A proposed Brookhaven Facilities Authority with the ability to issue revenue bonds to pay for the Peachtree Creek Greenway stirred considerable debate at Mayor John Ernst’s March 15 town hall with several residents questioning the need for the authority and some demanding they be allowed to vote on how to pay for the linear park.
A bill to create the Brookhaven Facilities Authority has already passed in the state Senate and is now being considered in the state House.
City officials explained at the town hall the Facilities Authority is necessary to spend the money raised from the hotel/motel tax increase approved last year in the General Assembly to fund the Greenway. The Facilities Authority would have the ability to issue revenue bonds against the new revenue stream created by the hotel/motel tax.
The City Council approved a $35 million Greenway master plan in 2016. Revenue bonds allow a Facilities Authority to lock in rates and keep costs down rather than paying as you go and dealing with such things as rising inflation costs, Assistant City Manager Steve Chapman said.
“Basically we are taking out a mortgage,” he said.
For some at the town hall, though, the idea of issuing revenue bonds — which do not require a public vote — to pay for the Greenway is a major concern. The other major concern is that there is no specific language in the Facilities Authority bill that ties it to the Greenway, argued Catherine Bernard, an attorney who unsuccessfully ran for state House District 80, including Brookhaven, in 2016.
“I don’t think anyone here is against the Greenway,” Bernard said, “but it is not mentioned in this bill.” She suggested adding language to the Facilities Authority bill requiring a referendum before a revenue bond is issued. Her argument also centers around the 2014 city vote defeating the Redevelopment Powers Law.
Chapman said a referendum wasn’t practical and noted 755 other cities in Georgia use Facilities Authorities. Sandy Springs has a Facilities Authority that is being used to fund the building of its City Springs center; Dunwoody last year approved creating a Facilities Authority so it could approve a 40-year lease contract with the Dunwoody Nature Center.
“The only way to do [the Greenway], unless you want to do this project 100 yards at a time, is to create a Facilities Authority,” Chapman said. “That’s the only vehicle we have.”
“Are you jut having this town hall so you can tell us what’s going to happen and tell us we have to like it, or are you having this town hall so we can discuss what is the best way forward for Brookhaven,” Bernard said to Chapman.
“We are here to gather input,” he said.
City Manager Christian Sigman added that the elected mayor and City Council made the decision to approve a Greenway plan and raise hotel/motel taxes to pay for the Greenway while elected state officials approved the legislation making it possible to raise the hotel/motel tax to fund for the Greenway.
Going back to the voters “seems superfluous” on something the city and state elected officials have already done, Sigman said.
Resident Chad Boles, who also believes residents should vote on any debt the city wants to take on, said the elected officials said nothing about a Facilities Authority or revenue bonds before they got elected.
Mayor John Ernst then interjected and said he and the entire City Council campaigned on building and funding the Greenway. “It was known to voters that I wanted it done and done in the quickest amount of time,” he said.
Boles also noted of the 755 cities with Public Facilities Authorities, Brookhaven was the only one where voters defeated the Redevelopment Powers Law.
State Sen. Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody), whose district includes Brookhaven, sponsored the Brookhaven Facilities Authority bill in the state Senate with state Sen. Elena Parent (D-Atlanta). He was at the town hall and explained he voted last year to approve a tax hike for hotels in Brookhaven because the city had a great plan to spend it on the Greenway. That bill also includes language specifically about the Greenway, he noted.
“If you didn’t have this plan, I wouldn’t have voted for it,” he said. Facilities Authorities are a “proven commodity” for projects like the Greenway, he added.
“This is the accepted practice. If you want the Greenway, this is the best and fastest way to do it,” Millar said.
Chapman explained state law prohibits a city from entering into long-term contracts to spend public funds beyond one year, but by contracting with another governmental body, in this case a Facilities Authority, the city is able to enter into such contractual agreements, such as revenue bonds. State law allows Facilities Authority to enter into contracts up to 40 years.
“One council can’t bind another council,” Chapman said. When the city was founded, it created the Brookhaven Finance Corporation, giving the city the ability to enter into 5-year lease agreements for City Hall and the Police Department. This finance corporation is essentially the same as a Facilities Authority, he said.
The legislation approved last year in the General Assembly giving the city the authority to raise its hotel/motel tax from 5 percent to 8 percent included a clause to create the Facilities Authority to spend that money, Chapman said.
Betsy Eggers, chair of the nonprofit Peachtree Creek Greenway board that advocates for its construction, voiced frustration with people saying they support the Greenway, but then oppose ways to fund it or demand a referendum to pay for it, calling them “unnecessary hurdles.”
“I appreciate elected officials who stuck their necks out for last year’s legislation and this year’s legislation,” she said to Millar and state Rep. Meagan Hanson (R-Brookhaven), also in attendance at the town hall.
It is disingenuous for someone to say they support the Greenway, but then oppose the quickest way to fund it, Eggers said. She said the Facilities Authority was the “perfect solution” to ensuring the Greenway is built quickly.
“If we do this piece by piece without a Facilities Authority, [the Greenway] will be rotting at one end before the other end gets started. It’s the momentum we cannot hinder right now,” she said.
The city’s elected officials were given their “marching orders” when elected to create more green space, more bike and pedestrian-friendly areas, she said, and that is what the Greenway will do.
After the meeting, state Rep. Hanson said she plans to “continue to look at ways to get everyone on board” before the session ends on March 31.