Fulton County Commission candidate Q and A: Keisha Waites
Some answers have been condensed or lightly edited for clarity.
Keisha Waites recently announced her departure from the Georgia state House, where she’s served since 2012, to run for Fulton County Commission chair.
Q: What is your biggest concern for Fulton County?
A: For me as a small business owner and a property owner, it’s probably going to be property tax relief.
I intimately understand the hell that the voters are going through. When I opened my tax bill for my primary home, I was in sticker shock. My taxes have tripled and doubled over the last couple of years.
… I do affordable housing in the neighborhood. To be very honest with you, I don’t make any money because by the time I pay my taxes and insurance on my homes, I just don’t make any money to keep the rent low for my tenants who have been with me for years.
So we’ve got to find a permanent solution to this tax dynamic and I believe the answer to that is creating a robust economy where everybody gets to play.
We have all of this amazing talent, we’ve got kids coming here going to school at Emory, Tech, Georgia State, Kennesaw, a lot of these amazing [institutions.] But the problem is a lot of them don’t make Fulton County their home for different reasons. So we’ve got to get that situation resolved to be able to retain and attract a talent base and a workforce to be world-class.
The other piece is that businesses and corporations, folks like Amazon, are … looking at places like New Jersey and other areas. There’s no reason why we should not be attracting those types of vendors to our area. … Even though I know we’re very dense in the city, Fulton County has a lot to offer in terms of our workforce, and until we address our property tax issue, our gridlock transportation challenges and public safety, if people don’t feel safe, nothing matters. Whether you’re on the north side of town, whether you’re on the south side of town. My window was knocked out in Buckhead, that’s ridiculous.
Q: What could you as Fulton County Commission chair do about these concerns? What are some of your policy ideas?
A: One, I want to sit down with the Georgia General Assembly, because everybody knows that you can’t get anything done without working with the state of Georgia. I’d work with members, my former colleagues to create legislation that will protect homeowners.
Because right now, under law, we’re under mandate to comply in terms of our tax guidelines.
What I’d like to see is some legislation that allows senior citizens to age in their homes, once you reach a certain age. I think there are several remedies out there.
And finally the other piece is to work with businesses and corporations to attract global talent to Atlanta, Fulton County, so that we’re able to build and create a robust tax base.
Q: In Fulton County, a lot of public services are handled by the cities. What do you see as the role of the county government and of the Commission chair?
A: There are certain services that we’re constitutionally mandated to provide like courts and jail … library services. But I do agree with you and I’ve said this at several forums: A lot of things that the county currently does, we’ve got to get out of that business.
There is a reason why you had 15 cities municipalize … dissatisfaction of local communities with the county.
So my feeling is that versus being big brother, the county needs to work in tandem with the local cities. That’s one of the reasons that you’ve seen other communities go with this joint partnership dynamic in terms of consolidated services.
There are a number of services that I frankly would like to see go back to municipalities because I think they’re better suited to serving that role.
There are also certain services that I think the county does well. I think we do animal control well, I think we just got to beef up the force in specific areas where there’s a greater need. I love the fact that we provide services for senior citizens, that we have libraries. But I’d like to see the cities play a greater role in terms of their own fate.
The other piece is public safety. It’s my belief that we have got to work in terms of connectivity. There’s a huge opportunity right now — I’m not saying it’s not happening — but what I’m saying is I’d like to be a bridge-builder, because right now there is a north Fulton versus a south Fulton. It’s an adversarial, combative relationship. What I’m hoping is give my bipartisanship relationships at the Capitol, given the work that we have done over the years working across the aisle, that I can kind of bridge that gap.
So I have been a huge proponent of floating meetings. We got to have some meetings up in north Fulton, we’ve got to move the meetings to south Fulton. I’d like to see the meetings rotate, we’ll go to north Fulton one month, the next month we’ll be back Downtown, the third month, we’ll be in south Fulton. So what happens is it allows all of the constituents, all of the voters to truly be engaged in the conversation.
The other complaint that I’ve received numerous times is that the meetings are inaccessible to working families. If we have a meeting at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, how in the world are the voters or the constituents going to participate in the process? And that’s by design.
