Candidate Q&A – Dee Merriam, Avondale Estates City Commission
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About this series:
Decaturish sent questions to candidates running for elected office in Decatur and Avondale Estates. We will publish the candidates’ responses throughout the week. For more information about voting in the upcoming election, please see the note at the end of this post. Here is the response from Dee Merriam, a candidate for Avondale Estates City Commission.
1) Why are you running for Avondale Estates City Commission?
I love living in Avondale Estates and the quality of life my family enjoys here. However, the qualities that we so cherish in the residential part of our city are missing in our downtown. We are now, as a city, uniquely positioned to create a thriving downtown that not only contributes to our tax base, but also, invites us to meet our neighbors, stroll our streets, and enjoy being outdoors.
The residential part of Avondale Estates was intentionally designed to foster community. The result is a place where it is easy for neighbors to get to know each other. Our downtown is located between two MARTA stations and has the potential to be a unique gem within the Atlanta region. Our city needs to be just as intentional about future development as the city’s original developers were. As an urban planner and landscape architect, I have the knowledge and training to meaningfully contribute and feel called to do so.
2) What do you think makes you a better candidate than your opponents?
My work experience, my training, and my approach to making decisions.
My career has focused on the creation of places where people want to be. I have worked as a consultant for private developers and in every level of government – city, county, regional, state, and federal. In doing so, I have created processes and procedures designed to empower communities, expedite reviews, and incentivize good community design. I know when and how to leverage decisions and public investment. I understand where compromises make sense and where they negate the very goals we want to accomplish. I have successfully managed millions of dollars in public investments and brought projects to completion on time and under budget.
In addition, my master’s degree in landscape architecture trained me to evaluate existing conditions, explore diverse options, and develop solutions that fit unique situations while my master’s degree in city planning taught me how to leverage community goals. The 9+ years I spent working with the CDC gave me the opportunity to work with national leaders on issues like walkability and access to greenspace.
Currently, I serve on the city’s Planning and Zoning Board and I have attended most BOMC work sessions and Downtown Development Authority meetings since the city adopted the 2014 Downtown Master Plan.
It is my belief that providing for community engagement leads to better decisions and in the end reduces project approval time. I have spent my career making that happen. I have argued for inclusive processes, won those arguments, and been thanked for it. In my 30+ years of working with communities, I have collected many tools and techniques. I know what works.
3) What do you think is Avondale Estates’ greatest strength?
Avondale Estates’ greatest strength lies in its people. We are rich in engaged citizens who care deeply about our community.
4) What do you think is its biggest challenge?
Change. Change is happening in and around our city. As an in-town community on the MARTA line we are experiencing increased traffic, stormwater runoff, housing demands, and needed services. Our best outcomes do not come from either/or choices. They require leaders with relevant experience that are willing to identify and implement win-win scenarios.
5) What are the top two or three things you plan to focus on as a commissioner?
Implement key elements of the Downtown Master Plan – the town green and street grid.
Address speeding and cut-through traffic in our residential area.
Leverage stormwater management projects as community assets.
Establish policies and procedures that educate, inform, and empower our citizens.
– Hold annual budget workshops to review city finances and plan for future initiatives.
– Institute 10-year capital planning that identifies sequences, urgency, potential funding streams, possible partners, and projected return on investment.
– Adopt an economic development plan that articulates what, why, and how projects should be solicited and the tools that can be used to recruit them.
6) As many people in Avondale are aware, in 2015 mayoral candidate Clai Brown’s contract was amended to include a severance for resigning. His retirement age was also lowered to 55. The city’s attorney concluded, after an investigation, that Brown hid his contract from city employees and commissioners. Brown and his supporters dispute that he hid anything. What is your opinion about this situation and who do you plan to vote for in the upcoming mayoral election?
It will be important for me to have a positive working relationship with our city’s next mayor, regardless of who is elected. Therefore, I feel it is not in the best interest of the city for me to comment.
