Cityhood rages in DeKalb

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

A number of DeKalb County neighborhoods are seeking to incorporate as cities, to better serve themselves and keep their tax money from a county establishment that has seen its share of corruption. Today, the county CEO writes about the residents the cityhood trend leaves out in the cold, while leaders in the Lakeside, Briarcliff and Tucker communites demand their rights to hold a vote on the issue.

Commenting is open.

City trend leaves some residents out

By Lee May

Cityhood is not inherently a bad thing. There have been cities within DeKalb County since 1822.

It is a fundamental right for citizens to be able to choose more government and pay a premium for heightened levels of service.

The trouble is, under current Georgia law, cities can be created or expanded in a way that unfairly impacts service levels for others outside of these arbitrarily drawn boundaries.

Governments are funded primarily through property taxes and licensing fees. As it currently stands, proposed cities are strategically picking the county’s most valuable assets to ensure their sustainability.

This cherry picking decreases the county’s financial ability to maintain service delivery for all of DeKalb. All the citizens of DeKalb suffer financially as it relates to service delivery when this occurs.

When choice areas are drawn into cities, the city gets a portion of the property taxes and all of the licensing and fees.

This is to the exclusion of the remaining residents who were left out of the cityhood boundaries, which means their tax burdens go up, or their service levels go down, or both.

They are the ones who suffer in this process, and they don’t get to vote on it.

Furthermore, cities are able to shirk the historical pension and healthcare obligations of employees which served the area before incorporation, shifting that cost over to unincorporated residents.

For example, a police officer that served unincorporated Brookhaven for 30 years, retires. When Brookhaven incorporated, the residents inside the city limits were no longer obligated to fulfill retirement benefits to this worker, even though he served that community. That cost was shifted to the unincorporated residents.

If the trend continues and Tucker, Lakeside, Briarcliff and Stonecrest all become cities, millions of DeKalb’s current pension obligations will be shifted from the people who have benefited from the service to the citizens that the new cities left behind.

That’s not fair.

DeKalb lost about $18 million each year with the creation of Dunwoody and about $25 million with Brookhaven. The recent Chamblee annexation was another multi-million dollar hit for the county, but at least Chamblee embraced all of the surrounding residents. These new Chamblee residents were the ones excluded from the creation of Brookhaven the year before.

To be clear, if people want to pay higher taxes for a local government, I support that. If cities want to form in a manner that is fair to both the cities and county, I support that too.

But at the moment, affluent enclaves have the advantage of money and power over those of lesser means. This is why I am joining the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia in calling for a moratorium on the creation of new cities until we can find an equitable manner to distribute the population and the cost obligations of newly created cities with counties.

I am asking the Georgia General Assembly to refrain from any annexations and incorporations in DeKalb county for three years, so we can reach a consensus on a fair and equitable process of municipal expansion that will mutually benefit all citizens, or at least not cause harm to one part of the county to help another.

I would hope all counties statewide would take heed.

The same law that allows cities to form in DeKalb is the same law that will adversely affect you, so please take note.

Lee May is DeKalb County’s interim CEO.

Lakeside: Residents being denied their destiny

By Mary Kay Woodworth and Kevin Levitas

During the past year, thousands of neighbors have joined the Lakeside City Alliance at more than 70 community meetings regarding the possibility of cityhood for our area of north-central DeKalb County. The feedback has been astounding. Residents have expressed an overwhelming desire for a local control of their government – particularly with a greater police presence.

With the 2014 session fast approaching, the Georgia Legislature will soon consider these calls from our neighbors for local governance. It will hear a proposal by state Sen. Fran Millar for a May 2014 referendum creating Georgia’s newest city – the city of Lakeside. At 63,000 residents, Lakeside would become the state’s 12th largest city.

The University of Georgia recently concluded a five-month study of Lakeside, finding that Lakeside would not only be fiscally sound, but also would operate without a property tax increase and with substantial annual surpluses.

The study found that the new city would generate $35.8 million a year in revenue, while the annual cost of providing city services would require about $29.9 million. The yearly $5.9 million surplus could be used for paving new roads, purchasing new parkland, adding additional police officers, as needed, or even for a potential tax cut.

The study determined that the new city could employ at least 81 police officers to patrol Lakeside’s 20 square miles, an area that encompasses local landmarks such as Mercer University, Toco Hill shopping center and Northlake Mall.

