Notes from the May 6, 2013, DeKalb Delegation Meeting on City Formation

Meeting commenced at 6:30 p.m., May 6, 2013

Location: Baptist Church on Clairemont and North Druid Hills Road in Decatur.

In attendance: 700-800+ citizens, mostly middle aged or older. Also noted: Mayor Emanuel Randome from Clarkston, Don Brussard (DeKalb zoning-formerly), Sen. Jason Carter, Rep. Scott Holcomb, Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, Sen. Fran Millar, Rep. Tom Taylor, Commissioner Jeff Raider, Jason Larry, Rep. Michelle Hensen, Andrea Arnold, assistant city manager for city of Decatur. City that has been established since 1823.

Notes begin at approximately 7 p.m.:

DeKalb – population near 700K, just under the entire state of Alaska.
Toco-Briar-Tucker-Druid-Lakeside areas that may want to incorporate but want similar commercial areas to make that happen.
Boundaries will need to be determined so that any plan can go forward. Otherwise, all may fail.
Areas should also look at annexation as a possible way to get city services if that is what they desire. Most cities are interested and actively looking for annexation opportunities.
To become a city you first will need to pay for a feasibility study. Cost is about $30K from the Carl Vinson Institute or Andrew Young. These are only recommended groups. There may be opportunity to pool funds between groups if it comes down to it.
Boundaries are important. Must establish communities of interest. Must have buy-in from the communities that will be part of the new city as they can expect that their taxes will be slightly higher than unincorporated areas. Taxes are important.
Will county taxes go up as a result? Well, all cities have what is known as a millage cap. or at least the ones that were created in the past 10 years. It is an artificial millage cap that protects the taxpayers from a certain level being exceeded. County taxes may have to increase as a result when there is the removal of funds from the system, depending on how much the cost of service decreases.
If you are concerned or want to provide feedback, contact all your government representatives as well as the DeKalb Municipal Association.

Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver brought all groups together tonight to have open discussion about this issue. She is not happy with DeKalb County government when it comes to some of the land use control issues in her area of Druid Hills. But, there are other vehicles that can solve those type of concerns without having to form a city. So, it can be resolved with overlay districts, townships and other means for more local control.

QUESTIONS (Q:) from audience as read by various delegates (passed forward on note cards).
STATEMENTS (S:) from community organizers, pre-planned, five minute limit.

S: CANS – Civic Association Network

S: LCA, Bernard Knight – Atty. over Land Use issue, but here tonight only as a personal interest in Oak Grove. Lived there since 1986. On the board for LCA. Former Rep. Kevin Levitas and LCA Chair Mary Kay Woodworth are sorry they could not attend this evening’s meeting but they said it was due to late notice. They are both very busy and had other commitments. (Audience was not amused with the late notice comment since, obviously, a room full of people were able to make it with the same notice or less.) They are not an advocacy group. They will be dissolved after they meet the goal for funding of the feasibility study. They took out areas that did not want to be included, or most of the areas, maybe not all. They will start with control of zoning, police and parks, but that is not written in stone.

S: Druid Hills community association – most of us feel this has been an unfair process. There has been cherry picking and it is unfair to those who live here. Two largest concerns on everyone’s minds are the schools and land use. I used to be a city planner so I may know more about this than some other people because I still read the trades. From what I’ve seen in terms of land use is that the cities seem to fair pretty well. It is the suburbs where you really start to get into some problems outside any major metropolitan area, in terms of land use and creating a sense of place. In terms of service the county has done a pretty good job.

S: Clairemont Heights – our association is asking everyone how they feel about this. Most seem to be pretty happy with DeKalb County services. I would say that you have some of the younger families with the real small children and they are just not interested in anything to do with politics. They figure that they are busy enough and don’t want to be bothered by it and just want time with their family while their kids are young and I can’t say that I blame them. But, like it or not, this stuff can have a major impact on you whether you follow it or ignore it so we are hoping to educate more in our area about what’s going on. I guess you could say we have a problem of the willfully uninformed. (laughter)

Q: What is the optimal mix of commercial to residential in city formation?
A: After some debate, Sen. Carter gives the mic. to Commissioner Raider who says 70-30 or 60-40 (with the 60 being residential). Later the assistant city manager from Decatur said 60-40 would be a dream for them. They are more like 80-20, but residential properties are high value so they are fortunate to have the tax base that they do which comes almost entirely from residential, so it can be done.

S: Pat Thomas – Chamblee. Thank you to everyone who helped with HB 619. There was a big concern about whether or not to allow us to be annexed into Chamblee and it came down to 36 votes but there were some folks who got the question on their ballot who shouldn’t have and others who did not. So, after much going back and forth, the issue is back on and we are glad about that. We don’t want to be part of Lakeside or any of the other groups but we are ripe for the taking so in an effort to preserve what we have, we just want to be annexed into the city of Chamblee and be done with it.