So we’ve got to have local town hall meetings where we’re taking the conversation to them. That conversation has to be on the north side of town, it has to be on the south side of town, so that we can fully engage people. We’ve got to stream online so when you’ve got something to say, that there’s an apparatus where people talk to you.
That’s one of the reasons I was so infuriated regarding my property taxes, because I’ve appealed, I’ve disputed it for months. No one ever called me back. So the process is clearly flawed and broken. If you have a legitimate tax dispute, there has to be a mechanism to talk to somebody.
Q: Looking at Fulton County government in the last 10 years, what’s something Fulton County government has gotten right?
A: There’s a number of things they have gotten right. I think that we have become a leader in terms of how we help our senior citizens, in terms of providing senior services. We’ve gotten so much better with that.
Fulton County has one of the largest aging populations in the country, so given that case, we’ve got to figure out how we can allow and nurture our seniors capacity to age in their homes with dignity.
It is extremely important to me. We’ve got to make sure they are protected. The people who have invested in Fulton County, that they are given priority in terms of being allowed to stay.
The other piece is that we have worked hard on affordable housing, making sure that we don’t turn into a mini-Washington, D.C. or a New York so that other people are priced out.
I think it’s important that we have mixed-use communities where everybody can thrive. I think that that’s extremely important.
And finally the other piece is our library system. We have a state-of-the-art amazing library system. We’ve built libraries from the north side to the south side of town, to allow people to engage and utilize the services.
So those are some things I’m extremely proud of … Right now we’re moving to a transportation apparatus for seniors who need medical transportation as well as individuals who may have physical mobility challenges. And so those are some things I think really set us apart from other areas.
Q: Let’s talk about the other side of the coin: in the last 10 years, what’s something the county government has either gotten wrong or failed to do?
A: I think that we’re big and bloated. I think that right now Fulton County is in the business of providing a lot of services, given the fact that we’re 100 percent fully municipalized. We’ve got to cut the fat. And that’s a difficult, tough conversion in terms of where we do that.
My goal on day one is sit down with all department heads and go to them.
One of the things that I hate is top-down management. I’ve always been a big supporter of bottom-up management. That is going to the people who are on the front lines, who do the job every day and asking them: what do you need to be more efficient, what areas can we cut?
What happens is, you see this happening at the federal level right now, you see all of these decisions being made and nobody ever asks the people who do the jobs every day…
The other piece is, I love the idea that citizens can engage us and talk to us and come up with amazing ideas. Ryan Gravel came up with the BeltLine, this was … a paper that he did as a student at Georgia Tech, which was just an idea that became an apparatus and a movement in the city of Atlanta that’s very, very successful.
We have an amazing talent pool right here in the Atlanta Fulton area. We have all of these amazing institutions right here in the Atlanta area. There’s no reason why we cannot fix our transit challenges. I think we do that by expanding MARTA. MARTA needs to go where people want to ride it. People don’t feel safe. That’s the other complaint, people who have mobility issues and senior citizens don’t feel safe riding MARTA.
One of the things I love about visiting places like Washington and New York is there’s an officer on the car, on the train with us.
Until we can deal with the public safety challenges that we have, that’s going to preclude or limit our capacity to be a 21st century, world-class city.
Q: Overall, bottom line, why should people vote for you, what’s your pitch to the voters?
A: I am uniquely qualified. As I started the conversation by saying, right now, you can’t get anything accomplished without state collaboration and state partnership.
The members of the General Assembly, they’re not people that I email, I have these people on speed dial in my cell phone. I spent the last five years working hand-in-hand with them. I’m proud of passing a billion-dollar transportation bill to improve our roads and infrastructure. I’m proud of the fact that we were able to collaborate and work together to veto discriminatory legislation to the LGBT community. I’m proud to pass House Bill 54, which guarantees that any police officer who is killed in the line of duty, their children will never pay a dime to go to college in the state of Georgia. That is my legislation.
