Study: New cities will be costly for DeKalb County
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This story has been updated.
A study commissioned by DeKalb County concluded that creating new cities of Greenhaven and Vista Grove would cost county government millions, particularly if those new cities include police services.
It’s likely that both proposed cities will be debated in the 2020 Legislative session.
The cost becomes more manageable when police services are excluded from the equation.
That was quick version of a long discussion that took place on Wednesday, Dec. 18 in the DeKalb County Commission meeting room.
To see the presentation from that meeting that includes the study’s conclusions, click here.
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DeKalb County hired the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia to look at the effect new cities and annexations have on county government. The county in 2018 tasked CVI with examining the impact on DeKalb’s ability to provide services.
The report itself is not ready yet, CVI Associate Director Ted Baggett said during the Dec. 18 meeting.
The study examined the costs for the proposed cities of Vista Grove, Greenhaven and an area that combines Vista Grove with other territory north of Highway 78.
According to the study:
– Greenhaven, which would cover most of Southwest DeKalb county and have a population of 300,000 people, would cost DeKalb County $2.9 million annually. Greenhaven would not provide police services.
– Vista Grove, which would be bordered by I-85 on the northwest side, I-285 on the eastern side and would have a population of around 60,000 people, would cost the county $16.8 million in revenue annually. A large portion of that – $10.9 million – would be due to the transfer of police services.
– The expanded study area – which includes Vista Grove and territory to the west – would cost the county $26.4 million, with police services accounting for $17.35 million of that total.
The pending CVI study has been cited as a reason for delaying action on new cities in DeKalb County.
During a committee hearing in the 2018 Legislative session, Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett asked legislators to hold off on approving the Greenhaven bill because of the pending study.
While the study has been underway, annexation has not stopped: Tucker, Decatur and Brookhaven have expanded their boundaries, adding new territory.
Baggett said the written report would be available by the end of January.
He anticipated questions about whether CVI would issue an opinion about whether creating new cities is a good idea.
“In our opinion, we’d like you to read the study and form your own opinion,” Baggett said.
Representatives from the proposed city of Vista Grove who attended the meeting were skeptical about the study’s findings.
“I don’t think the numbers that they showed for Vista Grove look like the numbers we have in our [feasibility study for Vista Grove],” Vista Grove supporter Amy Parker said. “We need to go back and look at those numbers. I know things have changed with various annexations, but we need to have some time to look at it.”
Simone Rosa, another supporter of Vista Grove, said, “My personal opinion is this for me just confirmed our area is paying for way more services than we are getting from the county, and if we had the opportunity to keep that money in our area, we would get a lot more for it.”
Many of the people in attendance looked overwhelmed by the end of the presentation of CVI’s findings. Decatur City Manager Andrea Arnold said, “I need to go back, read it, soak it all in. That’s just how I process it.”
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One of the things the report didn’t cover is the cost to cities if they choose to annex any more unincorporated territory into their city limits. The study also looked at the costs of the newer cities Stonecrest and Tucker providing their own police services. The study found that the county would see a net savings of $5.8 million if Stonecrest had its own police force, and the loss to the county if Tucker started its own police force would be comparatively small, costing the county $927,000.
But those costs don’t measure what providing police services would cost residents in Tucker and Stonecrest, Arnold said.
“It doesn’t go into the other side of the coin, how much the taxpayers in Stonecrest … would be paying for that service,” Arnold said. “There’s another part of the equation … I think from the county perspective, this is a really good start, having some real quality data to make some decisions with.”
Arnold and Mayor Garrett said the city of Decatur has no plans to introduce any annexation bills in the 2020 Legislative session.
State Sen. Elena Parent lamented that the data in this report wasn’t available to legislators years ago, before the city of Brookhaven was created. She said it’s “foolhardy” to create new governments without examining their impact on existing governments.
“I understand that while it’s intuitive to most people that a wealthier area generates more taxes, and in some ways less need, people know that, but when you see it in black and white, it’s a little bit striking,” Parent said. “As I’ve long said, I think we could’ve had a better process for creating new cities.”
She noted that Vista Grove supporters are now saying they’re interested in partnering with DeKalb Police, which would reduce that city’s cost to the county.
“Given the numbers we’re seeing, that the police expenditures are around 60 percent of the outlay budget wise, then that is a huge change,” Parent said. “That would make it a lot less financially detrimental to the county. Of course, in fairness, some people would look at those numbers and say that just shows that these areas are subsidizing the other areas. My response would be, that’s how government works. It’s also how insurance works and everything else.”
Marjorie Snook with DeKalb Strong, a group that opposes cityhood, said the study provides a solid argument against creating new cities.
“The analysis by the Carl Vinson Institute makes it clear that creating any new cities has a significant negative impact on the county as a whole,” Snook said. “After looking at the actual numbers regarding the financial effects on our community, I don’t see how any legislator in good conscience could support any new cityhood proposals.”
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