7) Some residents in Avondale Estates have expressed concern about the city taking on debt to complete specific projects in the city. Are you concerned about the city borrowing money? Why or why not?
No, I am not. Currently our city has zero municipal debt and nearly 90 percent of our property taxes are paid by residential properties. By making strategic investments we can create a better balance in our revenues.
Our downtown is in bad shape. We need to make investments that not only increase the value of near-by properties but improve the city’s vitality. There is a big difference in borrowing money for operations and investing in assets with positive rates of return. Forcing older residents to contribute to city accounts earmarked for infrastructure they may never see is unfair. I prefer leveraging our resources over time so that newer residents who will benefit from the city’s investments contribute to the funds used to pay for them. That is what can happen when the city uses bonds. Sometimes borrowing money to improve infrastructure and increase city revenues makes a lot of sense.
8) What is your opinion of the city’s Downtown Development Authority and are you satisfied with how that board functions?
I support the DDA’s actions to promote our downtown. They have been proactive in improving the downtown’s appeal by sponsoring events, improving planted areas, and establishing a social media presence. More significantly, they have acquired key property and worked to improve public parking. A strong DDA is necessary for the implementation of the Downtown Master Plan and its driving vision. The city is very lucky to have access to the skills the DDA members voluntarily contribute to our city’s future.
9) There is a perception that Avondale Estates is unwelcoming to outsiders. Do you think this is accurate? If so, what would you plan to do about it? If not, why not?
No. That has not been my experience. When we moved in my neighbors on both sides and from across the street all stopped by to welcome us. I hear that many newcomers have similar experiences. When I walk in the city, people I don’t know wave or stop to chat.
10) What is your opinion of the current city manager, Patrick Bryant? Are you satisfied with his performance?
I feel that he has brought needed skills to our city’s administration. He has made important changes to the city’s budgeting procedures that include initiating zero-based budgets and project based capital budgets. These changes give a much clearer understanding of the city’s resources and needs. He has instigated a new classification and compensation plan designed to make the city competitive in recruiting and retaining employees. I would like to see a higher priority placed on communication and public process, but highly value his understanding of city management.
11) What is your opinion of the Museum School and its relationship with the city and its residents?
The Museum School is an important resource for the city’s students. I contributed to their start-up funding and think that the school has drawn and will continue to draw families to our city.
12) Do you support annexing additional areas of unincorporated DeKalb County into Avondale Estates? If so, what areas do you think should be annexed?
I support annexation that benefits city residents in specific and understandable ways.
One example: The land around the Kensington MARTA Station is ripe for redevelopment and I think it would be in the city’s best interest to have more say in what will happen there.
13) What is your opinion about apartment developments in Avondale Estates?
The completion of two large apartment buildings will increase our city’s tax base. It will also have a dramatic impact on available housing types adding approximately 450 apartments to the city’s 2014 inventory of 1,478 primarily single-family housing units. Our Downtown Master Plan identified the need for a balanced mix of residential choices – that means apartments, town homes, live/work units, condos, and accessory dwellings. The city will have to plan carefully and provide incentives to achieve the diverse mix of housing, office, and commercial development envisioned in its adopted Downtown Master Plan.
14) What is your opinion about the proposed “road diet” for US 278 that would reduce lanes on North Avondale Road?
I support redevelopment of US278 to improve the safety of our residents and the attractiveness of our downtown. Adding street trees, wide sidewalks, space for bicyclists, and enhanced pedestrian cross walks are important steps in reclaiming our “Main Street” and making it safe for our citizens and a place where people wish to linger.
15) If elected, do you promise to conduct yourself in an ethical and transparent manner?
Absolutely. Not just because of a pledge, but because that is who I am.
Learn more about voting in the Nov. 5 elections:
Voter registration for the Nov. 5 municipal elections ended on Oct. 7. Early voting will start on Oct. 14.
If you have registered and need your polling information, visit the Georgia Secretary of State’s My Voter page by clicking here.