Stone Mountain City Council considers how to spend federal money

City of Stone Mountain seal on the historic railroad depot. Photo by Dean Hesse.

By Rebecca Grapevine, contributor 

Stone Mountain, GA — The Stone Mountain City Council met on Saturday, March 19, to consider how to spend funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

The approximately $2.3 million from the 2021 federal COVID relief package can be used for extras outside the normal city budget, explained departing City Manager ChaQuias Miller-Thornton.

The council must also decide how to use unspent funds from a “special-purpose local-option sales tax” (SPLOST) approved in a 2017 referendum.

The SPLOST funds are designated for transportation, public safety, and park upgrades in the city.  (Readers can view the initial 2017 SPLOST project list here.)

Storm water drainage improvements emerged as a strong contender for the incoming federal funds, with support from the public works department, the city administration, and council members.

“Stormwater plays into that quality of life for our citizens,” said Miller-Thornton. She explained that it is the only utility the city manages. Dekalb County is in charge of drinking water and sewage systems.

There are not many grants for cities to improve stormwater systems, so it would be smart to use ARPA funds for the repairs, Miller-Thornton said. She provided the council with a list of the eight most urgently needed fixes.

Councilmember Chakira Johnson, a civil engineer by profession, said the city should use the federal funds to hire a civil engineering firm to develop a master plan for repairs.

Johnson said she would use her engineering expertise to help the city – and to recuse herself when necessary.

Mayor Beverly Jones and Councilmember Teresa Crowe also supported stormwater fixes.

Other infrastructure projects like resurfacing streets, adding speed bumps and crosswalks, and fixing potholes garnered support from councilmembers Johnson, Crowe, Shawnette Bryant, and Gina Stroud Cox and from Mayor Jones.

Councilmember Clint Monroe argued for upgrading the city’s virtual infrastructure, saying the city should ensure high-speed internet for all residents.

Lack of high-speed internet access contributed to children’s learning loss during the pandemic, Monroe said.

Crowe also supported expanding broadband access. The city should consider bolstering its cybersecurity protections too, she said.

Mayor Jones explained that there are other grants for improving internet access. The city could apply for those and use the federal ARPA funds for other needs, said Jones.

Johnson thought the city should expand its virtual court facilities, an item on the list of city administration requests.

Johnson and Crowe both supported using the funds to increase pay for city workers.

“We had a hard time competing in the market for compensation of our public safety and…public works workers” during the pandemic, manager Miller-Thornton said.

However, the ARPA funds must be spent by 2026, meaning that the city would have to find another source for the increased pay after the funds run out, Miller-Thornton explained.

Some federal funds should go toward improving education at Stone Mountain Elementary School, Councilmember Monroe said.

Monroe said that before the pandemic only 21% of third-graders at the school were reading at grade level. That figure has dropped to 16% since COVID, he said.

According to the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, 15.8% of the school’s 3rd graders were reading at or above grade level in 2019. Data for 2021 were not available.

“We need to adopt that school and start a reading program,” argued Monroe, whose idea drew support from councilmembers Bryant, Gil Freeman, and Gina Stroud Cox.

Though the school is run by Dekalb County and not the city, improving school performance would benefit the community’s children and help increase property values, Monroe said.

The latest Dekalb County School District master plan calls for consolidating Stone Mill and Stone Mountain Elementary at the current Champion Middle School site sometime between 2026 and 2030.

Crowe said expanding beautification efforts downtown and in other parts of the city should be a priority. Bryant argued for improved signage around the city.

“Our taxpayers deserve to have a much-improved downtown area,” said Crowe.

But Freeman said the council should use funds to support beautification beyond downtown.

“We need to focus more on areas outside downtown and let DDA [the Downtown Development Authority] do their thing,” Freeman said.

Several council members proposed ideas that would improve Stone Mountain’s sustainability.

Monroe suggested replacing the around 500 high-pressure sodium lamps in the city with the more energy efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs).

The city could make back what it spends on LEDs in just four years. The investment would be “a high return on investment project,” Monroe said.

The city should “push” blue recycling bins to every household in the city – and make sure that everyone understands how to use them, Monroe argued. Currently, residents must request the bins, he said.

Shawnette Bryant concurred, proposing the program be aligned with the upcoming Earth Day on Friday, April 22.

“A lot of people don’t recycle,” said Bryant. “I’m one of them – I need to.”

Freeman said that if the city builds a parking garage at one of the parks, it should install solar panels on top. The solar panels would provide electricity for the park as well as protection from the elements, Freeman said.

“That would be a way the project pays for itself not only now but in the future,” Freeman said.

Another innovative park upgrade idea came from Councilmember Monroe. He said the city should apply for funds from the recent federal transportation bill to build trails that connect all four city parks, similar to the successful Beltline in Atlanta.

“You could walk from park to park without touching too much of the street,” Monroe said.

Gina Stroud Cox said that remaining SPLOST funds should go to “every single park” for improving restrooms, playgrounds, and walking trails.

“There was not one bad idea,” said Mayor Jones at the end of the lengthy brainstorming session.

“You all will decide how you want to engage [the public]” about how to spend the funds, manager Miller-Thornton said to the council members.

Miller-Thornton suggested using a town hall, postcard surveys, and online surveys to get feedback from residents.

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