FAA Meetings Regarding PDK Airspace

February 28, 2010

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is planning to lower the Hartsfield Jackson flight ceiling over PDK Airport and the surrounding Northeast Atlanta neighborhoods by 3,000 feet, from 8,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level, or just 4,000 feet above actual ground level.

This change will lower the altitude at which aircraft using PDK can fly. It also means that passenger jets using Hartsfield Jackson Airport will be flying lower over our neighborhoods.

The management at PDK opposes this change by the FAA. Click here for a PowerPoint presentation that PDK officials have put together about the proposal. Also, click here for an article entitled “The Sky Is Falling” that PDK officials have been circulating in public meetings.

The DeKalb County Commission also has taken a position against it. Click here to read the resolution that the Commission has adopted.

However, the proposal is receiving mixed reviews in the broader community. Click here for a synopsis by StandUp DeKalb that was posted on the Clairmont Heights Civic Association’s website.

If you would like to get some information directly from the source, the FAA is hosting back-to-back-to-back information sessions on Monday, March 1, at 3:00, 5:00, and 7:00 p.m. at the Chamblee Civic Center, 3540 Broad Street, which is located between Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and the MARTA tracks.

Kudos to the Commissioners

February 28, 2010

In case you missed it, the DeKalb County Commission axed the CEO’s proposal for a property tax hike in the county budget they passed on Tuesday, February 23. The budget was adopted by a unanimous 7-0 vote. Click here to read an AJC story about it.

The commissioners managed to fund most areas of public safety and the courts at 2009 levels. In this economy, that isn’t too shabby.

In order to ensure that a millage rate increase is avoided (the county millage rate is set in June), approximately 550 county employees will have to take early retirement. Early retirement is less expensive for the county than paying out unemployment claims, which is why they aren’t doing layoffs, at least not at this point.

If I may editorialize for a moment: It is troubling that CEO Ellis is willing to propose a property tax hike without batting an eyelash. Fortunately, the county commission did the hard work of trimming the budget to the point that raising property taxes might not be necessary. If all goes as planned, good work!

Legislators Locked In (and Out)

February 28, 2010

Here is an offbeat story by Doug Richards of 11Alive News. It certainly was the most entertaining interview I’ve ever done. It also gives you a slice of daily life in the General Assembly.

March 1st Deadline to Challenge Your Assessment

February 23, 2010

With the help of the technical experts at the State Capitol, I have put together this YouTube public service announcement (PSA) about challenging your property assessment. In three minutes, it will walk you through the entire process of filing a Georgia property tax return.

The PT-50R form and most of the other information mentioned in the video can be found in this article about challenging your property assessment (click for link) that I published last week. Here is a link to zillow.com, which wasn’t mentioned in last week’s article.

If you find this PSA helpful, please forward it along to your neighbors.

Remember, the deadline to challenge your assessment is March 1.

City of DeKalb? No Thanks.

February 23, 2010

At the meeting of the DeKalb County House Delegation that was held on February 1, CEO Burrell Ellis joined us and spoke to the assembled DeKalb legislators. He said a few things I agreed with and a few things I didn’t, but then uttered three words which I consider – and you should consider – like fingernails on a chalkboard: City of DeKalb.

I thought this idea had died with reign of Vernon Jones, but apparently I was mistaken. As you may recall, sometime in 2006, Jones floated this same idea. It would turn the entire unincorporated portion of DeKalb County into one big city. On a map, it would look like a giant piece of Swiss cheese with holes in the locations where DeKalb’s existing cities (Dunwoody, Chamblee, Doraville, Decatur, etc.) are located. It’s a terrible idea.

The county’s stated reason for revisiting the City of DeKalb proposal is to be able to collect franchise fees to help fill a gap in the county budget. Franchise fees are a tax that cities, but not counties, are authorized to charge utilities for use of the public right of way along local roads. That tax, of course, is not absorbed by the utility companies. It is passed along to you as a line item on your utility bills. It’s an indirect means of taking more money out of your pocket.

Just below the surface is the county’s unstated reason for revisiting the City of DeKalb. The county is seeking to curtail any future annexation of currently unincorporated territory into DeKalb’s existing cities, and to prevent the creation of new cities. You can’t add territory to a new or existing city if it’s already in the “city” formerly known as DeKalb County.

If Brookhaven ever wants to start a city, forget it. If residents near Chamblee or Dunwoody ever want to join those cities, that’s off the table, too. The presently unincorporated peninsula of neighborhoods surrounding Murphey Candler Park would remain forever stuck in a big DeKalb “city” government.

