Informational Meeting on City of Brookhaven

May 23, 2011

Please join me for an informational meeting on the proposal for a City of Brookhaven on Tuesday, May 24, at 7:00 p.m. in Lupton Auditorium in the main building of Oglethorpe University, 4484 Peachtree Road.

The Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia will be tasked with performing a feasibility study as to how a City of Brookhaven might impact your local services (either positively or negatively) and your taxes (again, either positively or negatively).

Tuesday’s meeting will include Ted Baggett of the Carl Vinson Institute to answer your questions about what will go into the feasibility study and what we will be able to learn from it. The meeting also will include a citizen who was involved in the creation of the City of Dunwoody to discuss why that community looked to a new municipality to solve some of the problems inherent in big county governance.

In addition, I’ll be happy to answer your questions about the status of the Brookhaven proposal and how it could progress in the future.


Decentralized Redistricting Saves Taxpayers More

January 30, 2011

Tonight, Sunday, January 30, 2011, at 11:59 p.m. is the deadline to complete the DeKalb County School System’s online survey regarding the “centralized” and “decentralized” plans for school redistricting. Click here to participate in the survey.

If you miss this deadline, you also can e-mail the members of the DeKalb County Board of Education with your thoughts about the two proposals. In fact, you should consider doing this whether or not you have completed the survey. The Board of Education will make the final decision about redistricting.

Click here for a blog post that will enable you to e-mail all nine school board members and Superintendent Ramona Tyson with one click of your mouse. This “one-click” e-mail function is courtesy of Dunwoody City Councilman John Heneghan’s “Dunwoody North” Blog.

Click here and scroll down to “Options” to see PDF maps of the centralized and decentralized proposals.

The centralized option involves moving the high achiever magnet programs from Kittredge (formerly Nancy Creek) Elementary School and Chamblee Middle School to Avondale Middle School and from Chamblee High School to Avondale High School. It also includes substantial boundary changes that are disruptive and counterproductive to neighborhood schools throughout our community.

The decentralized option would keep the magnets at Kittredge Elementary, Chamblee Middle, and Chamblee High, and involves less disruption to existing attendance zones.

An enterprising Montgomery Elementary parent has created an excellent new website, Decentralize DeKalb (click for link), that is an information clearinghouse for parents like me who oppose the centralized plan and support the decentralized plan. I encourage you to visit it. Among other things, there is a petition on the website that awaits your electronic signature.

Here is the most important thing you need to know about the two redistricting plans: The decentralized plan actually yields the greatest cost savings for the school system. That’s right. The plan that causes the least disruption saves the most money!

Click here for a PDF document posted on the school system’s website on Friday, January 28, that says as much. The following are the “money quotes,” so to speak:

“We estimate the centralized plan to save the DeKalb County School District approximately $150 million in operating costs over the next ten years; the decentralized option is estimated to realize gains of approximately $161 million over that same time period. Additionally, we can expect an extra $5 million in capital entitlement earnings over the ten years period from the centralized plan (and slightly less in the decentralized plan).”

…and…

“This summer, we expect the centralized plan to initially cost $140,000 (moving and appraisal costs) and the decentralized plan to cost $110,000. There may be additional costs as the proposals are refined and capital improvements to certain schools may be required. Additionally, the centralized plan may require some additional annual expense for the provision of band, athletics, and other extracurricular activities at the centralized magnet schools.”

Disrupt more schools. Save less money.

That’s the centralized plan.

Disrupt fewer schools. Save more money.

That’s the decentralized plan.

These are talking points that should find their way into every citizen’s communications with the members of the Board of Education until they make a decision on redistricting.


Moving MARTA in the Right Direction

January 19, 2011

Despite the sheet of snow and ice covering everything in Metro Atlanta on Monday, January 10, the General Assembly carried out its constitutional responsibilities to convene on the second Monday in January and inaugurate Governor Deal and new constitutional officers.

I made it to the Capitol that morning courtesy of MARTA. I mention my mode of transportation because, even though it took about twice as long as usual, the trains were running regardless of the weather. This underscores MARTA’s importance to mobility in Metro Atlanta. In fact, I frequently ride MARTA from Chamblee to Downtown Atlanta.

A week that started with relying on MARTA to perform the job you elected me to do ended with another unique MARTA-related development: Last Friday, I was appointed by Speaker David Ralston and the House Committee on Assignments to serve as the new Chairman of the MARTA Oversight Committee, known as MARTOC.

My other committee assignments for the 2011-12 term include continued service as Vice Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and as a member of three other committees: Transportation, Insurance, and Budget and Fiscal Affairs Oversight.

