DeKalb County’s Board of Commissioners are divided over a proposal to spend $4.5 million for the South DeKalb YMCA.
While three commissioners are pushing for the purchase--Larry Johnson, Stan Watson and Sharon Barnes Sutton, the other three commissioners-- Jeff Rader, Kathie Gannon and Elaine Boyer—are against the purchase.
For now, the proposed deal is stalled. Commissioner Rader abstain from voting at the board’s June 10 meeting, avoiding a tie that would have required a tie to be broken by DeKalb’s interim CEO Lee May. The issue could, however, come up again at the next County Commission meeting on Tuesday, June 24.
Under the proposed deal, the county would buy the South DeKalb YMCA at 2565 Snapfinger Road in Decatur with taxpayer-backed green space bonds for just under $4.5 million, and then lease the property back to the Y for $1 a year over the next 50 years. The money from the sale would go to renovate the Y and expand programming.
Metro Atlanta YMCA Chief Operating Officer Eston Hood said he’s still confident an agreement can be reached.
“This is simply about blending resources to continue to be able to help the broader community in need. That’s all it is. That’s what the Y is about and will continue to be about. If the deal is approved, we can expand projects that address issues such as childhood obesity and we can offer more programs based on a sliding scale and income, such as our after- school activities and summer camp,” said Hood. “This is a win-win for everyone. This deal won’t take anything away from DeKalb. We are going to sell 18 acres to the county and take the proceeds and invest it back into the YMCA. How many homeowners sell a house and give the proceeds back? We are also eating operating costs of the new expanded facilities so taxpayers won’t have to pay for that.”
Emotions have run high over the plan to buy the Y. At the recent board meeting, people spoke for and against the proposal.
“This is a great opportunity for the county to expend some resources and give back. You’re talking about investing in our youth now so you don’t spend funds later on incarcerating youth who have nothing to do from 3 – 6 p.m.,” said Billy Mitchell, who represents District 88 in DeKalb County. “In addition, there will be many events such as Easter egg hunts and programs such as community meetings that residents will be able to enjoy and take part in at the Y without having a membership. This is a great use of the public dollars.”
Supporters said the Southern part of the county needs more government investments to improve health and offer more activities to thousands of under-served residents.
“This is South DeKalb. We are talking about children and families in need, not playing politics. All we are trying to do is help folks, that’s it, and I don’t understand for the life of me why Commissioner Rader won’t support this,” said Lithonia resident Clinton Raines. “We are not worrying about what North DeKalb has or trying to compare North and South DeKalb. We just want our commissioners to do right by South DeKalb on this issue.”
Opponents say that buying the Y is a waste of taxpayer money. They the greenspace funds were meant to do things like buy parks, not buy buildings like the Y.
“I have nothing against the YMCA or private-public partnerships. But this proposal is not a partnership, it is an abusive relationship,” said Mike Cooper of Stone Mountain. “This proposal is inconsistent with county and state law and regulations because the referendum in relation to these funds, approved by and paid for by voters, does not support the use of bond money for private activities.
“The county saves no money on this plan and the Y will continue to rake in funds. Before this goes any further, this deal needs to be put under review by the Parks’ Department Office of Parks Bonds and Green Space and/or the Green DeKalb Advisory Council.”
Commissioner Radar said he believes that the deal would be good if it were bringing substantially new facilities to an area that didn’t have any recreational facilities, but the way the deal is set up now, it is just an opportunistic gain, he said.
“The YMCA is in the business to attract members and if the YMCA is going to attract members to the South DeKalb Y, they will have to make investments in their facility. They have decided to forgo that entirely,” said Radar. “The YMCA is not significantly expanding this facility. They’re going to have the same pool, build a senior facility room, improve the front of the house so it’s more inviting to people.
Commissioner Kathie Gannon agrees. She says the money could be better spent at many of DeKalb’s existing aging recreation centers. Gannon said it’s unfair to use the bond money to aid the Y’s project while prohibiting the same money from being used to fix deteriorating county parks and recreation centers.
“We have got parks and recreation centers all over this county that we do not have the money to take care of, to staff properly, to fix the buildings, to put in air-conditioning so children don’t have to sweat in a hot gym all summer. It’s an embarrassment. It will make you cry to see what the kids have to go through,” said Gannon, District 6 Commissioner. “I’m not against the Y at all. I’m not opposed to a partnership in the future and a way to make this work for everybody but those funds are greatly needed in other areas at recreation centers across the county.”