A City of DeKalb is unacceptable. CEO Ellis may not want to waste his time talking about the issue any longer. It will require a majority of the DeKalb House Delegation, and then a vote of the full House of Representatives, in order to pass. Even if the CEO manages to win the support of a majority of the DeKalb House Delegation, I will see to it that enough of my Republican colleagues vote to stop any supersized city proposal on the floor of the House.

Challenge Your Property Assessment

February 15, 2010

In the ongoing housing slump, I frequently receive e-mails from constituents who are concerned that the market value of their home is less than its assessed value for property tax purposes. The question all of these homeowners ask is the same: What can they do about it?

The answer: File a Georgia property tax return.

If you believe that the sale prices of comparable homes in your neighborhood have fallen to the point that the county now uses a higher value to calculate your property taxes than you could get if you put your home on the market, Georgia law allows you to tell the DeKalb County tax assessors what the current fair market value of your property is. This will force the assessors to review your property assessment. It is not necessary to wait for your property to be reassessed.

To do so, you will need to file a Form PT-50R (click for a fill-and-print PDF version; Adobe Reader is required) so that it is received no later than March 1 at the following address:

DeKalb County Property Appraisal Department
120 West Trinity Place, Room 208
Decatur, GA 30030

To fill out the form, you will need certain information about your property that can be found in DeKalb’s property tax records. Click here to search the property tax records for your street address.

For further information, click here for an AJC article and here for a Georgia Department of Revenue web page about property tax returns.

In case you need to contact them directly, the telephone number for the DeKalb County Property Appraisal Department is (404) 371-0841.

Remember, March 1 is the deadline to use this process to challenge your property assessment if you believe your assessment is “upside down” compared to the fair market value of your home.

CEO Budget Meeting in Toco Hills

February 15, 2010

CEO Burrell Ellis is coming to Toco Hills on Tuesday evening to talk with the community about his proposed 2010 DeKalb County budget. The CEO’s budget proposal includes a substantial property tax increase.

Commissioner Jeff Rader also will be participating in this meeting. He has prepared a thoughtful analysis of the CEO’s proposed budget. Click here to read Commissioner Rader’s commentary.

The Board of Commissioners decides what goes in the final budget, subject to any line item vetoes by the CEO. As Commissioner Rader has suggested, the BOC could downsize the budget to avoid having to increase the millage rate, which is used to calculate your property taxes.

This budget meeting will be held on Tuesday, February 16, at 7:00 p.m. at the Torah Day School of Atlanta (TDSA), 1985 LaVista Road.

PDK Airspace Meeting

February 15, 2010

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is planning to lower the Hartsfield Jackson flight ceiling over PDK Airport and the adjacent Northeast Atlanta neighborhoods by 3,000 feet, from 8,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level, or just 4,000 feet above actual ground level.

This change will lower the altitude at which aircraft using PDK can fly. It also means that passenger jets using Hartsfield Jackson Airport will be flying lower over our neighborhoods.

The management at PDK opposes this change by the FAA.

PDK Watch and several neighborhood organizations are hosting a community meeting this Wednesday, February 17, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. at the Clairmont Baptist Church, 3542 Clairmont Road. A representative of PDK Airport will be on hand to explain the FAA’s plans and how they will affect air traffic at PDK.

Cut the Turf War and the Tax Hike

February 8, 2010

Every week during the legislative session, the members of the Georgia House of Representatives from DeKalb County hold a meeting to discuss state legislative issues affecting the county. These meetings are usually held on Mondays at noon in the Coverdell Legislative Office Building, across the street from the State Capitol. If you’re in the neighborhood, you should drop in and visit.

The DeKalb Delegation meeting that was held on January 25 was an eye-opener. It included a visit from three of our county commissioners, members of the commission staff, and representatives of the CEO’s office, although not the CEO himself. The tension between the commission’s and CEO’s representatives was palpable, and it nearly grew into open hostility when the commissioners made their presentation.

There appears to be a turf war brewing between the county commission and CEO. My request to these elected officials is a simple one: knock it off. At a time that tax revenues at all levels of government are slumping, citizens are hurting financially, and the county is considering an ill-advised property tax increase to prop up a budget that became seriously bloated after eight years of Vernon Jones, the last thing we need is posturing from county politicians.

The not-so-subtle hostility between the county commission and CEO’s office appears to be related to a December proposal by the commissioners to completely eliminate the CEO position. Because it deals with the basic structure of the county government, that proposal would require the approval of DeKalb’s state legislators. It came out of left field and was not expected by the legislative delegation. If necessary, I will see to it that any such legislation is defeated.