I am picking up the MARTOC assignment from Jill Chambers, who represented the adjacent district in North DeKalb, including Chamblee and Doraville, and served as Chairman of MARTOC for six of her eight years in the State House. On her watch, MARTOC went from a committee that did virtually nothing to a watchdog over MARTA’s budgeting and spending practices.

MARTOC’s work of reviewing the budget and fiscal affairs of MARTA will continue. We will not be going back to the days (years, actually) when MARTOC was a do-nothing committee. A review of MARTA’s 2008 to date purchasing card expenses (click for AJC article) will be a starting point for pressing forward with MARTOC’s oversight duties.

Delivery of criticism, however, will be different. It is my intent to have a legislator who serves on MARTOC in attendance at most meetings of the MARTA board of directors, which is the board that makes budget and policy decisions for MARTA. That will begin on Monday, January 24, with my own attendance at a MARTA board meeting. The lines of communication between MARTOC and MARTA will be frequent, open, transparent, and direct.

Furthermore, over the course of 2011, MARTOC is going to undertake a comprehensive review of the MARTA Act, the 1960s state law that created MARTA. This likely will result in changes to the MARTA Act during the 2012 (next year’s) session of the General Assembly. This project is intended to dovetail with the ongoing work of the Transit Governance Study Commission (click for more information), which I helped to create, and hopefully will result in a 21st century MARTA law that yields better value for taxpayers and better service for riders.

MARTA is a state-created authority that is funded directly out of the pockets of Fulton and DeKalb taxpayers through a one-cent sales tax. You and I pay for it. My mission is to make sure that all of us get the best “bang for the buck” out of the MARTA system.


DeKalb Taxpayers Beat GM Tax Hike

September 7, 2010

Thank you to everyone who answered the call in this message by taking the time to contact the county commissioners about the proposal to use our tax dollars as financial assistance to help an out-of-state developer to acquire and redevelop the Doraville GM site.

County officials confirmed that the proposal would have required a flat-out increase in your property taxes. Fortunately, the DeKalb County Commission had the good sense to defeat the proposal on a 5-2 vote. The five commissioners who voted against it wisely refused to raise your property taxes and use the proceeds of the tax hike to gamble on a risky commercial real estate venture.

Click here if you’d like to read my AJC op-ed piece that was published on the day of the vote. It’s the “con” article below the “pro” article.

Real estate experts agree that the GM site will be redeveloped once market conditions improve. The site is a prime parcel located on a major highway (I-285), a major north-south artery (Peachtree Industrial Boulevard), a MARTA station, and a freight railroad line. The county commission’s vote is by no means the end of the road for the property. It does, however, make it unlikely that we’ll see another effort to force DeKalb taxpayers to shoulder the risks of a large-scale project that banks and private investors will not finance.


Contact County Commissioners About GM Plan

August 23, 2010

Click here for telephone numbers and e-mail addresses to contact the DeKalb County commissioners about the GM redevelopment plan. Please see below to read my recent article on the subject.


Taxpayers Shouldn’t Become Developer’s ATM

August 20, 2010

Drive north on Peachtree Road and Peachtree Industrial Boulevard through Brookhaven, Chamblee, Doraville and into Dunwoody and the view is startling. Shopping centers are empty like the ghost towns of the Wild West.

Town Brookhaven is finally sprouting major anchor stores, but is having trouble filling its smaller retail store fronts. Chamblee Plaza? Nearly empty. The new “Super H Mart” center adjacent to the GM site? It’s nearly empty, too.

The CoStar Group, a national real estate analysis firm, says the vacancy rates of retail, shopping centers and offices in North DeKalb are at catastrophic levels when you compare them to the national average. With so many empty store fronts, why would county officials push so hard to use our tax dollars for a supersized mixed-use project at the site of the former GM plant in Doraville?

Consider this:

- In the North DeKalb zip codes 30319, 30338, 30340, 30341, 30346 and 30360, the vacancy rate for shopping centers is 23 percent compared to 14 percent in DeKalb County as a whole and 10 percent in the City of Atlanta.

- The vacancy rate for North DeKalb office buildings is 24 percent compared to 18 percent in the county overall and 20 percent in the City of Atlanta.

- Retail vacancy rates are 17 percent in those zip codes, 11 percent in DeKalb overall, and 9 percent in Atlanta, according to CoStar.

The county’s elected officials are considering using a special allocation of $36 million in federal stimulus bonds on the 165-acre GM site with visions of creating another Atlantic Station. These bonds come with a high price tag to the taxpayers. DeKalb officials would use the stimulus bonds as a $36 million “gift” to an out-of-state developer, New Broad Street of Florida.

