Town Hall Meeting Held on DeKalb Cityhood Proposals
(APN) DEKALB COUNTY — State Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Dekalb County) hosted a town hall meeting on Monday, May 06, 2013, at the Clairmont Hills Baptist Church to discuss a variety of cityhood proposals involving DeKalb County.
Numerous legislators from the Dekalb County Delegation attended including State Sens. Jason Carter (D) and Fran Millar (R), as well as State Reps. Dee Hawkins-Daigler (D), Michele Henson (D), Scott Holcomb (D), Howard Mosby (D), Pam Stephenson (D), and Tom Taylor (R).
Only one member of the Board of Commissioners, Jeff Rader (District 2), whose district is impacted by most of the proposals, attended.
In general, most of the speakers seemed to indicate that they, and the people they knew, were generally satisfied with the services they were receiving from DeKalb County; however, they had some concerns involving zoning and land use decisions made by the Commission that went against local will.
While not enumerated at the town hall, these decisions include the land use decision regarding a proposed Wal-Mart in Decatur, and some recent zoning decisions regarding Clairmont Road.
“It seems we’re being overruled in land use by people outside our area,” Bruce MacGregor, President of the Druid Hills Civic Association, said.
“If everyone to the north of us becomes a city, that orphans us,” MacGregor said, referring to the Cities of Brookhaven and Dunwoody, which have both been created in DeKalb County within the past few years.
Brookhaven and Dunwoody are two of the new cities that have been created since the Metro Atlanta incorporation trend began with the creation of Sandy Springs in Fulton County 2005. Other new cities have included Chattahoochee Hills, Johns Creek, and Milton in Fulton County; and Peachtree Corners in Gwinnett County.
Rep. Oliver said there were “other legal vehicles,” besides starting one or more cities, available to address zoning concerns.
“My neighborhood is not that unhappy. They don’t want to have to deal with this,” Jim Smith, a Clairmont Heights resident, said.
Smith said residents are concerned about the recent scandal involving DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, who is under investigation related to bribery, and whose home and office were searched by investigators in January 2013.
“But start a new city? I’d rather stay unincorporated DeKalb. I’d rather see people get involved and change the government,” Smith said, drawing the most applause of any speaker of the evening.
SIX CITYHOOD PROPOSALS, ONE ANNEXATION PROPOSAL
There are six placeholder bills introduced by various state legislators, which begin the two-year process for each that could culminate in a new city in DeKalb County. Legislators emphasized that the maps for each are not final and are subject to change.
State Rep. Oliver’s bill, HB 665, would create a new city to be called Briarcliff or Druid Hills.
Rep. Billy Mitchell has introduced HB 677, to create a new city of Tucker in the DeKalb County portion, or western half, of the historical area known as Tucker. Such a bill would split west Tucker from the eastern half, which is in Gwinnett County.
However, the residents of Tucker were even more alarmed at being included in the proposed City of Lakeside.
“Lakeside… dropped, then the maps began surfacing. People in Tucker were very, very unhappy. They said, we consider that Tucker. The only way they could be part of it was to drop a bill on their behalf,” Rep. Henson said, speaking on behalf of Rep. Mitchell.
Rep. Stephenson has introduced HB 692, to create a new City of DeKalb, which would include all parts of DeKalb County that are currently unincorporated.
Sen. Millar has introduced SB 270 to create a new City of Lakeside, which at one point stretched from the Briarcliff area to Northlake Mall in Tucker. However, the currently proposed map covers a smaller area, and no longer includes any part of Tucker.
Bernard Knight of the Lakeside City Alliance made a presentation, and answered questions, regarding the City of Lakeside proposal. He said the group had raised 15,000 dollars towards its goal of the 30,000 which is necessary to conduct a legally required feasibility study regarding the proposed new city.
Sen. Carter has introduced SB 275 to create a new City of LaVista Hills.
And Sen. Ron Ramsey has introduced a bill to create a new City of Stonecrest, in southeast DeKalb.
In addition, an annexation bill has passed the legislature this year and was signed by the governor to allow a second voter referendum on annexing a part of DeKalb County–that is currently bordered with Brookhaven to the west and Chamblee to the north–into the City of Chamblee.
Last year, the area, which includes Clairmont Road from 85 to Buford Highway, voted on annexation and the proposal was narrowly rejected.
