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November parks bond divides Alpharetta City Council

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ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Alpharetta’s plan to bring a special parks bond to voters this November drew heated debate Monday when city leaders divided over the wisdom of placing two tax initiatives on the same ballot.

The proposed $29.5 million bond had been touted for a referendum this fall, the same time Fulton County voters will decide whether to extend the .75-cent transportation sales tax, or TSPLOST.

The transportation tax vote is important, because it could mean more than $60 million in road project funding to Alpharetta from sales taxes. If the referendum fails, the city would be forced to pare its transportation wish list and use local tax dollars for most big-ticket transportation items.

Opponents of the November parks bond say if the TSPLOST fails and the bond passes, it could saddle property owners with additional taxes to pay for roads. Right now, the Alpharetta Finance Department says the city can afford payments on the parks bond without raising the tax rate on property.

Opponents also ask why the city would gamble with property taxes when it could wait six months to assess whether a local bond should also include funding some transportation projects.

Alpharetta passed a $52 million bond in 2016 divided between parks and transportation.

City Councilman Jason Binder said he favors moving ahead with the parks bond this year.

“I’m unabashedly, unapologetic for parks,” Binder said, pointing out that there are other opportunities for transportation funding beyond the TSPLOST.

For one thing, he said, the city could move forward with North Point transportation improvements through the special tax allocation district the city created two years ago. The TAD sets aside future tax dollars for infrastructure upgrades as the property values rise.

Pedestrian safety upgrades in other areas – part of the current local TSPLOST wish list – could also be addressed over the next five years using local funds, he said.

Binder said the city has enough information right now to draw up a list of projects it can fund, even if the vote to extend the transportation tax fails. He said he’s tired of seeing the city kick the can down the road on parks improvements.

Council members Karen Richard and Donald Mitchell concurred that November would be the right time for a parks bond vote.

Councilman John Hipes, who has said he favors a May bond referendum, commented that he thinks it fiscally prudent to await the results of the transportation tax vote. He said the last tax, passed five years ago, passed by a thin margin.

“Hoping that TSPLOST passes is not a strategy for our fiscal decision-making,” Hipes said.

Fellow Councilman Dan Merkel said he is fully behind the parks bond, but he wants it to hold its current shape for a vote in May.

Mayor Jim Gilvin said he is disappointed the latest roster includes no investment for park land acquisition in the North Point corridor. Right now, the Big Creek Greenway remains about the only natural amenity in the area, he said.

That, along with the pending TSPLOST referendum, would prompt him to oppose the parks bond in its current form.

The council is expected to continue discussions on the parks bond June 21.

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