S: Jason Larry, concert promoter, wants a city of Stonecrest. The world is changing. You can either watch it or be a part of it. We want to study whether a city would benefit the people in this area of Stonecrest. (shows slide of the area which surrounds Lithonia completely and includes the Stonecrest Mall.) Why? Well, let me tell you about my personal home. I bought it before the housing market crisis for about $350K. Now, the house down the road from me, do you know what they sold it for? I’m not saying anything bad about the people who sold it. You have to do what you have to do, but do you know what the houses in my neighborhood are selling for? $115K. The down the road: $120K. Another one: $115K. People are losing money and I think we might be able to stop that from happening if we form a city because there will be more value to a destination like Stonecrest. We have some great schools, like Arabia Mountain for one. I think we could have ourselves a city center, the mall and maybe build a nice amphitheater one day with some top notch entertainment. Just one thing I want to say. I don’t mean any disrespect, but I want everyone to be clear that the city of Stonecrest – we’re not taking anything from anyone. This area is either unincorporated, or it becomes part of Stonecrest, but we are not like Lakeside City Alliance. We are not taking what doesn’t belong to us, or doesn’t want to be part of a city. Once we do the study then we will know if it will go or not. Then, leave it to the people to decide. Let them see here is what we can do if we have a city or things can just go back to exactly the way they are now. No change. You like it, great. If not, that’s it.

S: Tucker Together. Michelle Penvaka. Thank you for the chance to at least be able to come to the table same as everyone else. Tucker is involved and perhaps a bit emotional after first hearing about the city proposal from Lakeside City, but we have had time to regroup and we are exploring the possibility of cityhood. We have had one public meeting so far and focused on public safety. We are taking it one topic at a time to compare what we currently receive in terms of services that a city might take over. At the same time we are hoping to raise the funds for the study.

Q: Will taxes increase?
A: Rep. Fran Millar addresses this question by saying that Dunwoody first started out with a 2.74 mill tax, same as DeKalb at the time. After several years now they are still at a 2.74 mill tax. DeKalb has raised taxes to 4.13 mills, that’s a 66% increase. So with good planning and management, it can be done for less. (Groans from audience indicating the increase is thought to be due to Dunwoody’s exist from the system.)

Q: To Stonecrest. With you city, there is no way physically possible for the city of Lithonia to ever become any bigger than it is right now. Do you think that is right?
A: Yes. I have tried to pull Lithonia kicking and screaming into the future and they still say they need time to figure out where they want to go. Well, I’m tired of waiting so while they sit and wait, I’m going to actually do something. (light applause)

S: Leafmore Hills. We have about 720 homes in our association or our community. We are all opposed to a city of DeKalb, but not all opposed to
anyone else having a city or listening to city proposals. But, no one really seems to think there is much wrong with DeKalb’s services. We’re all pretty happy with what they do provide. They may not provide an identity, or sense of district “place” like a city might be able to do, but what they do is provide regular services that we all use. The devil is in the details, so they say, and that’s just it… we need a loooot of work on the details.

Q: How much does it cost to transfer assets?
A: $5K per fire station; $100 per acre of park space. Taxpayers have already paid once so why should they have to pay for it all over again?

Q: How do we know if the cities are paying their fair share of what they do use at the county level?
A: When they leave, that is thousands fewer people to provide service for, right? So costs should go down.

S: Don Brussard for city of Briarcliff. (Not sure if this is same as Lavista Hills) We are frustrated when our two commissioners are consistently outvoted by the other five and the CEO. (They have TWO commissioners?? Does everyone feel this way?) We want more control over land use issues. We also want to be prepared for the possibility of city school districts with Tom’s H.B. 486 that would allow more school districts. We would have a total of $9 Billion a year in assets, that’s with a “B” and it not anywhere near what you would have with a city of Lakeside. We are set up for 65% residential, 24% commercial, 3 % industrial and 8% non taxable.

I don’t have a map to show you a comparison of our area to Lakeside, but if you want to get an idea of Lakeside, just look up an old map of former Rep. Kevin Levita’s House District 82 and you’ll get the general idea. You’ll see where that one is coming from.

We have respect for Tucker and think that Tucker actually should be and deserves to become a city if they so desire. (Note, his city is still planning on taking everything inside the perimeter and east of I-85, including the land inside I-285 that is part of the existing Tucker CDP and including the entire Northlake Mall area which is mainly frequented by residents of Tucker.)

We will still pay our share of county taxes. This is not a way of seceding from DeKalb County. People ask why would we want a city and it is for the same reasons that everyone else has been saying. It comes down to self determination and local control.

Q: Why would LCA want to usurp an area like Tucker?
A: We don’t think we are usurping anything. We took all, or almost all, of the areas out of our map that didn’t want to be there.

Q: My house is on three city maps. Is everyone fighting to have me included in their city? How will I decide which city to vote for?
A: Yes, and hopefully there will be only one that will actually go forward, if any of them go forward. Some are not being actively pursued in terms of dollars for the feasibility study so they will simply not go through.

