Candidate Q&A – Scott Drake, Decatur City Commission
Decaturish.com contacted every candidate running for office in Decatur and Avondale Estates and provided them with a list of questions. Scott Drake is running for re-election to the District 1 Post B seat on the Decatur City Commission.
Here are his responses:
1) Why are you running for this position?
When Mayor Floyd retired in 2012, I was elected to serve out the remainder of his term. Those two plus years since have been rewarding but they haven’t afforded enough time to really contribute to the degree I believe I’m able. There’s still work to be done — a lot of work — and I’m asking for Decatur’s vote of confidence for me to continue.
2) What makes you the most qualified candidate for the job?
A good Commissioner is one that listens. That works with a variety of different groups in the community and doesn’t bring a preconceived agenda to the table. Working with staff and city departments and listening to what they experience and deal with on a day to day basis. Taking multiple ideas or strategies and trying to formulate a united direction that everyone in the community can feel connected with and supportive of. These are the skills I’ve worked hard to develop during my current term in office and I believe they’re the same skills that best qualify me for a second term.
3) Decatur’s decreasing diversity is a concern for many in the city. Are you concerned about Decatur’s diversity? If so, as an elected official, what will you do to promote diversity in the city of Decatur?
I am concerned. I grew up in what was a very diverse Decatur and I saw the value in that. Across the years, it’s the times when we’ve acknowledged our differences and tried to work with and through them that we’ve achieved our most remarkable progress as a city. That’s no small thing.
We use the term “diversity” as a catch-all, but we’re really talking about a wide scope of differences: economic, ethnic, generational, cultural, religious, and political. We even talk of diversity as a tool for providing increased housing options for more types of people.
Within these areas we’ve already made some level of progress. The Unified Development Ordinance I passed together with my fellow commissioners opened up a variety of new, more affordable housing options catering to different types of people — backyard apartments and cottage courts among them. The recent Better Together initiative, which was citizen-driven with the full support of the city commission, tackled the kind of ethnic, generational, religious and cultural issues many communities have difficulty confronting. From those conversations will come a community action plan we have every intention of adopting, which will put those community-driven ideas directly into action.
I don’t believe the City can necessarily control issues of diversity, especially single handedly, but I do recognize the power of the 3 Ps: priority, policy, and partnership. That means taking on diversity issues, even when they’re challenging or uncomfortable. It means recognizing when city policy or practice works against our goals and making changes to rectify. And it means partnering with the community and other organizations to help encourage an open and welcoming atmosphere. We can work with the development community to encourage them to take advantage of new, more affordable and market-responsive housing types. And we can work to support the community at large, as it’s the content of our individual hearts that will ultimately go the farthest in driving progress on this front.
4) Closely linked to the above question is a question about the cost of living in Decatur. High home prices and taxes are pricing many out of the city. What role should the city play in addressing this issue?
There’s a lot to love about Decatur — our quality of life, our stellar schools, our high level of services — so it’s not surprising to those who’ve worked so hard for so many years that what we’ve created is now in high demand. The rub is that, especially now, demand is outstripping supply, with all the rapid price escalation that brings.
Speaking as someone who grew up here at a time when Decatur suffered severe disinvestment, I know that being desirable is not the worst problem you can have. The challenge is in how you mitigate those market forces you can’t necessarily control.
One thing we’ve done to bolster the supply side is enable more and different types of housing, catering to different types of people and different circumstances. We’ve met a severe shortage of rental housing with a number of new options downtown, and made legal the development of accessory apartments and cottage courts. Our challenge now is encouraging developers to take on these new types, instead of always falling back on the slam-dunk of single family home construction. That’s not something I’ll let up on.
There’s also the tax side, and I’m an enthusiastic supporter of responsive tax policy. We hit some roadblocks last year at the state level, working to enact far more meaningful senior exemptions, and I’m committed to pushing down that path once again. Keeping seniors in the community helps us maintain a healthy balance between homes with children and homes without, which is one of the most substantive things we as a city can do to support our schools.
Finally, there’s the prospect of lowered taxes. To my perspective, that prospect will be made most likely by continued efforts to increase the commercial portion of our tax digest. More than anything, that means a strong performing downtown (although we do have a few other areas where commercial development could thrive). At present, roughly 85% of our tax revenue comes from residential. That’s not a healthy split and I’m committed to efforts to transfer more of our tax burden from our residents to new and thriving commercial interests.
5) Relationships between the city of Decatur and City Schools of Decatur have been strained at times. What will you do to improve the relationship between the two?
Historically strained, perhaps, but I don’t personally feel that way in our present dealings. During my term in office, I’vedeveloped valuable relationships with School Board members, administration and staff. I’ve met with School Board members in a number of public work sessions, retreats and one-on-one meetings and have found it a very valuable and productive use of time.
I’m a product of CSD, I have two daughters attending CSD currently, and I know how important our school system is to the community.
The School Board is an elected body. They’re the officials ultimately responsible for CSD’s strategic direction. In my opinion they’ve done excellent work, without the interference of the City Commission.
What they do need, and what I’m committed to furthering, is our support. Our job as city commissioners is not running a school system. It’s building a strong, financially sound community capable of funding the system’s needs. That’s a much broader concern and it requires us to think holistically — taking into account the economic, environmental and social goals of the city overall. Not just the needs of those who directly benefit from our schools.
If the School Board or anyone within CSD needs to bounce an idea around or discuss any concern, I’m a phone call away and would assist in any way possible. The same goes for if I have an idea, or a challenge, and need them to weigh in with their own insights.
Two ideas sure to contribute to the bedrock of good city/schools relations are 1) consistent communications and joint work sessions, not just project or issue-driven but as an ongoing concern; and 2) reciprocal budget and goal presentations each year. I’m committed to both.
