Members of a task force that helped create Brookhaven’s proposed $40 million parks bond are now opposing it and urging voters to shoot it down on the Nov. 6 ballot, saying the amount is too much, too soon. They say the bond would hike property taxes unnecessarily, adds projects the public never approved, and ignores alternative funding sources.

The public opposition by four of the five members of Parks and Recreation Coalition of Brookhaven reverses their previous impartial stance and follows the recent creation of a “Yes for Brookhaven Parks” group. Not all conservancies or “friends of” groups within PARC are opposing the bond.

“PARC of Brookhaven has determined that it is imperative to change our position from neutral information source to advocate for a ‘no’ vote on the upcoming potential bond,” PARC Chair Sue Binkert said in an Oct. 16 statement.

Rebecca Chase Williams, former mayor and co-chair of Yes for Brookhaven Parks, said she was “surprised and saddened” to hear some PARC of Brookhaven members are now publicly opposing the parks bond.

“But I respect their opinion. They have been in the trenches a long time,” she said.

The Lynwood Park master plan approved by the City Council in 2016 that includes basketball and tennis courts. (City of Brookhaven)

Binkert, Terrell Carstens, Greg Trinkle and Steve Peters represented PARC on an ad hoc “funding task force” that worked with city administrators from October 2017 through July to find funding sources for parks capital projects.

The work resulted in the $40 million proposed parks bond to fund many, but not all, parks master plan projects.

The total estimated cost to complete the city’s entire parks master plans is $80 million. The funding task force supported a parks bond – but in the smaller amount of $26.5 million — to complete the master plans for Ashford, Briarwood and Brookhaven parks and part of Murphey Candler Park. Members say that would make up for the recent loss of other tax funds without increasing local property taxes.

But city officials boosted the final proposal to $40 million. That includes an additional $10 million for Lynwood Park, $2.5 million to hire a professional project management firm and $1 million to dredge Murphey Candler Park lake.

A revised Lynwood Park master plan with the addition of a “lazy river” pool seen as a blue loop and no basketball or tennis courts. (City of Brookhaven)

The $40 million bond would increase property taxes, though the city says that would be balanced out and by other tax changes and even result in higher savings.

Included in that $10 million for Lynwood Park is a $3.25 million lap pool and “lazy river.” A lazy river is shallow pool that flows like a river in a loop. The PARC members oppose the addition of the “lazy river” because it was not part of the parks master plan approved two years ago.

A city spokesperson said when consultant GreenbergFarrow began designing Lynwood Park, they realized not all the approved amenities, like the basketball and tennis courts, could be added while also preserving historic and heritage structures. The lazy river was added a “compromise to remain in the spirit of the master plan,” the spokesperson said.

Who is PARC?

PARC of Brookhaven was formed shortly after the city was founded nearly six years ago and the members have deep roots in the city’s parks prior to and since Brookhaven’s incorporation. The coalition is an umbrella group for representatives of Briarwood, Blackburn, Brookhaven, Clack’s Corner, Murphey Candler and Skyland parks, according to Binkert.

Sue Binkert, left, chair of PARC of Brookhaven with former PARC of Brookhaven member Jim Dupree, led a 2015 parks “visioning session” with residents in this file photo.

Binkert was co-chair of the parks committee of the Governor’s Commission on Brookhaven when the city was founded. Carstens represents Clack’s Corner and Briarwood Park. Trinkle is president of the Briarwood Park Conservancy. Peters is volunteer coordinator of the Murphey Candler Park Conservancy.

Peters said the PARC public opposition is coming from just the four members of the funding task force and not the coalition’s general membership. The fifth member of the task force is not taking a public stance, he said. The group has about 12 consistent people who show up to regular meetings, including a meeting last month at the Lynwood Park Recreation Center, Peters said.

Peters said the members of the task force were asked this week to take a “yes or no” stance on the parks by other PARC members. He said not all conservancies or parks friends’ groups within the PARC coalition oppose the parks bond. He noted the board of his own conservancy, the Murphey Candler Park Conservancy, voted to support the parks bond.

“There is more vocal support coming from limited information,” Peters said. “The city has a great website, but I think they are glossing over a lot of things. And the ‘Vote Yes’ group has fallen hook, line and sinker that [the city] has to go to this level now or get nothing for parks.”

The city is not shying away from saying there will be no money for parks unless the parks bond is approved. City officials say the elimination this year of the homestead option sales after DeKalb voters approved the special local option sales tax erased their only source for parks capital projects. No money for parks is currently budgeted in the city’s proposed $47.5 million budget for next year.

“These are sort of diverging concerns,” said Steve Chapman, the assistant city manager and chief financial officer, in February when talks began about a parks bond. “Do [residents] want parks or do they want low taxes? By financing the parks, the people who are getting the benefit of the parks will be those paying for it.”

SPLOST, HOST funding

The backdrop to the debate is major changes to the way capital projects in city parks are currently funded. A sales tax known as HOST that was the city’s main park funding source was eliminated this year after DeKalb voters last year approved a special local option sales tax. And a DeKalb County bond that funded the parks prior to the city’s 2012 incorporation is expiring in two years.

The city says its new parks bond is the best way to fund such projects. But the PARC task force members say the parks bond goes beyond making up the difference, forcing an increase in property taxes instead of finding additional funding sources. However, supporters say a new DeKalb County property tax exemption will balance out the bond’s impact on homeowners’ bills.

