency Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, according to a clip that aired on WSB-TV.