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Copyright 2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Mark Niesse; Staff

The DeKalb County Commission is considering spending nearly $5 million in taxpayer money, intended for public green spaces, to pay for upgrades at a members-only YMCA.

Residents opposed to the arrangement say it amounts to a handout for a private business, but supporters say the expansion and renovation of the South DeKalb YMCA is needed to improve health in an area with high rates of diabetes and asthma.

A divided commission plans to discuss the proposal June 24. The six-member body deadlocked Tuesday.

If approved, DeKalb County would pay $4.95 million to buy the South DeKalb YMCA, then lease the facility back to the YMCA for $1 per year for the next 50 years. The YMCA would continue operating the facility and collecting membership fees.

The YMCA would spend the money to add a senior fitness room, locker rooms, a lobby and offices while renovating existing facilities.

The South DeKalb YMCA, located on 18 acres of land just south of I-20 and east of I-285, would also upgrade picnic pavilions, improve walking trails and build a water feature.

Anyone could use the outdoor areas after checking in with the YMCA's front desk, but its indoor gym and other facilities would require a paid membership, said Eston Hood, the YMCA of Metro Atlanta's chief operating officer for program development. Memberships cost $84 per month for families and $54 monthly for individual adults, but Hood said discounted rates are offered to those with lower incomes, making the average membership fee about $40.

The South DeKalb YMCA has more than 3,000 members, and that number could double within two years after the additions are made, Hood said.

DeKalb residents in favor of the plan said the county government hasn't provided them adequate services, and they need more options to live healthy lifestyles.

"That Y needs enhancement. The need is there," said Vivian Moore, who lives nearby, during a community meeting last week.

"Our communities have been left behind. I want to be a member and join," Moore said.

Critics of the partnership between DeKalb County and the YMCA said green space money should be used to create new public parks that are available to everyone.

"It's a private company that's more than profitable and taking scarce taxpayer money," Tucker resident Susan Avent said of the YMCA.

Money for the project would come from bond issues that were presented to voters as a way to buy parks and improve existing natural areas, cultural centers and athletic centers. Voters approved $230 million worth of the bonds in 2001 and 2005, and they're paying for them through property tax bills.

About $20 million of countywide green space bond money remains, and the rest has been spent on various projects.

Hood said the agreement would be mutually beneficial to DeKalb County and the YMCA. The community would receive enhanced fitness and health opportunities, and the county government wouldn't have to spend as much money as would be needed to build and operate a recreation center on its own, he said.

"It's not like the county is giving us a grant. We're selling an asset and investing it into the county, along with eating the operating costs," Hood said. "We'll give it right back to taxpayers."

He compared the YMCA agreement to DeKalb County's 1972 purchase of Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, which charges for classes and memberships.

But Commissioner Jeff Rader, who opposes buying the YMCA, said the projects are different. Callanwolde was facing possible destruction when the county bought it, and the county operated it for more than a decade afterward.

Rader said the YMCA upgraded facilities in Decatur and Brookhaven without using taxpayer money.

"What would happen if we spent this money on something else? They'd likely, perhaps begrudgingly and more conservatively, upgrade this facility so they can continue to attract members," Rader said.

The South DeKalb YMCA proposal is similar to the county's partnership with Wade Walker Park Family YMCA in Stone Mountain, which opened in 2012, DeKalb County interim CEO Lee May said.

The YMCA is leasing the Stone Mountain facility from the county for $1 a year, and the YMCA is responsible for operations and maintenance.

But the two deals aren't alike, Rader said, because building the Wade Walker YMCA added a new recreation center, and the South DeKalb YMCA already exists.

What's next?

* The DeKalb County Commission plans to consider purchasing the South DeKalb YMCA at its June 24 meeting.

* When commissioners voted last week, three supported the plan and three opposed it. The same deadlock could occur again unless someone decides to change their vote.

* The impasse could be broken after an interim commissioner is appointed by interim CEO Lee May in the coming weeks.


June 16, 2014




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