The parks bond would raise the city’s 2.74 millage rate by half a mill, or an average of $98.34 a year to the homeowner with a home assessed at about $466,000, according to city officials. The millage rate is used to determine local taxes and is the amount taxpayers pay per $1,000 of assessed value.

Peters said the funding task force agreed to support a $26.5 million bond referendum because the tax increase was essentially a “one-for-one” replacement of the DeKalb parks bond, which rolls off property tax bills in 2021.

General obligation bonds are backed by the credit and taxing power of the city to pay off the bonds and opponents fear the city could someday find itself in trouble and not be able to pay its bonds.

“They [the city] need to remove the obligation off the homeowners,” Peters said.

Supporters say homeowners’ overall tax bills won’t go up due to other taxation changes this year. The city millage increase would be offset by this year’s new equalized homestead option sales tax. The EHOST dedicates 100 percent of its revenue to reduce property taxes for qualified homeowners, according to DeKalb officials.

And in 2021 when a DeKalb County parks bond expires and rolls off property taxes for Brookhaven homeowners, city officials are estimating an overall savings of about $514 for homeowners with $466,000 homes.

Supporters also argue the city’s recent triple-A credit rating from Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s indicates that the city is in strong financial shape and is fiscally responsible enough to be able to pay off the bonds.

“The city has done this in a fiscally responsible way,” Williams said.

Brookhaven expects to receive $47 million in SPLOST revenue over the next six years, but they say the money supporting the SPLOST limits spending the sales tax revenue to only transportation, public safety and maintenance of capital projects.

Councilmember Bates Mattison, who cast the lone “no” vote to putting the bond on the ballot, earlier this year voiced his dismay that the SPLOST funding could not go to parks. City leaders are hoping in six years when the SPLOST may be renewed that it will include funding for parks.

But PARC members argue SPLOST money can be used in parks for certain projects. Peters argued the $1 million in the parks bond dedicated to invasive plant removal, for example, could instead come out of SPLOST maintenance money. He also said parks funding could also come from other funding sources such as grants, watershed projects and through public works.

State Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), author of the SPLOST legislation, issued a statement to Brookhaven officials in response to Peters’ and others questions on how SPLOST money can be spent, stating it cannot be used for such projects as they suggested.

“DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond and I jointly crafted the SPLOST legislation in conjunction with property tax relief so that the proceeds only applied to transportation; public safety facilities and related capital equipment; debt service where a municipality used proceeds from HOST; and for repairs of capital outlay projects (limited to 15% of total proceeds for repairs),” Millar said.

Williams said the elimination of HOST is forcing the city to quickly find a new revenue source for parks capital projects and provides the best option for the city. “The city budget has other demands, such as public safety,” she said. “There are not millions lying around for capital projects.”

Peachtree Creek Greenway

Caught up in the parks bond debate is the new Peachtree Creek Greenway and the many funding sources for it. The Greenway is a 12-mile multi-use trail that is planned to connect Brookhaven to Chamblee, Doraville and to Mercer University in unincorporated DeKalb. The Greenway is also expected to connect to PATH400 in Buckhead and eventually to the Atlanta BeltLine.

Opponents argue the city is not being resourceful in finding funding for existing parks like it has been in acquiring funding for the Greenway. Supporters and city officials say the Greenway is really a multi-use trail creating much needed connectivity throughout the region and not a park, making it eligible for different forms of funding.

The planned route of the Peachtree Creek Greenway in red and planned PATH400 in green. (Peachtree Creek Greenway)

The city last year raised its hotel-motel tax from 5 percent to 8 percent and is using the extra revenue to back a nearly $13 million revenue bond to pay for initial construction costs of the Greenway. The city expects to break ground this year on the first mile of the Greenway between North Druid Hills Road and Briarwood Road.

Carstens, a PARC funding task force member, unsuccessfully challenged the Greenway revenue bond in DeKalb Superior Court this summer, arguing among other things that the Greenway did not provide a public service to the city. She also wanted the bond to be put up to a vote. A judge ruled against her.

The Greenway is expected to also be a moneymaker for the city by sparking millions of dollars in redevelopment along Buford Highway. City officials also expect the Greenway to become a tourist destination for people throughout metro Atlanta and elsewhere, adding more money to the city’s coffers.

“Everybody brings up the Greenway, and I’m not against the Greenway,” Peters said. But, he added, he wished the city would be more “creative” in finding alternative funding for parks like it has with the Greenway.

Because the Greenway is a multi-use trail that allows for alternatives modes of transportation – bikes and walking – and is slated to connect cities throughout the region, it is eligible for special federal grants that other parks are not eligible for, according to city officials.

The Greenway was once regularly referred to as a “linear park,” but a spokesperson said the city has not been using that term for some time, instead referring to it only as a multi-use trail.

Besides a revenue bond, the city has received more than $2 million in federal funding through the Atlanta Regional Commission for the Greenway and has applied for a grant from the federal Land and Conservation Fund to fund pedestrian lighting of the first section of the Greenway.

Other city parks do receive grants – Murphey Candler Park just received a $75,000 grant from Resurgens Charitable Foundation to build an ADA-accessible playground – but city officials say they do not provide sustainable revenue to fund capital projects.

Update: This story has been updated with a statement from state Sen. Fran Millar on SPLOST spending.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.