The Gist:

- The Brookhaven City Council approved a Special Service District, which would have certain property owners pay more in property taxes to help fund improvements in the city.

- Only commercial properties will be included in the district. Residential and multi-family residential properties will not be included.

- Next year, the city will begin a public input process to determine which projects, if any, could possibly be funded by the district.

Despite resident concerns about public engagement and timing, the Brookhaven City Council voted to create a tax district that would have certain business owners in the city pay more in property taxes to help fund infrastructure improvements. 

During its Dec. 14 meeting, the council voted in favor of the creation of a Special Service District, which is a tax district where certain property owners pay more in property taxes to help fund improvements in their area. The positive vote means that the city will consider imposing an additional millage rate on certain commercial properties within the city when they set the rate next June. 

According to city officials, the next step after passing this ordinance is to begin a public input process to identify the types of projects and services that the tax district would fund.  A city spokesperson said the additional millage rate will only be implemented if the public input process decides upon specific projects that the tax district could help fund. 

“That project list would become the basis of establishing what the millage rate would be,” city spokesperson Burke Brennan said in an email. “If it is deemed that none of the projects should be funded by this Special Services District, the estimated cost would be zero, and therefore the millage rate would be zero, meaning no additional tax would be incurred by the properties under the district.”

City Attorney Chris Balch said the city has identified over $400 million worth of infrastructure improvements that are necessary within the city, including sidewalks, multi-use paths, stormwater improvements, and intersection improvements. 

“There is currently no money in the general operating fund or within the budget for the city to fund any of these projects,” Balch said. 

Balch stressed that the Special Service District would not give the council any redevelopment powers, unlike a resolution the council rejected at its last meeting that would have allowed the city to redevelop “blighted” areas of the community. 

“This is simply a funding mechanism to try and find the money to do the plans and programs this council has determined are necessary to connect the city to the rest of the county, and to connect the city with the region,” he said. 

If the city’s public input process yields projects to be funded by the district, the additional millage rate would only apply to commercial properties, not residential homes or apartment buildings. The map of where the district would be applied shows areas around Buford Highway, Dresden Drive, Ashford Dunwoody Road, and others. 

A map of the locations in the city where the Special Service District would apply.

Some council members were concerned that the map as drawn might include some areas that have apartment buildings. Councilmember Linley Jones made an amendment to the ordinance that would ensure the district would exclude multi-family housing.

While the district would not include purely residential or multi-family buildings, Balch said multi-use developments that have both commercial and residential properties would be included in the district. Councilmember Madeleine Simmons asked if there would be a way to separate those residential parcels from commercial parcels, but at the time of the meeting, Balch said he wasn’t sure. 

In an emailed statement after the meeting, Brennan said that the underlying zoning condition of a property would determine whether or not it would be eligible to be included in the Special Service District, and that the city does not believe there would be a way to separate out residential parcels from commercial in a multi-use development. A representative for the DeKalb County Tax Commissioner’s Office did not respond in time for publication to clarify. 

Many residents spoke out against the creation of the Special Service District during a public comment section of the meeting. Most residents had concerns about the timing of the ordinance and how the tax district would affect small business owners. Eugenie Viener, a local business owner, asked the council to take into account the timing of the ordinance and talked about the hardships small business owners have been facing recently, such as supply chain problems and worker shortages. 

“[Small business owners] are struggling right now to maintain their business to provide for their families,” Viener said. “If you increase their property taxes to fund this, you would be … aiding other small businesses, but harming others at the same time.” 

Karen Cariello, who served on the city’s Social Justice, Race, and Equity Commission this year, also asked the council to hold off on passing the ordinance. The council also accepted the recommendations of the SJREC for consideration at the Dec. 14 meeting. 

“I’m here tonight to stand up and ask you to kindly hit pause,” Cariello said. “I think this sounds like a worthy undertaking … but as a result of serving on that commission for a year, I’ve learned first hand the importance of community engagement, and what we lose when we don’t stop and hear the voices of the people directly impacted by some of these decisions.”

Brookhaven resident Mike Walsh echoed Cariello’s wishes for the council to delay the vote.

“I’m having a difficult time just understanding what is being proposed here, and would just appreciate it if there would be an opportunity to review a bit longer and potentially delay the vote here and defer to a time when citizens can have a better understanding of the impact,” Walsh said. 

Balch said if the council did not pass the ordinance during the Dec. 14 meeting, they would lose out a year’s worth of revenue that could have been collected. Balch also said the council could review the make-up of the district each year, which could include changing which properties are included in the district. 

“Even though the millage rate is not set until June, the taxes for that year are accrued and are payable based on the designation and the classification of the property as of Jan. 1,” Balch said. “We lose an entire year on getting any of these projects done or even considered if this ordinance fails tonight.” 

The council passed the ordinance unanimously.

“I understand some of the concerns,” said Councilmember John Park. “We have to pay for things … as far as I’m concerned this is as equitable as you can get.” 

Simmons said that while she supported the ordinance, she did want the council to consider allowing for more public input on issues like this before they come in front of the council. 

“I do absolutely want to acknowledge … what we’ve heard through the recommendations from the Social Justice, Race, and Equity Commission about public education and engagement … prior to some of these items coming on the City Council agenda,” Simmons said. “I would just ask for the staff and my fellow council members’ support in making sure that moving in 2022, that’s something that we really put an emphasis on.”

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.