I worked on a number of challenges that we have right here in Fulton County. I sat on the (state House) Transportation Committee, where we vetted legislation from all over the state surrounding transit. I sat on the (state House) Public Safety Committee, where the No. 2 signer on my bill was a Republican, Alan Powell. So I have relationships crossing party lines.
And finally, we need a leader who will represent everybody, old, young, black, white, gay and straight. We’ve always operated in these ridiculous silos and that’s one of the reasons that we have not been able to move to the next level.
I think when you look at the previous administration, you did not see those state partnerships and that collaboration that is necessary to be successful.
I think if you look at the mayoral administration, at Kasim Reed, he had those direct partnerships with the governor, so it makes a difference when you have relationships with the state. The state provides all kinds of tax incentives. Right now, we can combine those, we can streamline those for all 15 cities to bring businesses, corporations globally to our area so we’re able to truly market it at another level. That’s how you retain and attract a talent pool, new home owners, young people who don’t go to Gwinnett, don’t go to Cobb, but they start looking at possibly living in town, living in the city.
Right now, we’re turning into where the city eventually becomes a place where only the affluent can live. But I think diversity is what makes us great and amazing, and again my candidacy brings that to the table. My business acumen, I’m a small business owner, by trade professionally, I’m an emergency manager … I have a proven background in crisis management in terms of handling difficulties and navigating turbulent waters. Right now we’re in a situation where experience does matter.
… We don’t have time to have butts in a seat. We don’t have time for that. We need people who can offer meaningful, substantive legislation, policy, to get things done … It is very apparent to me that Mr. Pitts is just occupying a seat …
We have to have leadership that is business about handling the business of the people that does not have any personal gain to benefit from the taxpayers. I have a job that pays me extremely well and so I don’t benefit from these contracts. We’ve seen the mess right now at City Hall when people are not minding the taxpayers’ business. It is extremely important to me that we lead by example.
Finally, I intimately know the hell that taxpayers are going through when they open their tax bills. There is no process if you want to appeal or dispute your tax bill. There is no process where anybody will call you back. You’re at the mercy of Fulton County. That’s one of the reasons that I supported a state law that says you can no longer put junk fees on the [property] tax bill.
… I went to the well on that bill, I spoke on that bill in committee and I stood up and I said I’m a small business owner. I provide affordable housing. Every time I evict a tenant or someone leaves a water bill, I got a tax lien on my house and I have to get a lawyer to fight that. That is bullshit. I’m not a big company like Post Properties or Keller Williams. I’m not one of those people who can compete. Every time I have a tent that I have to evict, I can’t tell … how you’re going to recoup fees when you’re providing affordable housing? These families don’t have it. So I’m going to make sure that Fulton County remains a county were working families get to participate, where they are involved … where they feel like they have a place at the table.
I am the candidate for the little guy, I am the candidate for the small business owner, I am the candidate regarding pushing for civil liberties and making sure that Fulton County is diverse, that it is robust, that it is fiscally sound and it is healthy. And I will lead that charge in making sure that our county is safe by working with the state and local elected officials to streamline and to remove any duplication of services. We can talk about working with the business community in terms of putting up cameras in areas where we have high crime, at our college campuses where we have all of these atrocities happening where people are victimizing our students. That is unacceptable. I’m interested in Fulton County being the best place to live, work and play but it also being the safest place to raise a family.
We have the best schools and institutions. We have corporations that are beating down the doors coming here. Not where we’re turning folks away. I read in the paper that Sandy Springs is turning the Amazon second headquarters away because we don’t have the space. Let’s find it! Can you imagine the number of jobs that we’re talking about? That’s the type of Fulton County that we want to be, where people are knocking down our doors saying I want to come to Fulton County.
We have to get our property tax issues under control, we have to make tough decisions, we have to expand our rail, making sure it extends all the way to the Big Chicken, make sure it goes all the way to Macon and Savannah, that it goes all the way to Six Flags, that we run it all the way out to Stonecrest Mall. You need to be able to get on the train and get Downtown in 20 minutes. If that’s not happening. We’re not doing what we need to do to be a world-class city in a world-class county.