By David Pendered
DeKalb County transit advocates face a possible campaign in 2020 that could go beyond simply seeking voter approval of a 30-year sales tax. Advocates may have to overcome public trust wavering after setbacks in two nearby tax-funded programs – for DeKalb schools, and Atlanta’s roads-and-sidewalks-and transit programs.
Here are four milestones on a potential pathway of seeking public faith in the county government’s ability to properly manage a major public infrastructure undertaking:
- July – DeKalb County’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously in July to set the stage for a future public vote on a transit tax by adopting a Master Transit Plan. Some in the conversation expect the commission could put a sales tax hike of up to 1 percent to pay for the program on the ballot in November 2020. DeKalb’s CEO position is to be on that ballot;
- August – DeKalb’s school officials convened public meetings around the county to explain $100 million in cost overruns, and to outline a potential borrowing of up to $265 million to cover the shortfall and pay for more school projects;
- March 2020 – To cover school funding, DeKalb’s Board of Education may call a referendum on a possible property tax hike to pay off whatever sum may be borrowed to finance school projects;
- December 2019 – Atlanta officials began accepting public comments regarding an anticipated shortfall $410 million in the city’s sales-tax funded Renew Atlanta and transit projects. The priority list of projects was altered to address anticipated shortfalls.
DeKalb residents are not directly on the hook for the Atlanta projects – unless they make a purchase in Atlanta that’s subject to a sales tax.
DeKalb is authorized to implement a sales tax of up to 1 percent under the provisions of the legislation that created the Atlanta-region Transit Link “ATL” Authority, according to the county. A 1-percent sales tax would generate $3.65 billion over 30 years and a 0.5 percent sales tax would generate $1.85 billion over 30 years, according to the count’s estimates.
DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond’s administration has taken steps to address issues related to transparency and faith in governance in regards to capital projects funded through a sales tax. Two such measures include:
- A Citizens Oversight Committee was established by the county commission to serve as a watchdog over public spending;
- Accomplishments are routinely posted on a county website – such as the completion of the first 50 miles of 100 miles of roads to be repaved this year, and most recently the acquisition of rapid response vehicles to deliver emergency medical services until an ambulance arrives.
Public trust in the leadership Thurmond has provided as the county’s CEO could be a significant factor in any possible campaign for a transit sales tax. The CEO position is to be on the November 2020 ballot.
Thurmond has won the county by handy margins. Thurmond prevailed by a margin of almost 3-1 in the May 24, 2016 Democratic primary election by defeating Connie Stokes, a former DeKalb commissioner, and Joe Bembry, a business owner who has campaigned for several offices. In the November general election, Thurmond defeated the Republican challenger by a 4-1 margin, according to DeKalb’s election report.
Hillary Clinton carried 79 percent, and Trump took 16 percent of the vote, in the November 2016 general election.
In weighing the potential sales tax hike, voters may consider that the county’s CEO controls the day-to-day operations of the county government. This provides considerable influence over spending on a potential program to expand transit.
Meantime, this degree of influence is a source of friction. It’s the reason state lawmakers have consistently called for a review of a governance structure that gives one official, elected countywide, such sway over county operations. One alternative is a county manager system, where the county’s daily manager typically is confirmed by a board of commissioners.