Cityhood: There’s got to be a better way

Cityhood – its appeal and potential harm

Moderated by Rick Badie

The creation of new cities in our region’s unincorporated areas continues at a rapid pace. Cityhood is en vogue; numerous communities are pursuing incorporation this legislative session. Our lead columnist outlines the negative financial consequences of cityhood and calls the state process for birthing new governments “flawed.” The other writer asks what, exactly, can taxpayers who reside in the county or the proposed cities expect from incorporation?

Georgia’s messy process for cityhood

By Lee May

The appeal of forming a new city is easy to understand. Promises of transparency and smaller, more responsible government are the usual song, but the long-term impact and negative effects are not as easy to grasp.

First, let’s discuss the term “unincorporated.” In DeKalb County, we all have a mailing address with a city’s name attached to it. For example, I live in Lithonia, an address that is not actually associated with the city government of Lithonia. I can’t vote for the mayor or City Council, and the city of Lithonia does not and cannot deliver one service to me or my neighborhood. Like roughly 70 percent of the county, I live in unincorporated DeKalb, and the county government delivers all my local government services.

When people talk about creating cities, they are talking about keeping certain revenues generated from taxes, fines and fees to fund their own city governments. Because state law is fuzzy, at best, when it comes to the creation of new cities, it has made this process combative and messy.Many may not know this, but the only form of local government mandated to deliver certain services is county government. City governments are authorized to deliver services, but that means they can choose to deliver a certain service. Or not. Counties don’t have that luxury. State law only mandates that a new city deliver three services in order to incorporate. New cities are also able to buy county assets for pennies on the dollar. Those who remain in unincorporated areas are left footing the bill for many long-term, fixed costs of running government that are not easily eliminated.

Here’s an example: A police officer who served unincorporated DeKalb for 30 years retires. When a new city is formed, residents inside the city limits are no longer obligated to fulfill the retirement benefits to this worker, even though he served that community his entire career. That cost shifts to unincorporated residents.

But there is a greater impact other than revenues simply leaving the county. When maps are drawn for these cities, commercial and industrial areas are prime real estate because they draw in great revenues, and the cost to deliver services is extremely low — only 20 to 30 cents on the dollar.

Because of the impacts of these proposed incorporations, we asked Georgia Tech to analyze the impact on our county. We know that with the combined proposals of new cities and annexations, we see a potential loss of revenue of more than $100 million. This loss will have a major impact on service delivery to our constituents, whether they live in cities or in an unincorporated area.

Communities that incorporate will have ongoing pressure to raise taxes, and service delivery does not always translate into better service. The AJC’s analysis in “Cityhood solutions comes with pitfalls” (MyAJC.com, Jan. 24) was correct: “Political watchdogs and social scientists said these problems illustrate the pitfalls inherent in birthing a new government.” The AJC’s litany of problems that start-up cities stumbled into, including gift-taking, contract steering and free spending, underscores that premise.

The Georgia Legislature should take a strong look at the overall impacts of this process and create a better statewide practice for how communities form cities. As it stands now, the state is pitting communities against one another. People are drawing their lines in the sand, and it is hurting our communities all around.

Lee May is interim CEO of DeKalb County.

Stop the DeKalb cityhood movement

By Ed Williams

Residents are being held with a gun barrel pointed at our heads. The tactic is fear. We are being told we will have to pay more taxes than others in the county if we do not form a city. I say, take the issue to court.

What are the options in south DeKalb County? Create a city, create multiple small cities, or maintain status quo. The new city proposed by Concerned Citizens for Cityhood in South DeKalb would be smaller in land size than the city of Atlanta. It would have about 300,000 residents, approximately 90 percent African-American. It would be the largest city in DeKalb by far and the second-largest in Georgia.

The largest cities in DeKalb today are Dunwoody and Brookhaven, with 46,000 and 49,000 residents, respectively. Both already had significant economic development in their communities prior to becoming cities in their own right.

I do believe south DeKalb could exist as a city or cities, but it will not be as portrayed. Annexation laws should be made stricter. Alternative forms of quasi-governmental communities should be considered. Private residential association communities and special districts could be alternatives to cityhood.