Unfortunately, the response from the DeKalb establishment to calls for a cityhood referendum has been the same as it was with past proposals to establish the cities of Brookhaven and Dunwoody: “Let’s wait.”

To understand why our neighbors are concerned with this response, consider what has changed for Dunwoody residents since its incorporation four years ago. The county has increased its tax millage rate for city services in unincorporated areas from 3.04 to 4.76. In contrast, Dunwoody has run annual surpluses of $1 to $2 million with a much lower millage rate of 2.74 — all while providing what many Dunwoody residents believe to be a higher quality of city services including police, parks and public works.

We hear time and again that citizens are frustrated with DeKalb’s current leadership asking for more time to turn things around while county governance continues to deteriorate. We hear complaints about county corruption and incompetence. We are asked in disbelief how the same county politicians who have been part of the problem can now ask state lawmakers for a moratorium on new cities, while offering nothing but platitudes in exchange.

We also hear these concerns: DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis will soon stand trial on extortion and conspiracy charges; police response times to the rising number of burglaries are unacceptable; the run of potholes throughout our neighborhoods seems endless; and the County appears to be more focused on retaining its 5,500 employees instead of providing taxpayers with a lean and effective government.

Citizens recently learned that interim CEO Lee May proposed a pay raise for employees while continuing to ignore a 2010 Georgia State University county-commissioned report calling for a nearly 17 percent reduction in the county workforce – including a 33 percent reduction in the CEO’s office and a 30 percent reduction in the commissioners’ staff.

To make matters worse, some other DeKalb lawmakers, bent on obstructing the cityhood process, will introduce illusory plans for other cities in our area during the upcoming legislative session. These plans will be offered solely to create the illusion of confusion among voters. Anti-city politicians hope to continue their habitual efforts to deprive local residents of the opportunity to determine their own destiny, just as they attempted with their votes against allowing citizens to decide on the formation of Brookhaven or Dunwoody.

Residents of the Lakeside community hope, however, that the rest of the Legislature will continue its demonstrated record of supporting the right of citizens to self-determination. The residents of Lakeside deserve the opportunity to set their own course for the future.

Mary Kay Woodworth is chairman of the Lakeside City Alliance City Alliance. Kevin Levitas is the group’s co-chairman.

Briarcliff: Logical borders, good government

By Allen Venet

The City of Briarcliff Initiative is guided by the principle that clear borders and clean government will lead to a better city for all. An inclusive, inside-the-perimeter city with logical borders, Briarcliff is the best way to improve local government, promote economic growth and enhance the quality of life in DeKalb County.

Our recent University of Georgia economic study confirms that Briarcliff is not just feasible but financially strong, with a projected multi-million dollar annual surplus. Our projected surplus is far greater than the surplus of any other proposed city. Briarcliff will have funds it can use for better police protection, better maintained parks, better roads, sidewalks, planning and development — with no increase in tax rates.

Briarcliff’s greatest strength is its common-sense approach. Our map is understandable and welcomes everyone in our region. We exclude no neighborhoods, and we do not reach out to grab any commercial property or park without the nearby people. Competing proposals cherry-pick commercial properties, while excluding nearby residents. That is unfair to those left out, and it creates borders that are difficult to govern.

Briarcliff includes Emory and Mercer Universities, DeKalb Medical and the CDC –- institutions that define our community. But more importantly, the Briarcliff map allows residents of the entire area to vote on cityhood. None of us should be denied the right to vote, and we urge all who agree with us to contact members of the Georgia legislature.

The status quo in DeKalb County is unacceptable, and a delay in the creation of new cities only perpetuates the problems. Briarcliff will help all of DeKalb County by bringing local control to police, planning and zoning, and by relieving the county of the cost of providing these services in the Briarcliff area. City council members who live in, and understand, Briarcliff will make better decisions than the current county administration, where each county commissioner represents more than 110,000 people. Our city charter will require an independent auditor, an ethics board, transparency in government and respect for historic neighborhoods – policies that will result in smart economic growth. Most tax revenue will continue to go to the public schools and the county. Some revenue will shift to Briarcliff, but even modest economic growth will result in a net gain for the entire county.

