Moderated by Tom Sabulis
Residents in two DeKalb County neighborhoods are pushing for cityhood, citing a now familiar litany of complaints in metro Atlanta — bloated government, lack of service and inadequate police protection. Today, neighborhood representatives in Lakeside, in the northern part of the county, and Stonecrest, on the south side, write about their desire for concentrated local control and better use of their tax money. On the other hand, DeKalb County’s CEO says fragmentation and uncoordinated cityhood efforts are not the answer. There’s a better way, he says.
Commenting is open below.
By Mary Kay Woodworth and Jason Lary
Inappropriate zonings. Lack of sufficient police protection. Pot holes that go unfilled. A need for economic development.
Such are just a few of the complaints we hear from citizens as two non-profit citizens groups explore the potential creation of two new cities — one in north DeKalb County, and the other in south DeKalb — over the next few months.
In the Lakeside community near Emory University, north of Decatur, the Lakeside City Alliance has been hosting community meetings due to a budding desire by area residents to learn if it is feasible to manage their own zoning, police, parks, public works and other issues.
In south DeKalb, the Stonecrest City Alliance has formed for the same purpose: to explore the creation of a city in unincorporated areas of Lithonia, Decatur and Ellenwood near Stonecrest Mall. Residents there express the same concerns with one additional caveat: a need for economic development in south DeKalb to help restore property values.
In each case, homeowners and residents have an overriding theme in mind: local control. Many say DeKalb officials are not doing a good job of tending to the needs of local neighborhoods and would like to understand whether or a city would do a better job of spending taxpayer money.
Their anxieties about the ability of their government to manage the county grew this month when a DeKalb grand jury indicted CEO Burrell Ellis on 15 counts including extortion and conspiracy. This came a few weeks after the County Commission designated almost the entire county a “slum” in a controversial move to generate jobs.
We are hearing from our residents that both of these actions hurt our communities, do not improve property values and are prompting interest in creating city governments closer to the people. It remains to be seen, however, whether a new city is both feasible and desired by a majority of residents.
DeKalb is a county of approximately 707,000 people — larger than several states including Wyoming, North Dakota and Vermont. Each commissioner represents at least 140,000 residents, and many do not live, shop, worship or socialize in our communities. The proposed cities of Lakeside and Stonecrest would have populations of about 65,000 — and city commissioners would be required to live in districts they represent.
To finance local services, each city would retain a small portion of the tax revenue citizens send to county government for services the county would no longer provide. Other recent cities have demonstrated that services can be provided with fewer employees and, in many cases, with better results
For example, Sandy Springs, Dunwoody, Brookhaven and other newly created cities have operated with minimal staff, hiring only a city manager, a handful of others and a police force. All other tasks are contracted out to private firms or even back to DeKalb County.
In 2010, a Georgia State University audit of DeKalb’s government and found an estimated 5,500 employees on the county payroll. GSU recommended a 16.8 percent reduction in employees, including 33 percent in the CEO’s office and 30 percent in the commissioners’ staffs.
We have heard over and over that this is a huge source of frustration for DeKalb taxpayers, waiting an hour or more for a police officer after their business or home has been burglarized, or waiting years for roads to be replaced. They tell us money could be much better spent addressing the needs of citizens instead of supporting an enormous county workforce.
Lakeside and Stonecrest are listening to their residents’ concerns. They are exploring whether they can create cities that can operate without a tax increase and offer services citizens say the county just cannot get right. A city doesn’t have to provide everything the county does, but if a city can do some things well, our residents tell us it will help create a sense of prosperity, safety and satisfaction where frustration now exists.
Mary Kay Woodworth is chairman of the Lakeside City Alliance. Jason Lary is chairman of the Stonecrest City Alliance.
By Burrell Ellis
Since 2008, DeKalb County has seen a growing interest in cityhood and annexation movements. For some communities, that interest is related to localized control and having more say on how taxes should be spent. For others, it is about obtaining additional revenue to support growing demands for services. Some neighborhoods are even now exploring options to incorporate merely as a defense mechanism from being drawn into other proposed cities where they lack “common interests.”
Meetings on this subject are being held across the county by cityhood alliances and neighborhood associations, without any coordination or full consideration regarding how these individual efforts might impact the quality of life of the county overall. Yet in each of these discussions, one question that is regularly asked is, “What is the position of the county?”
I support the right of citizens to determine how they will be governed. As chief executive officer, my preeminent concern is to ensure that all residents of DeKalb receive the high-quality services they expect and deserve from local government, irrespective of whether those services come from the county or from one of our cities.
Even if the entire county became incorporated, it would not relieve the county from the responsibility to maintain libraries, oversee elections, fund public health, run the judicial system and provide other essential services to all our residents, city and county alike. Our current process, and its resulting political fragmentation, is inefficient and unsustainable and does not enhance economic growth and prosperity. There has to be a better way to meet our collective objectives, as local governments, that is mutually beneficial and addresses the concerns we all share.
Across the United States, there are models of counties and cities working together to minimize service delivery costs, increase efficiency, identify revenue-sharing opportunities, and partner on issues that are not contained within our political boundaries. That is what I propose for DeKalb. There is no reason for the county and its cities to combat one another based on old arguments as to which form of local government is “better.” That is a scenario where no one, in the long term, ends up the victor. And in the end, we must acknowledge neither form of government is going away.
Last week, I met with the mayors in our county to discuss a process for developing a collaborative, efficient strategy for delivering quality services to all DeKalb residents. Within the next few days, I will convene an intergovernmental task force made up of mayors and appointees from the county commission; state municipal and county organizations; the school district; the county development authority, and the DeKalb Chamber of Commerce. During a 90- to 120-day period, the task force will be charged with recommending an efficient service delivery strategy, effective policy integration, and a successful economic development strategy for all DeKalb citizens.
Through a series of meetings, interviews and research, a final report will be drafted. It will detail qualitative and quantitative information necessary to develop an intergovernmental plan and, if necessary, “rules of engagement” for future pursuits of incorporation and annexation.
My hope is that our citizens and elected officials will see this as an opportunity to have an informed and necessary discussion on the subject of intergovernmental collaboration and service delivery. Moreover, it should provide us with a new, improved model for achieving our one common goal: improving the quality of life for all citizens.
Burrell Ellis is CEO of DeKalb County.