Worse yet, county taxpayers would have to pay the principal and a majority of the interest on these bonds. It’s very likely that means higher property taxes for you and me because the county doesn’t otherwise have the money to make the payments.

In ordinary times, the developer wouldn’t have to rely on county taxpayers. There would be more private investment to help finance the project. But these are no ordinary times. We’re in the midst of the worst commercial real estate market in memory. Private investors don’t want to provide the financing for an overly ambitious mixed-use project consisting of shopping, apartments and offices. The county wants the taxpayers to step in and do what private investors won’t do: bear the risks of this project.

If a new restaurant, retail shop or gas station, for example, wants to open for business, investors take the risk whether it prospers or fails. The same should be true for this project. DeKalb taxpayers are not a bank. They are not in the business of providing corporate welfare to jump start a project the private sector would never finance.

This is the most ambitious project we’ve ever seen county officials attempt to tackle, and it comes during a deep recession. It is not the taxpayers’ job to finance the next Atlantic Station and add to the already glutted market a new supply of retail and commercial space.

The definition of insanity, according to Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We should heed the lessons of the “real estate bubble” and steer clear of risking taxpayer funds for further overdevelopment. After the bubble has burst, don’t use our tax dollars to create another bubble!

There are two final things to consider:

1. The GM site ultimately will be redeveloped if the county does not intervene. It’s arguably the most valuable parcel of available commercial property in the county. It’s on a major highway (I-285), a major north-south artery (Peachtree Industrial), and a MARTA station. In better economic times, something that private investors and market forces will support will be built there. I’m confident of that.

2. These particular stimulus bonds are supposed to be used for public infrastructure projects, not for private development. When used properly, they are a cheaper way of financing these projects. The county already has a list of infrastructure needs a mile long, not the least of which is the water and sewer system upgrades that they plan to fund with massive increases in our water bills. The bonds could be used to defray those costs. They also could be used for projects such as street repairs, new sidewalks, intersection upgrades, and parks.

The DeKalb County Board of Commissioners will vote on this matter next Tuesday, August 24.

Commissioner Elaine Boyer has pledged to vote against it. I encourage you to contact the other six county commissioners (Rader, Johnson, Barnes-Sutton, May, Gannon, and Stokes) and urge them to vote “no” as well. In particular, Commissioner Jeff Rader appears not to have taken a position as of yet. You can find the commissioners’ telephone numbers and e-mail addresses by clicking here.


GM Redevelopment Plan? Taxpayers Beware.

June 21, 2010

When a county commissioner talks about spreading “risk” and “cost,” taxpayers should run in the other direction.

Those words were quoted from a recent edition of the DeKalb Neighbor (click for link) in which Commissioner Jeff Rader talked about the potential redevelopment of the Doraville GM plant: “We … need to spread risk and cost of this to other stakeholders. [Otherwise] the county will have to service the debt and use taxpayer funds to pay back that money.”

The GM redevelopment is a project that taxpayers need to be watching closely. Very closely.

New Broad Street, the developer of Florida’s Celebration community (click for link), is proposing a partnership with DeKalb County where the developer and the county will acquire the GM site and build a supersized mixed-use center with condos, apartments, retail stores, office space, and hotels. The county is proposing to use a special allocation of federal stimulus bonds known as recovery zone bonds to help finance the redevelopment of the GM site. The “benefit” of using these bonds is that the federal government subsidizes 45 percent of the interest.

However, the remaining principal and interest on the bonds would have to be paid out of the county treasury. That’s our tax dollars the county is gambling with. Whenever you read news stories that the county is thinking about shutting down recreation facilities and judges are reading the Riot Act to the CEO and county commissioners about the judicial budget (click for links), you have to wonder what the county is thinking when they consider using the very same tax dollars for risky development projects.

Some officials in the county government are going so far as to talk about increasing our property taxes to help pay for the bonds to redevelop the GM site. That should be a complete non-starter.

When Commissioner Rader was talking about spreading “risk” and “cost,” he was talking about the county’s efforts to shake down the Doraville City Council to use the city’s funds to help pay for the project, because the GM plant is located inside the City of Doraville. That’s still using tax dollars. It’s robbing from Peter to pay Paul. Doraville would be right to say no.

