It’s All About Priorities

March 24, 2008

DeKalb County’s police force is woefully understaffed and underpaid.  Currently, DeKalb has 1.4 officers per 1,000 residents.  The national average is 2.7 officers per 1,000 residents.

As a result of DeKalb’s inadequately staffed police department, wait times for an officer to arrive at the scene of an incident that is not a dire emergency often can exceed 30 minutes.

Commissioners Burrell Ellis, Elaine Boyer, Jeff Rader, and Kathie Gannon recently sponsored a sensible proposal to boost pay for sworn officers by 8% and add 127 new officers to the DeKalb County Police Department.  Their proposal would be funded by trimming non-public safety functions of the county government by 1.25%.

Commissioners Larry Johnson, Lee May, and Connie Stokes voted against that proposal, saying they favored a property tax increase by way of a millage rate hike in order to fund the police positions and pay raises.

The Ellis-Boyer-Rader-Gannon proposal prevailed on a 4-3 vote.  However, CEO Vernon Jones vetoed it, claiming that he was carrying out “the will of the people” in supporting the Johnson-May-Stokes proposal for a property tax increase.

The will of the people???  On what planet?

As Commissioner Boyer points out:  “Since Jones became CEO, the county’s budget has grown more than 54 percent while the county’s population has grown about 29 percent.”  Moreover, a recent audit of county contracting practices uncovered a troubling pattern of structuring no-bid contracts in amounts just below the competitive bidding threshold to the same vendors for the same services over and over and over again.  As a result, our county government has paid millions of dollars to vendors in violation of competitive bidding safeguards.

An attempt to override the CEO’s veto could occur as early as this Tuesday’s county commission meeting.  In order to override the CEO’s veto, five votes are required.  To reach five votes, one additional vote is needed from among Commissioners Johnson, May, and Stokes.

Please call or e-mail these commissioners today.  Their contact information is as follows:

Commissioner Larry Johnson, District 3

[email protected], 404-371-2425

Commissioner Lee May, District 5

[email protected], 404-371-4745

Commissioner Connie Stokes, District 7

[email protected], 404-371-3053

County spending has grown in excess of the rate of population growth plus inflation.  Meanwhile, important areas such as public safety have not kept pace.  The Ellis-Boyer-Rader-Gannon plan would rein in the county budget while setting the right priorities for our community.


Where I Stand on Dunwoody, and Why

March 19, 2008

Senate Bill 82, the legislation to create the new City of Dunwoody, will come up for a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives today.

While I don’t represent any areas inside the proposed City of Dunwoody, I do represent neighborhoods around Murphey Candler Park, Harts Mill Road, and Silver Lake, just south of I-285 and the proposed city.  In fact, I live in this area.  Some of my constituents are very supportive of cityhood, and some are very opposed.  Most don’t feel strongly either way.

The purpose of this column is to discuss my position on Dunwoody cityhood.  Before I do that, however, it is necessary to dispel a rumor that is floating around the unincorporated community south of Dunwoody.  This rumor claims that, if Dunwoody becomes a city, homeowners in unincorporated DeKalb County will lose our homestead exemption from the Homestead Option Sales Tax (HOST), which serves to reduce our property tax bills.

That is not the case.  The rumor concerns legislation which passed the General Assembly last year aimed at allowing DeKalb’s cities such as Chamblee, Doraville, Decatur, and a new Dunwoody to share in the 20 percent of total HOST revenues that are allocated for infrastructure improvements.  The other 80 percent of total HOST revenues are the funds used to provide homestead exemptions in both the unincorporated and city portions of DeKalb County.

All consumers in DeKalb County, including those who shop outside and inside of DeKalb’s cities, pay the HOST penny sales tax on all taxable goods.  All homeowners in DeKalb County, including those who live outside and inside of DeKalb’s cities, receive a homestead exemption from the 80 percent of HOST that is used for property tax reduction.  However, DeKalb’s cities do not share in the 20 percent of HOST that is used for infrastructure.  City residents subsidize infrastructure projects in the unincorporated areas and receive no benefit from this 20 percent.

Simply put, last year’s legislation seeks to allow residents of DeKalb’s cities to receive their fair share of this 20 percent.  Will that legislation work?  It might not.  The original 1997 legislation that created HOST created it “for county purposes.”  The referendum that approved HOST also contained the limiting language “for county purposes.”  DeKalb County has vowed to file a lawsuit to prevent a new City of Dunwoody from sharing in HOST’s 20 percent infrastructure component.  That lawsuit, however, will not affect the 80 percent of HOST that is used for property tax reduction.  We will continue to receive our full HOST homestead exemption.

What makes me confident of that?  The 20 percent of HOST that is used for infrastructure already is the subject of litigation between DeKalb County and DeKalb’s existing cities.  While that lawsuit rages on, DeKalb homeowners continue to receive the full HOST exemption.

With respect to the upcoming House vote on the City of Dunwoody, I will vote yes.  Local citizens should be able to determine how they are governed at the local level for local services.  That is a principle in which I firmly believe, and I remain committed to it.

Some DeKalb residents and elected officials have objected to the inclusion of the DeKalb portion of the Perimeter Community Improvement Districts (PCID) north of I-285 in a new City of Dunwoody.  I have yet to hear a compelling argument as to how PCID north of 285 isn’t located in “Dunwoody.”  It is in Dunwoody, just as surely as the Sembler development adjacent to Oglethorpe University is in Brookhaven and Emory Village is in Druid Hills.  The Dunwoody Homeowners’ Association fights all the zoning battles in this part of PCID.

I actively opposed city limits proposed last year that would have brought the City of Dunwoody slightly south of I-285 to include the Perimeter Summit office complex, where the former HP tower is located.  That complex, which comprises the southernmost portion of PCID, is not in Dunwoody.  It is within the boundaries of the Ashford Alliance Community Association.  The proposed City of Dunwoody boundary was restored back to 285.