The commissioners also are requesting that we give them the power to approve their own contracts with outside vendors, rather than working through the CEO. Not even the state legislature has the kind of contracting power they are requesting. It simply isn’t a legislative function, and it’s a power that is a breeding ground for cronyism and corruption. This, too, is a proposal that is dead on arrival.

In 2008, the General Assembly passed and the voters approved reforms that enabled the county commission to conduct and set the agenda for its own meetings. This completely removed the CEO’s involvement in those meetings and strengthened the checks and balances between the CEO and county commission. Any further reforms, however, should have the approval of both the CEO and commission before state legislators give them any consideration.

In the meantime, if the county commission is looking for a way to leverage the existing checks and balances that are already built into our county government, I have a recommendation: Defeat the CEO’s proposal for a property tax increase. Rather than posturing to gain a political upper-hand over the CEO, that’s a tangible action your taxpaying constituents will appreciate.

Not the Time for Business as Usual

February 8, 2010

By Commissioner Jeff Rader, District 2

The following commentary on the DeKalb County budget and the CEO’s proposal for a property tax increase is republished with permission from Commissioner Jeff Rader. It’s a worthwhile read:

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

A year ago, I publicly expressed my disappointment in the budget process for DeKalb County. The process, as described in my formal remarks in February 2009, is subject to political considerations and short-term gains at the expense of tough decisions and long-term sustainability.

It was my hope then that the new county CEO and the new governing structure for the county Board of Commissioners (BOC), each with a full year under its belt, would lead to improvements in the preparation of this year’s budget. Sadly, the process seems to have gotten worse, not better.

While major changes may not happen overnight, my recommendations last year included simple, incremental steps to ultimately create a budget that is inclusive and forward thinking. The first and easiest step is to add transparency by sharing the departmental budget requests, typically submitted in late summer, with the general public and BOC.

The requests would be used as a starting point for public and ongoing discussion among various constituencies, notably the BOC, to establish funding priorities for the coming year. Instead, the administration elected to keep the specific departmental requests under wraps. Thus, the BOC is flying blind if it attempts to cut spending because it has limited information on how such cuts impacts each department.

Further, because the departmental requests were not shared with the BOC, the latter did not develop the urgency to finalize its priorities for the coming budget. For what it’s worth, my top budget priorities are public safety and infrastructure. The first is self-explanatory and the second is needed to address an enormous backlog of deferred maintenance, which threatens the functionality of county services.

As in years past, the public’s and BOC’s first look at the proposed 2010 budget was mid-December, the constitutionally mandated date for the CEO to formally present a budget. The BOC, in turn, is mandated to approve the budget by March 1, leaving a mere two months to debate possible revisions, a timeframe that makes it difficult for substantive deliberations.

The CEO’s proposed budget is based on questionable assumptions and actions.

Perhaps the most misguided assumption is that the county tax digest (aka property taxes) will remain the same as it was in 2009. A reasonable person knows the national economy’s downslide was precipitated primarily by the implosion of the real estate market. The general consensus is the real estate market shows signs of, at best, a weak recovery in 2010. The county’s Board of Tax Assessors, in two separate memos this January, estimates the tax digest will decline by nearly seven percent in 2010.

Even if the administration’s revenue forecast is accurate, it still has a roughly $60 million deficit relative to its spending requests. The CEO proposes to close that gap roughly in half by raising the millage rate 1.86 points, and the other half by reducing the labor force through an early retirement offer.

Given the current economic climate, it is not prudent to burden the taxpayers with a tax increase. So a tax increase is not a viable option to address a budget shortfall.

The logical alternative is to reduce expenses by trimming positions from the county work force because labor costs (wages and benefits) comprise roughly 80 percent of the county’s budget. While no one wants people to lose their jobs due to layoffs, the county’s fiscal situation creates the necessity to right size the workforce now. Such a move is an economic necessity when there is not enough money in the financial coffers.

But offering early retirement is not the most efficient method to reduce the labor force, because the employees, rather than the employer, dictate the staff reduction. As a result, the county could end up losing its most talented, experienced and critical employees, creating a deleterious effect on county services.

That in turn could force the county to hire back those employees, or someone else to fill those positions, thus diminishing the financial savings from the initial staff reduction. The worse scenario would be to lose a disproportionate number of employees from public safety departments, which I, again, consider to be the top priority.

Ideally, the administration would identify those positions that could be eliminated with the least impact on county services. That can be done after a careful performance audit of each department to evaluate the correlation between quality of services and its staffing levels.