The next step is up to the legislature, where we look forward to explaining Briarcliff’s advantages. Some have suggested that our proposal is just an effort to block the competing Lakeside proposal. That suggestion is not just insulting, it is completely false. Our volunteers have invested thousands of hours because we believe that Briarcliff is a better idea. Like the other proposals, we raised more than $30,000 to fund our effort, but unlike the others, we can proudly point out that 99% of our donations came from individuals and neighborhood groups, not from businesses hoping to profit from a future city. Briarcliff is a bipartisan community, and our initiative is an effort by Democrats and Republicans working together to improve DeKalb County. Briarcliff is the best way to use tax dollars efficiently, and the best way to allow everyone the right to choose. Rather than focus on differences, we want to work with the County, and the other cities, to enhance both the lives of our residents and the functioning of DeKalb County.

Many DeKalb residents, from Decatur to Dunwoody and from Atlanta to Stone Mountain, enjoy the benefits of cityhood. The rest of us must depend on a county administration that is too often inefficient, unresponsive and corrupt. This is simply unfair. Why should city government be denied to the Briarcliff area? New cities can be, should be, and must be part of the reform solution for DeKalb County. The time is now, and the City of Briarcliff is not just better for all, it is the best for all.

Allen Venet is the President of the City of Briarcliff Initiative.

Tucker: History on its side

By Sonja Szubski

At 121 years old and going strong, Tucker is one of the oldest communities in metro Atlanta. In fact, many people think it is already a city. Not an awkwardly configured “community of interest” designed to create a city with a specific political, demographic or socio-economic representation; Tucker is an inclusive thriving community that attracts young families, working professionals, active retirees, new businesses, and a range of industry.

Tucker neighbors gather on Main Street for long-standing community celebrations like Tucker Day, a lively Farmers Market, and shopping at locally-owned businesses. Generations of children play in our local parks, and lifelong bonds are nurtured across close-knit neighborhoods.

With so much success, why pursue cityhood? The answer is simple – the Tucker community is taking the next step in ensuring its destiny and prosperity. Incorporating the City of Tucker will formally establish Tucker’s borders to maintain existing neighborhoods and will create a local government ensuring residents a voice close to home for decisions impacting their future. In meeting after meeting, Tucker citizens express support for a local government that attracts quality economic development to further enhance financial stability, protects zoning for established neighborhoods, and funds essential services with fiscal responsibility.

The community’s enthusiasm was demonstrated loud and clear when donations from area residents poured in to fund the $30,000 Feasibility Study in just over a month. And again, when more than 100 people gathered in downtown Tucker to celebrate the results of the feasibility study that confirmed Tucker will thrive as a city with no property tax increase and a surplus to protect citizens from increases in the future. Community input shaped the decision on the initial city service offerings, and the community can determine if there are additional services to be added such as public works and public safety that make sense both fiscally and effectively as the city advances. The full study is available at www.tucker2014.com.

The feasibility study confirmed what has been true for more than a century. Tucker has all the key ingredients for city viability:

• A well-established brand that attracts a cross-section of residents, business, and industry

• An existing city center in Tucker’s thriving Main Street

• A mix of residential, commercial, and industrial properties critical for a sustainable tax base that protects homeowners

• Local parks that have been nurtured for years through the “sweat equity” of Tucker citizens

• Active civic and business groups that have experience working in partnership with DeKalb County to benefit Tucker

Tucker is positioned for even greater success with full-time City officials immediately able to leverage the solid foundation already in place.

The proposed City of Tucker’s boundaries follow naturally defined areas traditionally recognized as a part of the Tucker community including the Northlake Commercial District. Tucker and Northlake business and community leaders have been working in partnership to strengthen this area and Tucker welcomes the opportunity to harness the benefits of local control for targeted economic development.

The Tucker community is confident the State Legislature will put partisanship aside and grant Tucker citizens the right to vote to take the next logical step in our community’s history. Many state legislators come from small towns across Georgia, and they understand that building a city from a successful, long-standing community like Tucker, makes the most sense.

Tucker is more than a destination on every map, a federally recognized community, or a collection of zip codes – it’s our home. The cityhood initiative grew out of a passion for preserving what is special about Tucker today, while ensuring success well into the future as DeKalb County’s next city.

Sonia Szubski is president of Tucker 2014.

30 comments Add your comment

Bill Lowe

January 8th, 2014
2:53 pm

Republican or Democrat sponsored legislation may not matter in this case. With the Briarcliff map “splitting the difference” in the disputed Northlake Mall area–with some of the commercial property being inside the perimeter and some being outside the perimeter, this carries a lot of weight and “fairness” as some like to believe. Tucker, Lakeside, and Briarcliff not wanting to negotiate or work together to settle the turf claims does not make it better for any of the cities overstepping their bounds.

