Advocates for new cities speak to DeKalb County delegation, residents
This story has been updated.
By Cathi Harris, contributor
State legislators from DeKalb County got an earful at Saturday’s listening session on cityhood organized by state Rep. Karla Drenner, acting chair of the county’s legislative delegation.
The listening session was held on Jan. 5.
Addressing a room packed with a mix of cityhood proponents and opponents as well as city and county elected leaders, Drenner said that the meeting at the Georgia Piedmont Technical College Conference Center in Clarkston was an attempt to keep everyone informed about the incorporation efforts as well as way for the delegation to hear how constituents felt about the different measures.
“As a delegation, we meet every Monday and have speakers from the cities about different issues – many of them concerning the same things we are going to talk about today,” Drenner told attendees. “The new legislative session will start January 14, and I believed- and other [delegation] members believed – that we should get together ahead of time and give everyone an opportunity to hear these plans.”
Moderated by WSB-TV political analyst Bill Crane, the agenda featured an overview of the Georgia cityhood process by Ted Baggett from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, presentations by the organizations promoting the proposed cities of Greenhaven and Vista Grove, a presentation on annexation by former Decatur mayor Bill Floyd, and information from the DeKalb County Planning, Economic Development and Community Services Committee on the impact of new cities on the county’s service delivery strategy.
The event was also streamed live on the delegation’s Facebook page. An archived video of the meeting is available for viewing.
Greenhaven wants a chance to vote
At 123 square miles and just under 300,000 people, the proposed city of Greenhaven would become the second largest city in Georgia if it incorporated. Proponents have made unsuccessful attempts at getting legislation authorizing a referendum through the assembly each of the last four years.
Addressing what she sees as common misconceptions about the city’s structure, Kathryn Rice, chair of Imagine Greenhaven, said that residents would not see increased taxes or displacement of seniors and lower income households. Instead, she said, they would be able to keep more of their tax dollars at work in their community.
Rice also emphasized that—as a municipality—Greenhaven could see additional revenue from the special purpose local option sales tax (SPLOST).
The planned city’s large size would allow it to have a sufficient tax base to support itself and take advantage of economies of scale that smaller municipalities don’t have. For example, they would have a seat at the table to negotiate improved MARTA services and to establish their own economic development authority to recruit business and investment in that area.
“We see the things that are taking place on the north side of the county and we want to see more of those things on the south side,” Rice told attendees.
As required by the state, the group commissioned a feasibility study performed by the CVIOG that found the city would be see excess annual revenue of $27 million over its expected expenses.
They are the only cityhood initiative currently under consideration that has met all of the requirements for establishing a city.
Vista Grove wants a partnership
A new city of Vista Grove, sandwiched between the existing cities of Tucker to the east and Brookhaven, Chamblee and Doraville on the west, would be more of a partner with the county to help shoulder some of the provision of services while helping foster a more cohesive and environmentally friendly community, said Vista Grove presenter Andrew Flake.
“Cities in partnership with counties and with guidance from the legislators can make things better for everyone,” Flake said. “Cities taking on provision of some services can leave the county to improve the services that are left to it.”
Initially, Vista Grove would take on the provision of planning and zoning, parks and recreation and a police force for the area within its boundaries, plus developing a comprehensive plan that emphasizes improving access to the nearby multi-use PATH system, construction of more sidewalks, and development of complete streets.
The impetus for development of a Vista Grove cityhood movement was the incorporation of nearby areas, which left residents feeling vulnerable and subject to either annexation by another city or left as an “island between two areas of development.”
“We decided that we are a cohesive community that wants to take its destiny in its own hands,” he said.
Annexations still on the horizon
At the same time different groups pursue cityhood, existing cities will be looking to expand their borders before they lose the option, former Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd said. Floyd, now head of the DeKalb Municipal Association (DMA) was not specific about any areas that might be targeted, but said annexation would continue to be an issue this year and well into the future.
“Annexation discussions are active and ongoing and will continue forever unless the whole county is municipalized,” Floyd told attendees. “The reasons are many of the same reasons you have heard in the presentations here today.”
Modern counties provide virtually the same services that citizens can get inside cities – in terms of police and fire protection, trash collection, etc. But they don’t provide the same level of economic development and community development that cities can provide, and that is why many want to either pursue annexation or municipalization, Floyd said.
About two years ago, the DMA asked the county to partner with the cities to ask the Carl Vinson Institute to conduct a countywide evaluation of the impact of that different degrees of city formation would have on the ability of the county to provide services in unincorporated areas.
The County Commission authorized funding and agreed to pursue it, and the DMA took the step of opposing the Greenhaven cityhood legislation that was in process last year, even though it normally does not take positions for or against the formation of new cities.
“We were going to do this study that would be an objective look,” Floyd said. “So, we opposed the city of Greenhaven because we did not feel like [the incorporation] was taking everything into account the way we needed to do. So, we opposed it and it did not move forward.”
Although the study was initially expected to be complete by the end of last year, it has not but Floyd believes it is something that must still be pursued.
“I hope that study will move forward, but [if it does not] that is not going to stop annexations,” Floyd said. “They are going to go on and they are going to go on until these issues are addressed.”
Questions about SPLOST
During her presentation about the county’s development of its 2019 service delivery strategy, Delores Crowell, the county’s director of intergovernmental affairs, responded to Floyd’s criticism and said the county was making progress in collecting the data needed.