While the CEO’s budget proposes a reduction in force of 400 employees, it does not propose a comparable reduction in scope of services provided to the county. If the county is able to provide the same scope of services with fewer employees, that will be an indication it has been operating inefficiently in past years. If the county is not able to do so, then the public will suffer from the decrease in quality of services.

Early last year, in anticipation of the tough budget currently facing the county, the BOC considered contracting with Georgia State University to conduct a staffing study to identify excess and redundant positions that could be cut. The administration protested, saying that it would conduct its own study. But the administration did not follow through.

So last November, the BOC approved the staffing study initially proposed early that year. Regrettably, the results will be available towards the middle of February, extremely late in the annual budget process. The sad truth is that more budget cuts will likely be necessary to compensate for the revenue shortfall noted above, and the county may end up cutting the budget all year long.

Either way, it seems counterintuitive that in this economic climate, the administration has passed up this opportunity for fundamental restructuring of its operations. Aside from the consolidation of two development departments and the outsourcing of another development department, there is no significant shrinkage of scope of services outlined in the proposed budget.

In the private sector, companies and entrepreneurs have, out of necessity, discovered new ways of doing business that should reap benefits as the economy recovers. Families and individuals have fundamentally altered their way of life, out of necessity, such as giving up cable television, and eating dinner at home more often. But the administration has declared its intent to conduct business as usual.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In my budget commentary last year, I called attention to the county’s inadequate funding for capital maintenance. Historically, the county government has been enamored with the creation of new facilities rather than the maintenance of existing ones.

Last year’s budget set aside 10 percent of HOST (Homestead Option Sales Tax) for capital maintenance. This year, five percent, which projects to $4.4 million, according to the administration. To put that number in context, this time last year, the county was 60 years behind schedule on needed street repaving and had total deferred maintenance liability of more than $260 million. Business as usual.

The administration also proposes business as usual for those employees still in place after the reduction in force. In fact, the CEO’s budget proposes a one percent, across-the-board merit increase. While there are many county employees who are exceptional performers, the economic reality dictates that DeKalb does not have the luxury of offering pay increases, no matter how deserving.

Nor does the CEO’s budget propose any changes in the benefits programs — health, retirement — for county employees. The county, which is self-insured, pays 70 percent of all medical expenses for its employees. With medical costs rapidly escalating nationwide and an aging workforce, the county can not sustain that 70-30 ratio without raising taxes or requiring its employees to contribute more.

The county continues to operate a defined-benefit retirement plan, while the private sector predominantly offers defined-contribution plans. To maintain the promised benefit, the county’s actuaries advise that contributions to the pension fund should be increased to 15 percent of payroll in 2010 ($50 million) all the way up to 25 percent of payroll in 2020 ($105 million), which is a significant cost increase even before factoring the early retirement program.

The county currently pays about 67 percent of contributions to the employees’ retirement plan. That financial obligation is unsustainable. If the county wishes to save its defined benefits program, the beneficiaries must pay a larger share.

Nor does the CEO’s budget propose any changes to the number of paid holidays for county employees. Eliminating a paid holiday saves money and probably has the least impact on county services because government is considered closed that day.

The BOC has two choices to rectify the CEO’s proposed budget. One, it can save money by unilaterally reducing the scope of county services. Two, it can save money by improving the cost efficiency of its current scope of services. Both are difficult tasks because of the limited time frame and information provided to the BOC in this budget process.

In the short term, the latter seems to be the best option, specifically reviewing the compensation structure for county employees, as highlighted in this commentary. This means the budget would be balanced on the back of good county employees. That would be regrettable, but preferable to balancing it on the back of taxpayers.

The CEO describes the proposed budget as “bare bones,” one that provides little more than the essential, required county services. In 2001, the first year of the former CEO’s administration, DeKalb County had a $420 million budget. If that budget was sufficient to fulfill the county’s mandate at that time, then it should have continued to be the benchmark in the subsequent years while allowing for inflationary and population increases. Based on those two statistical factors, today’s budget would be $563 million rather than the $583 requested by the CEO. The numbers suggest there are ample opportunities to make significant cuts in government spending.

The CEO and his team are honorable and well intentioned, but regrettably they have not been able to keep ahead of the extraordinary economic and organizational challenges we are now facing. But it’s not too late to start. Crafting this year’s budget is not a one-time challenge. The county tax base is expected to remain flat for a significant period into the future. The administration needs to reject the premise of relying on short-term fixes in order to resume business as usual.


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