Dear Decaturish – An olfactory assessment of LaVista Hills

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt October 29, 2015
DeKalb County Georgia. Source: Google Maps.

DeKalb County Georgia. Source: Google Maps.

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Dear Decaturish,

Integrity is the basis of all justifications to start a city. Like many of us, when the incorporation question arose, I felt I needed to learn as much as I could, and I began with an open mind. I attended most of the meetings by the advocating groups. What struck me at the first “Lakeside” community meetings were statements by the speakers that the meetings were strictly informational, that they were not trying to sway anyone, and they would proceed to promote their list of cityhood benefits. I thought, why don’t they just be honest and say they are here to sell us a city? I would have respected that. When they insisted on written-only questions (that were filtered) and had what others have described as snarky attitudes and demeaning tones toward questioners with questions they didn’t like, something didn’t smell right. This pattern continued with “Yes” and “Alliance” groups through every meeting I attended, at multiple locations.

The two LaVista Hills (LVH) groups each originate from the defunct cityhood attempts of Lakeside and Briarcliff. It’s an awkward split-personality lobby, as the two groups appear to simply tolerate each other and held separate pubic meetings.

Both groups have disseminated thousands of flyers, with their individual versions of the same basic claims asserting rosy benefits to incorporation. Using the “Yes” group’s flyer, I have listed a few of the statements from it, followed by my comments:

Efficient Government: DeKalb County wastes millions of our tax dollars every year.  LaVista Hills will use our taxes more effectively with less waste.” There is no LaVista Hills budget yet, so this statement has no basis. If it had been written something like, “…will strive to use our taxes more effectively…,” that would have shown credibility.

Better Services:  LaVista Hills will mean more police on our streets, better parks, and well-maintained roads.”  A far more cost-effective solution to a new police department would be to hire a neighborhood security service that works with the county police. Smaller departments have high turnover rates and lack the technology the county has. I toured DKPD’s 911 response center last year and found the facility and level of expertise of the people running it to exceed my expectations. I walked away with a greatly boosted view of our DKPD. It’s impressive, and I feel fortunate we have this. Its unsettling to think we could lose access to this and take a significant step backwards. Additionally, small police forces are notorious for using traffic citations to boost revenue. As for parks, there is no budget in the Vinson study for acquisition, beyond the county parks. The County has increased their efforts over the past few years in creating new parks in our neighborhoods, including Kittredge (23.7 acres), Mary Scott (10.6 acres), Frazier-Rowe (4 acres), and the new park on Briarlake Rd (21 acres), plus the major renovation at Mason Mill (137.8 Acres).  LVH has no money for new parks, and there is concern for the fate of these parks under city control.

No Tax Increases: No Georgia City created in the last decade has raised taxes, and the LaVista Hills charter caps property tax rates at the current level.” There has already been in-depth discussion on the plausibility of this statement. I’ll add that cities have multitudes of ways to extract money from residents, such as added fees, charges, fines, etc. In Brookhaven, homeowner’s are paying more taxes because property values increased. Good for sellers, bad for anyone not selling and families on tight budgets. One thing is certain: it will cost more to live here, under a city.  Emails from “Yes” members showed admittance to problems with the Vinson study. A more in-depth study of taxes is found here: http://www.decaturish.com/2015/10/dear-decaturish-taxes-will-be-higher-in-lavista-hills/

Ethical Government: LaVista Hills will come into existence with the kind of strict ethical and auditing controls being forced on DeKalb’s government after years of resistance.”  The section on ethics in the LVH charter has little substantive difference to the DeKalb County Code of Ethics, which came into existence in 1990. What the LVH charter sorely LACKS is establishment of an independent Board of Ethics to review complaints and enforce penalties. The LVH charter leaves it to the Mayor to appoint any future Board members. LVH leaders have used the tired cliché, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Why then have they chosen to repeat what DeKalb did, leaving a loophole allowing opportunity for corruption? The corruption investigation and State focus on DeKalb County clean-up has reached a tipping point, so it seems that the county will not be in a position to do the same things. Obviously, there is still lot of work to do.

Smart Growth: Zoning, planning and permitting decisions will be made by people who live in and understand our community.”  While theoretically great, the footprint of LVH is comprised predominantly of residential areas, which are money losers for municipalities. The Vinson study budget had little margin for error. The likelihood for areas to be rezoned commercial and mixed-use looks high, as a cash-strapped city may have no choice but to do what they need to do to keep from filing bankruptcy.

There is concern within the communities around Briarlake Road that the new 21-acre forest park recently purchased by the county (after a long and difficult community-wide effort to keep the property from rezoning and development), could face new threats if incorporation occurs. In answer to these concerns, during a conversation on October 12 on NextDoor, Kevin Levitas stated, “I am 100 percent behind LaVista Hills and 100 percent behind the creation and preservation of green spaces. That is a primary driver of why I became involved with the cityhood effort.”  While that sounds good, many feel no security with this statement, as Mr. Levitas, who lives within walking distance to this property, was conspicuously absent through the multitudes of neighborhood, County Planning Commission meetings, which occurred over a 9-month+ period, and which may have been the largest mobilizing event in the community’s history.

Both LVH groups filed financial disclosure reports late (“Alliance” 8 days), in contrast to their claims of greater efficiency. Despite the hype of local representation, the “Alliance” disclosure reveals 45 percent of the itemized campaign contribution dollars came from outside the footprint of LVH. 56 percent of itemized dollar contributions came from businesses eligible to financially benefit from contracts with the city. 80 percent of these businesses are outside of the LVH footprint.

I have worked hard searching for roses in this city proposition, yet what I have mostly smelled is a whole lot of fertilizer.  No thank you, please, this time around.

– Kenneth Lippe

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of Decaturish.com. https://www.linkedin.com/in/danwhisenhunt

View all posts by Dan Whisenhunt

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