Whichever city makes a deal with Tucker will have their cities created in the disputed regions. My guess is that if Tucker can get off it’s own shady land grab and work with Briarcliff, this will shut Lakeside down and make Lakeside the only city initiative that has overlapping boundaries.

Three cities enter, one city leaves. Or three cities enter, and they all die a horrible legislative death because two of them cannot come to an agreement. Maybe not coming to an agreement really is the point.

Keith Hanks

January 6th, 2014
8:30 pm

If the Republicans in the legislature like Lakeside then they will love Briarcliff. Briarcliff is more financially viable, a core Republican principle. The area within Briarcliff’s map currently brings in 7% of revenue to DeKalb County, but has 13% of the county’s population. That’s a city Republicans can be proud of. If Briarcliff doesn’t go through it’ll be remembered as “the best plan that was that never got the chance to become a city.”

Chester

January 4th, 2014
4:52 pm

Wake up folks. Lakeside is the ONLY city with a Republican sponsoring of their bill. The sponsors of ALL of the other bills are Democrats who opposed EVERY city since Sandy Springs. The Republican House and Senate members from DeKalb and Fulton remember this. The other efforts are doomed.

Bill Wheaton

January 4th, 2014
4:09 pm

I’m with Lee May. The Tucker and Lakeside plans suck up all of the rich neighborhoods and leave ones like mine in Sargent Hills (by the Little Creek Horse Farm) in the lerch. That leaves us holding the bag for the county. And while the Briarcliff plan does include us, it screws over other areas who will be just as bad off.

My road, Valleybrook Road is right on the verge of coming apart at the seams. It has less than a year before it gets impassible. If these neighborhoods go through, we might as well let it go back to being a dirt road.

If the government is broken, then fix it. Balkanization of our county will not fix it.

Making all of these new towns is unfair to those who are left out.

Marge S. - Toco Hills

January 4th, 2014
10:49 am

Wake-up folks. The General Assembly is GOP lead which means the well intended ideas by Briarcliff and Tucker are going nowhere. Their sponsors are Democrats. If we really want a city, we need to work together with Lakeside. I attended several Lakeside community meetings to understand and gather the facts. I felt they did an excellent job at hearing my concerns and in educating the community on incorporation. I was sorely disappointed in COBI’s insufficient community outreach efforts. COBIs “let’s include everybody” mantra means a swollen city, bigger than most counties in our state. You can’t please everybody. Bigger does not always mean better. In this case, size matters.

Allan Ballard

January 3rd, 2014
11:02 pm

There’s no question that the county government is corrupt and broken with more appetite for attacking the reform of city-hood than for healing itself.

Here in north central DeKalb, my friends and neighbors know that the proposed City of Lakeside is not only viable, but will showcase an honest, transparent city government that delivers better
services at competitive costs.

We appeal to the General Assembly to ignore the disruptive members of the DeKalb delegation as enablers of the status quo, and authorize a referendum.

Keith Hanks

January 3rd, 2014
7:34 pm

Our area has an interesting history. First as farms, then via railroads. Most people view the area in terms of “before 285″ and “after 285″ — created 45 years ago in 1969. I see this area as one that respects its history and is eager to keep creating history to improve. Interesting fact, an Emory freshman starting this fall would have either been in diapers or in the womb during the 1996 games. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to keep adding chapters to our local history. I’m an inside the perimeter resident of unincorporated Decatur. I sit in multiple proposed maps. I’m proud to be on the board of Briarcliff.

Starik

January 3rd, 2014
5:35 pm

What’s all this talk of the “community of Tucker?. This was probably true before the collapse of the school system. Remember what Tucker High School was? Have you seen what it is now?

Lars

January 3rd, 2014
5:32 pm

Woodworth says that other Dekalb lawmakers will introduce “illusory plans for other cities,,,solely to create the illusion of confusion among voters.” Mary Kay, your “city” encompasses almost all of Kevin Levitas’ old House district. You’ve got a communications guy who broke the law over and over during the last election cycle, and another of your cohort worked for Newt Gingrich. The real “illusion” is that you and your team are doing this for any other reason than to grab Republican power and enrich yourselves.