The residents here did not want to be part of Brookhaven or the proposed new City of Lakeside, according to Pat Thomas, an advocate of annexation.
Thomas blamed advertising by late night establishments for last year’s annexation defeat. “Late night establishments tried to smear Chamblee.” The businesses preferred to be subject to regulation by DeKalb County, than by the City of Chamblee, Thomas said.
This November 2013 there will be a second referendum on Chamblee annexation.
CHANGING ROLE OF COUNTIES
Commissioner Rader, as well as Tom Gail of the Georgia Municipal Association, noted that counties under Georgia law are only required to provide certain constitutionally mandated services, which include courts, jails, animal control, and certain public health functions.
Since 1972, after Metro Atlanta began to include more and more people living in the suburbs–which at the time, and to some extent still today, consisted of unincorporated parts of counties–the General Assembly has allowed counties to provide what are generally considered municipal functions. This was especially the case for Fulton, DeKalb, and Gwinnett Counties.
Now, as new cities are being created in unincorporated areas, these cities are taking back some of the municipal functions that had previously been performed by the counties.
In order to become a city, the new city government must take over at least three functions that were previously performed by the county, and the city can choose which three. For example, they can choose zoning, parks, and police, as the LCA is proposing for Lakeside.
CITY OF DECATUR WELCOMES ANNEXATION
Andrea Arnold, the Assistant City Manager for the City of Decatur, said that the city believed there were opportunities and potential benefits for some unincorporated DeKalb residents to annex into the City of Decatur.
“We see some advantages to look at existing cities and to expand. We spent a few years studying our boundaries. We do have a plan for annexation. It’s something we’re interested in pursuing,” Arnold said.
“There are economies of scale. Small cities are not necessarily efficient,” Arnold said.
Earlier in the evening, Sen. Millar described the experience of Dunwoody residents in incorporating. He said that Dunwoody is 60 percent residential, 40 percent commercial. This high percentage of commercial activity provides the city with a highly desirable tax base.
“We [Decatur] are currently 80 percent residential, 20 percent commercial. 60/40 sounds like a dream,” Arnold said.
However, Sen. Carter described the competition for commercial as a “zero sum game,” noting there was only so much commercial area left to go around, in the areas of unincorporated Dekalb County under consideration for incorporation
Meanwhile, though there are clearly some portions of the proposed cities of Lakeside and Briarcliff that could be annexed by the City of Atlanta, the City of Atlanta sent no representative to advocate for such a possibility.
Rep. Oliver said she knows of constituents, however, who have expressed a desire to annex into the City of Atlanta.
ISSUES OF PRIVATIZATION
Many of the new cities, including Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Milton, Chattahoochee Hills, Dunwoody, and now Brookhaven, upon incorporation, began by embracing a massive privatization of city services, relying on companies like CH2M Hill to provide just about every city service with the exception of police and fire.
Sen. Millar said Dunwoody, for example, only has four or five city employees, and all other city functions–ranging from customer service, to information technology, to accounting, to parks and recreation, to public works–are outsourced to private companies.
“What kills you in the long run are pension benefits, and new cities have stayed away from that,” Millar said.
He said the millage rate in Dunwoody has not gone up as a result of incorporation.
Atlanta Progressive News asked Millar via a question submitted in writing during the town hall, whether it was possible to incorporate and not raise taxes without privatizing.
Millar said he believed it was possible to incorporate without privatizing, but did not say whether it was possible to do so without raising taxes. As he described his perceived benefits to outsourcing, several audience members said “tsk tsk” in disapproval.
Unlike the previous areas of Metro Atlanta that have incorporated, the current areas are not majority Republican, and may be less likely to support privatization.
Meanwhile, Chattahoochee Hills, Johns Creek, and Milton largely ended their experiments with privatization in 2009 and 2010, going back to the traditional model of city employees providing city services. They found the privatization model to be too expensive.
Sandy Springs, the pioneer of the model, has kept its privatization model in place, but in 2011, underwent a process of bidding out contracts for different departments to different companies, instead of just CH2M Hill.
This has raised a number of problems from morale issues for the non-city city employees; to numerous companies having to interface with each other; to the need for a new layer of bureaucracy to manage the companies; to all the usual problems of oversight and accountability that accompany privatization of public services.