Q: Will we be forced to use the name of the new city in our post office mailing addresses when it will cause a loss in property value for many of us who now live in areas that are considered unincorporated Atlanta or Decatur?
A: I can’t answer for the U.S. postal service. But, listen, I live in Briarwood Estates. We have seen a series of burgularies there. A bunch of kids came through our neighborhood one evening and do you know how they decided which cars they were going to come back and get later? They simply tried all the door handles on all the cars and my wife just so happened to be one of the unfortunate ones who left her car unlocked and left her computer in there. So, we were most disappointed when we found out that the DeKalb police department will not even send out an investigator to your house when something like that happens because they are spread so thin. They just take a report over the phone and that’s it. No investigation and you never hear from them again. That’s the kind of thing we would be able to do more about with a city of Lakeside.

Q: How can any city feasibility study be considered reliable when the tax assessment data for the past two years has been incorrect due to admittedly faulty software?
A: (Jeff Raider) Now this is a good question and it is a fair one to be asking. It’s about the accuracy and volatility of the housing market in DeKalb over the past several years and it bears the need for some explanation. You have several factors as work here. One is the housing market, the bottom fell out, and that was felt all over the nation. But, two, we also had some changes in state law that for the first time ever the state was saying that you had to include foreclosed properties into your overall evaluation for the tax base and property values in that area. This has never been done before and it created a great increase in the overall workload for the tax assessment office and of course we didn’t allocate them any additional funds or staff or anything like that and expected them to complete this significant amount of work in a relatively short period of time.

It was also a transition period for us where you had a lot of the long time tax assessors who had retired and, quite frankly, we had only a handful of new guys and they just simply didn’t know the neighborhoods as well as those who had the jobs before them. So, what we had to do is rely upon this sort of massive, bulk property appraisal software. It’s a brand new application and has a lot of bugs to work out. So, we had a lot of appeals to hear and I suspect that trend will continue. We now have a state law that also requires the department to redo the tax appraisal every single year. And, a good thing is there was a cap placed on how much your property can actually increase in value in a one year time.

So, to sum it up, I’d say you had the Bubble, the Bust, Foreclosures, Rules Changing, Inaccuracy of Data and the Appeals / Reassessments. So, we can’t look at the property tax data as a true dollar for dollar revenue amount as much as can we use it as a measure of the district’s ability to pay. The cost of services will remain through ups and downs fairly stable, so it is that ability to pay that is the most important.

Summary / Closure by Scott Holcomb: Hi there, I just have a few things I want to say. I don’t know if you have noticed but I’ve been doing a lot of listening tonight. I think that is very important for an elected official. As the only person on this stage here tonight, in terms of your elected officials, I think I am the only one who personally lives within the boundaries of any of these cities that are being proposed. Now they certainally have territory in their districts that include some of these areas, but I’m the only one who would be pesonally affected. And with that in mind, I think it is absolutely critical that any movement to form a city must come from the people and not from lawmakers, or former lawmakers, especially former lawmakers as is the case for one of the cities here tonight. I just don’t think that’s right. All we have heard about is how these cities will provide basic services that, from what I think, you are already getting right now and most of what people have said is that they are pretty satisfied with the delivery of those services. So, what you have is a question of identity or efficiency. But with efficiency comes the expectation of additional or “non basic” services and I haven’t heard anything about what some of those things might be. Have you? So, I want to commend Mary Margaret Oliver for putting all of this together for us here tonight. You have her to thank for getting all of these proposals together in one place and I think there is going to have to be more of that if we are going to see anything move forward. I hope. So, thank you all for being here and staying engaged in the process.

Sen. Millar – Well, to just add to that, yes, of course at some point you are going to see a point where there may be a higher cost for service to some areas or a reduction in services previously supplied by the county, but it comes down to whether the costs outweigh the benefits.

Q: Will a city have to privatize its services?
A: (Millar) You don’t have to but in this day and age it certainally makes sense. There are plenty of excellent companies out there in the private sector and it comes down to not having to pay the high expense that the county does in terms of employee costs, like benefits and pensions. You don’t want to promise something you can’t deliver and pensions are getting up there these days.

Mary Margaret Oliver: Thank you all for coming here tonight. You can email me with any specific questions you may have if we didn’t get to them. We tried to get to all of them that we had answers for. If you have an evaluation form, please turn it in on your way out. Thank you.

Adjourned: 8:20 p.m.

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3 Responses to Notes from the May 6, 2013, DeKalb Delegation Meeting on City Formation

  1. SallySally says:

    Miller’s biased reporting, again.

  2. @ SallySally

    We don’t always agree with Ms Miller. But, she did take her time to go to the meeting and send us a complete report. We are volunteers with jobs, families and other commitments — in addition to everything the blog requires. We cannot go to every meeting and we are always grateful when someone does and sends us a report. We will publish their report in the interest of keeping our readers informed. If you would like to cover a meeting of interest to our readers, we will be happy to consider publishing it, as well. We are grateful for the help.

  3. Betsy Parks says:

    From Tucker Together web page: “Save Tucker From Lakeside City Laura, we know others in your same situation. We would like Tucker Together to inquire about the possibility of annexation of all of Tucker’s CDP into the county of Gwinnett. Let’s discuss in our group:

Comments are closed.