Our county commissioners work very hard and are good public servants.  Nevertheless, it is clear that DeKalb County suffers from what I call a “scale of representation” problem.  Each of the five regular district commissioners represents approximately 148,000 people.  That’s more than three times the size of my State House district, which stretches from I-285 all the way south to Toco Hills.  The two super district commissioners each represent approximately 370,000 people.  That’s more than eight times the size of my State House district.  The CEO, who controls the day-to-day administration of “local” services, represents all 740,000 DeKalb residents.

The vast majority of the DeKalb legislative delegation remains unwilling to reform the current DeKalb governance structure.  If local citizens in any part of DeKalb County want something different, and wish to form a city (or hopefully someday, a township) to choose truly “local” representatives who live in or near their neighborhoods, I am unwilling to tell them no.

A version of this post was published in the March 18 edition of the Dunwoody Crier.


A TAD More Than We Bargained For

March 8, 2008

Tax allocation districts, or TADs for short, have become a popular infrastructure financing mechanism for Georgia’s county and city governments.

A TAD relies on the annual property tax increases which result from year-to-year increases in assessed property values.  These annual property tax increases from properties located inside a TAD are captured and applied to infrastructure improvements such as roads, sidewalks, sewer lines, and parks within the boundaries of the TAD.

Originally, TADs were used as an incentive to attract developers to redevelop blighted or economically distressed areas.  Such property does not have much value in the first place.  Thus, the county or city gives up some of the early increases in tax revenues to help improve blighted or economically distressed areas and attract development into these areas.  The benefit is that the county or city receives significantly improved tax revenues later, after the blighted or economically distressed areas have been improved and property values have increased.  Atlantic Station and the BeltLine are examples.

Some local governments have gone hog wild with TADs, using them in areas that are not blighted or economically distressed, and using them to subsidize new development where new development would occur anyway.  Personally, I believe that the North Druid Hills and Briarcliff TAD, an area where the median home sale price is greater than $410,000, falls into this category.

Another problem with a tax allocation district is that, if the board of education consents, the annual increases in school property taxes that result from year-to-year increases in assessed property values can be applied to infrastructure improvements inside the TAD.

School taxes are paid for educational purposes, and are not paid to subsidize new infrastructure and development projects, however meritorious these projects might be.  If not used for educational purposes, there is a compelling argument that school taxes should not be collected in the first place.  County and city governments already receive their share of our tax dollars to fund infrastructure improvements, after all.

In a unanimous decision handed down last month, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed.  The Court found that the use of education taxes for TAD infrastructure projects violates the Educational Purpose Clause of the Georgia Constitution, which provides as follows:  “School tax funds shall be expended only for the support and maintenance of public schools, public vocational-technical schools, public education, and activities necessary and incidental thereto, including school lunch purposes.”

I believe the Supreme Court got it right.  However, efforts are afoot in this year’s General Assembly to overturn this decision of the Supreme Court by amending the Georgia Constitution.  I do not support these efforts, and have co-sponsored House Bill 1215 to remove all references to education taxes from the law that created TADs.

Taxpayers deserve truth in taxation.  We deserve to know our school taxes will be used for educational purposes.  Otherwise, we deserve our money back.

A version of this post was published in the February 27 edition of the Dunwoody Crier.


A Line in the Sand: No to Defoor

March 8, 2008

Perimeter Summit, where the former HP office tower is located, and the office buildings on the eastern side of Ashford Dunwoody Road across from Perimeter Summit, constitute the southern boundary of Perimeter Center. Everything south of there is the strictly residential North Brookhaven-Murphey Candler-Ashford Alliance enclave many residents of our community, including me, call home. Or so we thought.

Franco Defoor Properties has purchased six parcels of residential property at the entrance to the Oak Forest subdivision, located at Ashford Dunwoody Road and Oak Forest Drive. They intend to build an assisted living facility and an office building. They have applied to the county for rezoning of these parcels from single-family residential to office-industrial, a type of zoning that is prevalent in Perimeter Center.

At a recent meeting hosted by the Ashford Alliance, I was appalled at the dismissive tone of the developer’s lawyer toward the concerns of the community. He talked at one point about the residential land uses along Ashford Dunwoody Road needing to be upgraded. At another point, he discussed how these new large-scale development projects would be a much-needed “step down” between Perimeter Center to the north and the residential neighborhoods to the south.

I stand with the residents and neighborhoods in our community that have contacted me in opposition to the effort by Defoor Properties to push the boundary of Perimeter Center further south along Ashford Dunwoody Road. Once that boundary between commercial and residential uses moves south, another developer surely will come along wanting to move the line southward yet again.

It is time the residential neighborhoods of the Murphey Candler area demand and receive the respect we deserve. Young families are moving in. New construction is sprouting up here and there. The area is doing very well as a residential community.

Furthermore, for residents of Oak Forest, the supersized Defoor projects simply are not appropriate for the entrance to their neighborhood.

DeKalb County Commissioners Elaine Boyer and Kathie Gannon ultimately will decide whether or not this rezoning is approved. Please contact them via phone or e-mail and let them know what you think. You can find their contact information at www.co.dekalb.ga.us. Also, please consider attending the various zoning meetings that will occur during the next couple months.

Whether our residential community remains residential hangs in the balance. Perhaps the types of “infill” cluster homes and townhomes that have popped up along Chamblee Dunwoody Road and Harts Mill Road in recent years would be appropriate for this Ashford Dunwoody location. What Defoor has proposed clearly is not appropriate.

It’s time to draw a line in the sand on Ashford Dunwoody Road.

A version of this post was published in the February 20 edition of the Dunwoody Crier.


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