The Concerned Citizens’ main rationales for incorporating are economic development, avoiding higher taxes and protecting assets. How does the group define economic development? Is it tax reduction? How will it achieve the economic development that it portrays in its vision?

The elephant in the room that some people want to ignore is that business investment tends not to be significant in areas that have a population of color of more than 65 percent. New municipalities can impact taxes, school districts, land use, growth control, environmental regulations, elected representation and public utility services. New municipalities can lead to fragmentation and competition for financial resources between local governments.The process of forming cities should require a petition before an organization or person can represent themselves as speaking for the community or in the name of the citizens. There are a lot of unanswered questions about the government of the proposed city . What kind of mayor or city manager will this city have? Will the city council be strong? What ethnics review will be in the charter?

There should be a way for south DeKalb citizens to opt out of the new city if they do not want to be part of it.

I think residents would be better served if the Concerned Citizens filed a court case against the county and the other cities in regards to the tax liabilities and pension obligations that are not being shared by all property owners.

Finally, how can a new city, such as Dunwoody or Brookhaven, not be equally responsible for the pension and bonds that were already obligated prior to their cityhood? It would be equally appropriate if our DeKalb political leaders ask state legislators to amend annexation and consolidation laws to prohibit hostile takeovers. Also, some states require new cities to make up for the lost revenue of the county.

It seems shotgun cities are appearing all over DeKalb County. Who will pay the county’s bills once all the local communities become cities? I would suggest that the state Legislature stop this cityhood movement. DeKalb needs leadership on this issue. Citizens should not remain silent.

Ed Williams lives in Decatur.

South DeKalb awakens

By Larry Johnson

Feb. 17 was a historic day in DeKalb County. Community members, elected officials and business leaders met with the Atlanta Business League to discuss a new vision for south DeKalb’s economic future.

We stood together, united by the desire to uplift south DeKalb and re-create a hub of economic prosperity. A sense of empowerment filled the room and gave rise to the next wave of economic development discussions in South DeKalb: the Renaissance Initiative 2.0.

Years ago, I created the Renaissance Initiative to address the need for economic development in south DeKalb. The East Metro DeKalb Community Improvement District is a great example of linking, leveraging and empowering. It consists of 203 property owners and represents more than 400 parcels of commercial and industrial property valued at more than $146 million.

This district includes Gresham Road towards the west, Covington Highway by the north, Turner Hill on the east and Flat Shoals Parkway towards the south. This self-taxing district uses additional property tax dollars generated from private, non-exempt commercial properties for beautification, infrastructure and public safety improvements.

In addition to CIDs, we use overlay districts to shape economic development. Overlay districts change existing zoning to address community needs. We have designed an overlay district along I-20 that will create transit-oriented development.

While CIDs and overlay districts are important, there are other tools south DeKalb can use to secure an economically prosperous future. This includes the development of an inland port, and greater development of STEM education and STEM-related infrastructure to meet a growing need within the labor market.I would also like to strengthen our bond with academic institutions moving to the area. Georgia Piedmont Technical College’s Small Business Incubator on Wesley Chapel Road, and Georgia State University as it merges with Georgia Perimeter College in Panthersville, are two examples of these partnerships.

Transit and major highways make south DeKalb highly valuable. We are nestled between I-20, I-285 and I-675, only 15 minutes from the world’s busiest airport, and we have access to public transportation. MARTA is working with us on a sweeping plan for the I-20 corridor, with a feasibility study forthcoming.

DeKalb also is Georgia’s most culturally diverse county with more than 64 spoken languages, and it is home to the nation’s second most-affluent African-American population.

Let there be no mistake: DeKalb County, and south DeKalb in particular, are economically viable and rich with resources. We are rich in assets, but we are also rich in spirit. By coming together as one, we will shape the economic trajectory of the region in a phenomenal way.

Think of this new season as a reawakening of all we know to be wonderful and true about south DeKalb. Be prepared, Renaissance 2.0 is upon us.

DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson represents District 3.


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