By Jody Steinberg

DeKalb County might have its eye on progress, but right now, the focus is on preservation, a top county official says.

Deep drops in property values – which could plunge even lower after current homeowner appeals are decided –already have lowered property tax revenues at least 15 percent, Ted Rhinehart, Deputy COO of Infrastructure, told DeKalb Chamber of Commerce members on March 25.

With sales tax revenues sinking lower every month, DeKalb County Commissioners voted to use 99.9 percent of Homestead Option Sales Tax income to hold down property taxes.

Until 2008, $10 million to $15 million from the HOST funded infrastructure projects, including roads, sidewalks, bridges, water, storm drain and sewage systems, each year. Federal stimulus dollars filled that gap in 2009.

Now that well has run dry, and DeKalb’s new, bare bones budget practically eliminates funds to improve aging infrastructure.

At $565 million, the 2010 county budget is already down $70 million from just two years ago, and Rhinehart predicts it will actually drop as low as $540 million.

Without funding, a five-year, $1.7 billion infrastructure improvement plan will remain on the shelf, as will up to $100 million dollars in federal and state matching funds, because the county cannot finance its share of the projects.

Calling infrastructure the “stepchild” of county government, Rhinehart warned that deferring improvements and essential maintenance has costly repercussions. Budgets will not rebound to previous levels any time soon, but existing infrastructure cannot sustain growth and be neglected indefinitely.

“We need a financial plan for infrastructure,” Rhinehart said. “By not being preventive, you end up being corrective, and the cost is several times higher.”

Summarizing the comprehensive improvement plan, Rhinehart highlighted projects left in limbo while the economy retracts:

Water: Replace waste management systems at Snapfinger and Pole Bridge pumping stations ($300 million each) and repair and replace thousands of miles of storm water drainage pipes.

On a blazing summer day, residents can use up to 100 million gallons of water, a level that cannot be sustained by the Snapfinger and Pole Bridge Creek pumping stations without new water treatment facilities.

“These are very expensive projects but they’re the backbone of our system,” said Rhinehardt. “Reliability and dependability need to be 100 percent every day.” They are also essential if state water wars push DeKalb to negotiate water rights directly with the Environmental Protection Division.

Transportation: Resurface roads, improve traffic signals, expand public transportation, maintain 40-50 bridges, at a cost of $500,000 to $1 million each, and advocate for a statewide transportation plan that benefits DeKalb.

If the state legislature passes a regional transportation bill this session, it would probably be funded by a penny sales tax, which would be divided between the state and each county. Since DeKalb and Fulton counties already collect a one-cent sales tax for MARTA, their ability to collect – and tap into – that additional transportation sales tax revenues – is uncertain.

Sidewalks: Add 150 miles of sidewalks on arterial and collector streets

After making pedestrian access a priority, the board earmarked $5 million a year and $26 million in bond funds, which built about 50 miles of sidewalks.

Facilities: Maintain or abandon 275 county-owned buildings, including offices, police and fire stations, libraries, recreations centers, pools and parks.

Greenspace bonds in 2001 and 2006 funded acquisition, not improvements or maintenance.

“Those amenities are valuable to the community and quality of life for DeKalb,” said Rhinehart, noting that most people don’t think about maintenance until the library roof is leaking or the bathrooms stop working.

Keeping people close to home is one of the best ways to ease pressure on infrastructure, explained Rhinehart.

Using the city of Decatur and the Perimeter area as models, county planners have been working with the Atlanta Regional Commission Livable Communities Initiative to promote more mixed-use, live-work-play communities that are pedestrian-friendly and reduce the need for cars. But urban streetscapes are expensive to develop.

“This is a critical juncture for people to have a dialogue,” said Rhinehart, inviting citizens to contact him and join informal groups to discuss roads, communities, water and quality of life issues.

“DeKalb citizens need to ask themselves, ‘What do you want your community to look like five to10 years down the road?’ Sometimes, someone looking in from the outside can bring new ideas and solutions to the table.”