6) Decatur has several apartment projects in various stages of development. Do you support the continued development of apartments in Decatur? Why or why not?
Apartments, like so many other things, are a tactic, not a strategy. They’re a potential means to an end or a potential problem, depending on context and execution. So the larger question, at least as I see it, is “Do you support the long-term viability of Decatur and its school system?” Because if that’s the question, there are ways to leverage downtown residential to our advantage.
First and foremost, we’ve already got over ten years of downtown multifamily built so it’s easy to get a basic sense of who prefers that lifestyle. Without question, it’s appealing primarily to young professionals and empty nesters, people who don’t use our schools. So at present, they’re pumping a lot of money into the school system and not a lot of kids. They’re tax-positive by a very large margin. So I’d ask anyone opposing downtown residential to identify where that lost school revenue will come from if we take steps to eliminate that source. The reality would either be a squeezed school budget or the lost prospect of tax relief for our single family homes. Neither of those is attractive to me.
I recognize there’s some level of concern that apartments will attract more kids than our condos do and I agree that that’s something to be closely monitored. As the Place on Ponce fills up (it’s almost there) we’ll have opportunity to gather those numbers, see just how many kids are living there, and adjust our expectations and efforts moving forward. Same with the two projects opening soon thereafter. And if those feared enrollment impacts materialize, I absolutely support responding with measures to address. But until we know, there’s no way I’m going to be cavalier about the tax burden on our single family residents. If apartments can offer the prospect of tax relief in some capacity, I’m interested in exploring how.
In 1982, the people of Decatur created our visionary Town Center Plan, which has been our guiding force for downtown’s redevelopment, infrastructure and evolution ever since. In it, they recognized the importance of creating a downtown neighborhood of residents and we’ve been slowly chipping away at that goal now for over 30 years. It’s a significant contributor to the strength of our downtown and it supports a variety of our big picture goals — economic, environmental and social. That’s not something to trifle with, so I’m committed to staying the course until facts on the ground warrant a course correction.
7) Community groups in Decatur have expressed a desire for more green spaces, like parks. If elected, what will you do to promote the development of green space in the city?
Two examples of our commitment to green space came before and were approved by the commission recently and both were responsive to the voiced concerns and goals of the community. The wooded dog park in Oakhurst, though not owned by the City, was proposed for the development of two single family homes. By rejecting the subdivision on legitimate general welfare grounds, and through the potential to work together with the Boys and Girls Club in the future, the City has successfully maintained what has grown to be a significant and much loved community asset.
The other example shows how a non-profit and the City can work together to help expand our collective green space. The Woodlands Garden worked in conjunction with the City to help secure an adjacent property that could have been sold to any private developer or investment group. The result was a great example of how we, the city, can provide assistance to community initiatives that contribute to our goals and improve quality of life for all of us.
A new initiative we’ve been reviewing is in regards to downtown green spaces and “pocket” parks. As properties evolve in our downtown area I feel we have a great opportunity to work with landowners to try and carve out public spaces for our growing downtown neighborhood and to serve as an amenity for the entire community. This will require some level of financial commitment, as downtown land is more expensive than in our various surrounding neighborhoods. Also the owners of these properties will need to be educated on the desires of the community and the positive attributes associated with community spaces. I plan to pursue both these angles.
8) Being a commissioner will require working closely with the city manager of Decatur. Are you satisfied with the performance of City Manager Peggy Merriss? Why or why not?
The City Manager serves at the pleasure of the city commission, which Ms. Merriss has successfully done now for over 23 years. Through that time she’s been instrumental in our efforts to implement the many strategic initiatives identified through Decatur’s culture of community planning and enjoyed daily by our residents and visitors. To enjoy Decatur’s success and quality of life today is, in part, a vote of confidence in her performance. So I look forward to a continued productive relationship.
9) What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the city of Decatur?
What we face today are the challenges of success. We’ve worked hard, decade after decade, to create something of value, something we take great pride in calling our home, and now we’re facing the downside of desirability. Increased cost of living, higher taxes, bulging schools.
I don’t believe we tackle these issues by foregoing the vision that has served us so well and working to undo the accomplishments of the past several decades. We are on the right path, which the high demand for living here, along with the accolades and emulation of countless other communities across the region, readily confirms. But even the right path is not without its challenges and potential pitfalls, so we mustn’t rest on our laurels. We must confront and mitigate any new challenges head on and I hope the answers I’ve provided in this Q&A help illustrate how I’m inclined to go about doing so.
10) What is Decatur’s greatest strength as a city?
The people of Decatur are our greatest strength. Having lived here for over 40 years, I believe the way we approach challenges, respect each other, and work together is what makes us different, and being different has always been our hallmark strength.
Decatur went through some very challenging times in the 70s and 80s, but we worked together to create a plan, made some significant sacrifices, and held strong. In the 90s and beyond the seeds that were planted began to grow and, as they did, we as a community stayed engaged. We didn’t just sit back and enjoy the fruits of others’ labor. We stayed involved and the community continues to work together to plan our way to the next 30 years and beyond.
If you want to be a part of the making and remaking of this city, you can. Our culture of community participation and planning exceeds that of any other metro Atlanta community. As a commissioner, I’m committed to not just maintaining but strengthening that engagement culture.
11) If elected, do you promise to behave in an ethical and transparent manner?
I think the people who know or have worked with me in the past would affirm that I don’t know any other way — in office, in my personal dealings, or in my professional life. I’ve behaved in an ethical and transparent manner during my past two plus years in office and offer my word that, as a returning commissioner, I’ll continue to do so.
The election is Nov. 3 and early voting begins on Oct. 12.