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CEO candidates talk zoning, permits, affordable housing during builder’s association forum

Annexation and new cities campaign coverage DeKalb County Trending

CEO candidates talk zoning, permits, affordable housing during builder’s association forum

L to R Commissioners Lorraine Cochran-Johnson, Steve Bradshaw, and Larry Johnson. Photo by Sara Amis

DeKalb County, GA — The Greater Atlanta Home Builder’s Association hosted a candidate forum for the DeKalb County CEO race on March 19. All the candidates—commissioners Steve Bradshaw, Lorraine Cochran-Johnson, and Larry Johnson—were in attendance.

Questions from the GAHBA moderators and membership focused on the relationship between builders and the county government, particularly the perception that county permitting and other relevant departments have been unresponsive and even obstructive in the past. 

All three candidates acknowledged past problems and pledged to work to resolve them. 

Bradshaw said that he believes a cultural change is necessary. While government organizations can be resistant to change, he believes that a persistent leader can push through the resistance and get results.

“I operate from the understanding that your time is money,” Bradshaw said.

In 2011, the county entered into a consent decree agreement with the US Environmental Protection Agency to improve sewage systems and water quality, which affected permitting for new construction.

Johnson said that the original version of the consent decree applied to the entire county when only part of the county was the source of the problems. He helped get the consent decree modified and tax incentives added to encourage projects in underdeveloped areas of the county.

Johnson echoed Bradshaw’s sentiments about delays but added that the urgency was not just from builders.

“We don’t have time to lose. Time is money, and people need housing,” Johnson said.

Cochran-Johnson said that fundamental processes and technology need to change.

“What we’re dealing with in DeKalb is not just cultural…[the county’s database management system] Hansen is a nightmare to use,” Cochran-Johnson said.

As for the watershed, Cochran-Johnson said that the Snapfinger Creek basin was the most affected by 20 years of inaction and that the county has invested $1.2 billion in improvements so far. 

“We have to reimagine government. We can’t keep sitting there thinking that we’re not a service-oriented business,” Cochran-Johnson said.

In response to a question about the retention of county employees, Johnson pointed to ensuring that pay is in line with local standards to reduce turnover.

“DeKalb is the training ground,” Johnson said, adding that after employees gain some experience, they move on to jobs with other entities where they can get better pay.

“If you want the best, you’ve got to pay the best,” Johnson said.

Cochran-Johnson said that the county hasn’t done very well with cost of living increases and that pay is important, but that it was also important to ensure county employees have the resources and information they need to do their jobs effectively.

“What I want to create is not only good salaries across the board in DeKalb, and ensure that we have ongoing cost of living allowances within our departments, but also a framework where employees aren’t so frustrated that they seek outside employment,” Cochran-Johnson said.

Bradshaw felt that a change in leadership approach would be most effective, along with providing support and training so that employees can be experts at their jobs. Bradshaw said that competitive pay is important, but public employees are also motivated by other concerns.

“Folks don’t enter the public sector to get rich. I didn’t enter public service to get rich…But this is about a higher calling. This is about a focus on service delivery,” Bradshaw said. 

In response to a question about changing architectural standards, density, and minimum square footage to create more affordable housing, all candidates agreed they were eager to find ways to remove barriers to creating affordable housing and workforce housing.

Cochran-Johnson said that the most recent survey she had seen stated that over 60,000 people were waiting for affordable housing in DeKalb County, but the county is only planning to create 300 units per year.

“There is a huge deficit between what is needed and what we have committed to producing. And that’s why we need those of you who are in this room,” Cochran-Johnson said. 

Cochran-Johnson said that she would like to see the minimum for receiving tax incentives on a project reduced from $10 million to $5 million and that, as CEO, she would create a position devoted to housing that would help move projects forward.

Bradshaw said that housing affordability is a widespread problem, and the high mortgage rates are creating adversity for construction.

Bradshaw added that residents often pushback against attempts to increase density or build affordable housing.

“Everybody loves affordable housing, conceptually, except if it’s anywhere near them,” Bradshaw said. 

Johnson pointed to his work with the city of Atlanta on workforce housing in East Lake and also in the creation of a workforce housing ordinance for the county.

“That’s the first workforce housing ordinance passed in this region,” Johnson said. 

When asked about the relationship between municipalities in DeKalb County and the county government, Bradshaw described that relationship in the past as “nothing short of toxic.”

However, Bradshaw said that he started meeting quarterly with all the mayors in his district when he became commissioner and that when he became the presiding officer of the Board of Commissioners, he expanded his meetings to include all 12 mayors in the county.

“You know what? They love it. They’ve never had that kind of ongoing interaction before,” Bradshaw said.

Bradshaw added that sometimes the interests of a given municipality and the interests of the county will be at odds, but pointed to the passage of the first-ever Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for DeKalb as an example of what happens when there is cooperation.

Johnson said that he has had a good working relationship with the City of Atlanta since he has been in office and that the latest result is connecting trail projects in his district to the Beltline. Once the trail projects are complete, they will stretch 22 miles.

“You can go from Stonecrest all the way to Ponce City Market, if you want to,” Johnson said.

Cochran-Johnson said she has met with mayors twice a year and helped cities with specific needs. 

On the other hand, Cochran-Johnson said that cities annexing territory is bad for the county. 

“As annexations occur, DeKalb County erodes,” Cochran-Johnson said. 

However, Cochran-Johnson said she has been saying from the first candidate debate that getting services like sanitation right will be the key to resolving the conflicts that continued annexations bring between the county government and municipalities.

“If we get things right, like planning and sustainability, and we begin to grow, then I believe that annexations will take care of themselves, but it will require a leader,” Cochran-Johnson said.

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