The DeKalb County Development Authority would be responsible for issuing the bonds to help pay for the New Broad Street project. Generally speaking, in DeKalb County, the use of our tax dollars to support the projects of a quasi-governmental authority requires a voter referendum. This referendum requirement is the result of a law I authored in 2007. As part of this year’s House Bill 203 (click for link), however, the General Assembly granted the county a one-time exemption for the stimulus bonds now being proposed for the GM site.

The reason for the exemption is that the stimulus bonds had a June 30th “use them or lose them” deadline. It would have been impossible to hold a referendum under this time constraint. The consequence of not meeting the deadline would be that DeKalb’s allocation of stimulus bonds would be reallocated to other local governments in Georgia. Those local governments would then be able to use the bonds for infrastructure projects like improvements to roads and sewers. Infrastructure is the real purpose of these particular stimulus bonds, not risky development projects. DeKalb either has obtained or is attempting to obtain an extension of the June 30th deadline.

Furthermore, I considered it an important safeguard that the county commission would have to conduct an open public vote on an intergovernmental agreement to spend our tax dollars to repay the stimulus bonds. This safeguard exists whether or not the referendum requirement applies to these bonds. The county commission has not yet voted on an intergovernmental agreement to use our tax dollars to repay stimulus bonds for the New Broad Street project at the GM site. In addition, the commission would have to vote to approve any property tax hike that is proposed for this purpose.

The commissioners absolutely should oppose such an agreement or tax increase. The county is in no position to bear the “risk” and “cost” of a supersized development project using our tax dollars. In a recent article in the Dunwoody Crier (click for link), Commissioner Elaine Boyer appeared to suggest that a majority of the county commission is prepared to reject a tax increase for the GM redevelopment plan.

To make sure this happens, your county commissioners need to hear directly from you. You can find their contact information at web.co.dekalb.ga.us/boc/contact.html if you would like to voice your opposition.


Property Tax Limits Will Benefit Homeowners

May 13, 2010

The 2010 session of the Georgia General Assembly — the longest in recent memory due to an unprecedented budget shortfall — has finally been gaveled to a close. Like every year, this year’s legislative session had its ups and downs. Unlike some years, however, this year there is a bumper crop of substantive accomplishments to show for the efforts of your state legislators.

Over the course of the next two or three months, I will be bringing you up to speed on what was accomplished during this year’s session. I’m going to start with one of my favorite topics: property tax reductions and reforms. Homeowners won some important new rights that will take effect next year and will receive a state property tax cut in future years. DeKalb County homeowners fared even better, getting an extension of the five-year homestead assessment freeze that was enacted four years ago.

First and foremost, recall that the assessed value of your home remains frozen throughout the 2010 tax year as a result of last year’s House Bill 233 (click for information). This two-year property assessment freeze was passed on a party-line vote. It applies to both the board of education (approximately three-quarters of your tax bill) and county government (approximately one-quarter of your tax bill) components of your property taxes. It will remain in effect until the end of 2010 and was intended to keep residential property assessments from increasing at a time that the real estate market has been declining.

The DeKalb County Government’s portion of your property tax bill also is frozen by the local assessment freeze that was enacted four years ago and expires at the end of the 2011 tax year. Senate Bill 544 (click for information), sponsored in the Senate by Senator Dan Weber and in the House by Representative Fran Millar, is legislation that I helped to pass this year. It will extend the county assessment freeze through the end of the 2016 tax year, provided that you vote in favor of it on the ballot this November. There will be a referendum that requires your support.

Whenever I mention an assessment “freeze,” I always receive questions as to whether the assessed value of your home is “frozen” if it declines. The answer is no. The “freezes” discussed above only serve as a ceiling on the assessed value of your home, not a floor.

The General Assembly also passed a taxpayer-friendly comprehensive revision of the laws governing property assessments and appeals, changing a host of absurd procedures that have been very frustrating for homeowners. Sponsored by Senator Chip Rogers, Senate Bill 346 (click for information) requires that every homeowner receive a notice of their property assessment every year and be given the right to appeal their assessment every year, as opposed to only having the right to appeal when your assessment is increased. The notice of your assessment must show an estimated amount of property taxes that you would owe based upon the assessed value of your property.

Under SB 346, the new annual appeal period will be expanded from 30 to 45 days. If the tax assessors don’t respond within 45 days of your filing an appeal, you automatically win.

In addition, distress sales and foreclosures will be taken into account when determining fair market value. The sale price of a recently sold home will be required to be the fair market value for the next tax year. Furthermore, the tax assessors will be required to give you all of the information that has been used in determining the fair market value of your home.

Last but not least, the one-quarter mill’s worth of property taxes that is charged by the state government is being phased out. It will be completely repealed as of the 2016 tax year.


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!


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.


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