ALPHARETTA, Ga. — City leaders picked up where they left off Feb. 17 — sometimes in heated exchanges — debating whether Alpharetta should place a $50 million bond on the November ballot.
Supporters of the bond measure spent much of their time at the City Council meeting reviewing a list of projects for possible funding. Opponents questioned the list on its vagueness and, at times, on whether any of the projects require immediate funding.
Council members Dan Merkel and John Hipes, along with Mayor Jim Gilvin, have gone on the record in opposition to the bond in its current form. They did not participate in drawing up the list of projects under discussion at the meeting.
At times, the discussion grew testy.
When Gilvin asked for details behind some the projects on the list, Councilman Jason Binder interrupted, saying the list is preliminary and staff will be given time to flesh out details before anything is finalized.
“What I will say, Mr. Mayor, is it’s pretty easy to take hits at people trying to find more information when you’ve put nothing on paper,” Binder said.
“I’m not trying to take hits,” Gilvin responded. “I’m asking questions to help me prioritize a list.”
“I would like to know what your priority is,” Binder interrupted.
Gilvin replied: “My priority is to continue doing the best we can building out the best city we possibly can with the revenues that we receive… Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to continue asking the questions I need to inform me to make decisions about the list.”
List of projects proposed
The bond is being proposed to fund an array of parks and transportation projects that proponents say will keep Alpharetta’s quality of life afloat.
Opponents on the council say the bond plan singles out businesses and commercial property owners to bear the cost, while most homeowners sit on the sidelines.
Earlier this month, the council voted 4-3 to seek state authority to raise its homestead exemption another $7,500 to protect owner-occupied homeowners from a tax hike needed to pay off the bond. Commercial property is not eligible for a homestead exemption, so any increase in the tax levy would hit businesses full on.
If the homestead exemption measure is introduced and passed by the Legislature this year, Alpharettans would likely see it on the ballot this November, along with the bond question.
The list of projects discussed at Monday night’s meeting included several initiatives that either are not sufficiently funded now or are not funded at all. Some projects on the preliminary list have no cost estimates. Others include ballpark estimates.
The list includes:
- Alpha Loop, $5 million
- Dryden Road extension, $3 million
- Wills Park Equestrian Center upgrades, $2.5 million (with a $2.5 million match from the Equestrian Foundation)
- Milton Avenue Park, $2 million
- Webb-Plus interchange with Ga. 400 design studies, $2 million
Council members opposed to the bond pointed out that the city will have access to the same amount of money if area residents renew the county-wide transportation sales tax in 2021. The .75 percent tax, first passed in 2016, is estimated to bring in close to $62 million to Alpharetta coffers during its five-year run.
But one resident who spoke out at the workshop criticized those willing to wait.
Daniel McAlonan said something needs to be done now to address pressing needs before they reach crisis level. A bond, he said, will fund projects immediately to get the city where it needs to be.
“Voting no, or sitting on your hands and not providing feedback, not participating in the process, is not leadership; it is not vision,” he said. “It’s certainly not what we elected you to do.”
Ironing out differences
Following the meeting, Councilman Binder said he let months of frustration get to him during the Feb. 17 workshop. He said he still plans to get clarity from the mayor and council on the challenges facing the city, like the predicted traffic onslaught when an express lane interchange goes in near Webb Bridge Road and redevelopment efforts along the North Point Corridor.
Planning for those initiatives, he said, cannot wait because it may take five years to get them ready for construction.
“I believe we are at our best when we work together to provide solutions for our residents to approve at the ballot box,” Binder said. “I will do my part to make it a productive process.”
Binder also said he expects discussions on the bond list to continue in the coming weeks.
Speaking later, Councilman Hipes said he’s trying to find a measured approach that can satisfy both sides by funding projects in phases.
“We have more in common than people think,” he said. “I can vouch for that.”
Citing figures from the Alpharetta Finance Department, Hipes said the city can bond up to $25 million right now without increasing the property tax rate. He said he may recommend tackling the most critical projects now with such a scaled-down bond. Another $25 million could become available in 2022 if voters extend the transportation sales tax in 2021, he said.
“I want to be fiscally conservative and find items that merit consideration for funding and not tear up the city at the same time,” Hipes said.