“We have made every effort that we can considering the heavy lift that we have had in DeKalb over the last 18 months,” Crowell said.
The county had more immediate issues to address that delayed its ability complete their part of the study information in the predicted time frame, but it is still in progress, she said. The county will be meeting with the Carl Vinson Institute in two weeks to continue to discuss the study and is still collecting the large amounts of information needed to submit to the institute for analysis.
She also wanted to respond to some of the statements made by cityhood proponents regarding distribution of additional SPLOST revenue. First, that the law authorizing the tax places limits on how the money is used and cannot be used to fund other needs a city might have.
“I believe we really need to be on point with regard to how SPLOST works,” she said. “The language of the [law] says that the proceeds – which we estimate to be a little over $630 million over the six-year period – It is required that 85 percent of those funds be spent on roads, transportation and public safety and the remaining 15 percent on capital improvements.”
Additionally, it is unlikely that new cities would be able to claim a municipal share of the funding because the specific distribution formula was set regarding the cities that existed when the law was passed.
Even existing cities cannot get additional SPLOST funds for the areas that they have annexed in the meantime.
New cities would benefit from a distribution formula in future SPLOST legislation, but she does not believe that they would be able to claim funds from the current one.
Some residents feel unheard
DeKalb residents opposed to the cityhood initiatives expressed frustration that they were not allowed to present alternative perspectives or challenge the presentations by city advocates.
While the cityhood initiatives were given a 30-minute time slot each, residents both in favor of and opposed to the efforts were restricted to asking single questions at the end of each presentation or during the limited Q and A session at the end of the program.
“Considering that there is such organized opposition to cities in this area, and that we already had a referendum which we won, we do wish that we had been given a chance to present the other side of the story,” Marjorie Snook, one of the founders of the group DeKalb Strong, told Decaturish after the meeting. “That is the side that has prevailed in the past and has said, ‘No, we don’t want to be in a city.”
DeKalb Strong, a nonprofit corporation formed in 2015 to advocate for better government in DeKalb County, organized resident opposition to LaVista Hills, a previous cityhood initiative that was voted down in 2015 and included many of the same areas that would now be in the proposed Vista Grove.
Responding to a question from another attendee about why presentations from organizations like DeKalb Strong and Citizens Against Cityhood in DeKalb were not included on the agenda, Drenner responded that they only invited presentations from the city advocates because they had established nonprofit corporations in support of their efforts.
“We invited those who were entities, either of city or county governments or had nonprofits formed,” Drenner said. “We are not trying to take a position for or against. This was just about gathering information.”
Snook said she still felt the community information session was useful, despite the exclusion of her group and other groups who have opposed municipalization efforts in the county.
“I am glad to have this discussion. I just hope it’s an opening discussion,” she said. “What we really need is to stop looking at piecemeal proposals from these small nonprofits and instead take a comprehensive look at our entire community and what good public policy is for all of us.”
More information on the two different cityhood proposals can be found on their respective websites:
Imagine Greenhaven, Inc. at www.greenhaven-ga.org
Vista Grove at www.vistagrove.org
City formation in Georgia a lengthy process
The state of Georgia is one of only seven states in the country in which the process for incorporating a new city is purely legislative, Ted Baggett, associate director of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, told attendees at a community legislative forum held Saturday at Georgia Piedmont Technical College in Clarkston.
The institute conducts most of the feasibility studies for new city initiatives in the state and Baggett presented an overview and explanation of the process.
In order for a new city to incorporate, the legislature must authorize a referendum allowing the residents of the area under consideration to vote on whether they want to be incorporated or not. And, before the act allowing a referendum is passed, the proposed city must meet certain minimum criteria established by state law.
The minimum criteria are:
– A total residential population of at least 200 persons and an average residential population of at least 200 persons per square mile for the total area.
– At least 60 percent of the area must be developed for “residential, commercial, industrial, institutional, governmental, or recreational purposes.”
– The area must be subdivided into lots and 60 percent of the lots must be five acres or less in size, not including land that is being held for future development or commercial development or for future industrial, governmental, recreational or institutional use.
DeKalb has seen a wave of new cities incorporate since the state Legislature came under Republican control in 2004 and changed rules that made it easier for lawmakers to sponsor cityhood legislation without the approval of county leaders.
Once sponsored legislation is introduced, it is assigned to either the Committee on Governmental Affairs in the House or the State and Local Governmental Operations Committee in the Senate.
In addition, the House Committee on Governmental Affairs has rules requiring new cities to conduct independent economic feasibility before they can be considered for approval.
Cityhood initiatives usually have to form a nonprofit to raise money to pay for the feasibility studies themselves, as state funds are not used.
It’s important to note that the last two requirements are not state law, but rules of the legislative committee and can be waived, changed or altered by the committee chair.
“It’s not the same thing as a statute,” Baggett said.
Committee rules also stipulate that new city legislation cannot be considered by the full legislature in the first year of the two-year legislative session. It has to be proposed in the first year, be evaluated in committee and then move for consideration by the full legislative body in the second year of the legislative session.
The Carl Vinson Institute conducts many of the feasibility studies for the nonprofit corporations formed to pursue cityhood, but it does not take a position whether a given city should or should not be formed.
“We will indicate the economic feasibility of a city, but you will not find a recommendation for or against,” he said.