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Incorporation pushes unwanted marriages on DeKalb neighborhoods

By Ben Smith

In north-central DeKalb County, my home is among thousands in the crosshairs of cityhood movements and proposed annexations. Count me among the otherwise sensible DeKalb County residents who rightly worry that a new city we’ve never heard of is going to take us over, or even worse, ignore us.

Briarcliffsign.jpg

A yard sign promoting the city of Briarcliff. Prior to the incorporation movement Briarcliff was best known as a road.

No one wants to be an unincorporated island surrounded by cities. But lots of us are in a pickle. Our zip code (30033) is Decatur, but we’re not in the city proper, and it doesn’t want us anyway. If Atlanta, the city too busy to hate, doesn’t love our ranchburger vicinage, we’ll likely be scooped up by a municipality that does not exist yet, such as the proposed city of Briarcliff.

On one map it looks like a T-bone steak and shares the name of an insane asylum featured in the TV series American Horror Story. Just north of us, folks are similarly worried about takeovers by Tucker (not a city, just looks like one) and Lakeside (maybe you’ve heard the nickname “Fakeside”). The latest proposal is to merge Lakeside and Briarcliff into one two-headed creature.

Some of us would rather not go crazy over this.

Always greener? Don’t think so.

In DeKalb County, the driving force behind these cityhood movements is the widespread belief that DeKalb County government and its school system are corrupt and incompetent. Can’t argue with that. But what I saw in a decade as an AJC reporter covering governments in DeKalb County and Gwinnett gave me a natural resistance to bandwagon movements, especially those that preach economic feasibility. The argument is: if re-aligning our neighborhoods into cities makes sense to our pocketbooks, why not vote yes?

Often these campaigns rely on research from places like the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. I remember how a Vinson study in 1997 helped boosters persuade DeKalb voters to pass a Homestead Option (HOST) penny-per-dollar sales tax hike. Based on the size of DeKalb County’s share of annual MARTA tax collections, the study predicted the tax would generate enough revenue to give homeowners a 100 percent homestead exemption on their property taxes, pay for $20 million in infrastructure improvements and provide a small tax cut for businesses.

The study didn’t take into account that a change in the state of Georgia’s computerized system of calculating revenue that was implemented the same day DeKalb’s HOST went into effect, would result in a steep drop in tax collections. County leaders scrambled. They still fulfilled the promised 100 percent homestead exemption for homeowners, but dropped the tax cut for businesses and slashed the amount of money set aside for infrastructure improvements. The money that the study concluded would be there simply wasn’t.

Despite what supporters of incorporation say, such proposals don’t always deliver what they promise.  In January, the city of Jurupa Valley, Calif., voted to begin disincorporation just three years after the city’s founding. Jurupa Valley is one of four new Riverside County cities, including Eastvale, Menifee and Wildomar,  that were saddled with huge debts and forced to slash services after Gov. Jerry Brown diverted state vehicle license fee revenue from local governments toward prison realignment. The cities had planned to use that money for incorporation.

Looking more broadly at the region and its history, I remain unconvinced that these new cities will be anything less than another layer of government with higher taxes, which will spend money for lawyers to wage border fights. I question whether these new cities will turn over the handling of applications for building permits, business licenses and court fine payments to private companies in other U.S. cities and abroad, as Sandy Springs did. In their craving for diversified tax bases, will they open more residential areas to commercial development?

Then there is the immense balkanization of Atlanta already. When we experience the next ice storm like the one that stranded thousands of metro Atlanta motorists on that horrible night last January, imagine even more local governments trying to coordinate disaster response. It will get harder, not easier.

But learning from history, and going forward with savvy expectations, are made even more unlikely because of the most volatile issue in this whole mess: race. The biggest critics of new or bigger cities in DeKalb say that this collective movement is part of a racist agenda to free affluent white enclaves from the control of majority black governments. Cityhood supporters have tended to react by plugging their ears and yelling,  “Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na,na, Not listening! Not listening!” Race is such a dividing force that we ignore other political factors that would help us all be as informed as possible.

Lakeside-map

One of many maps of the proposed city of Lakeside. Lakeside, like Briarcliff, has no prior identity as a community of interest. It is known as a high school.

It’s also worth pointing out that these re-alignments are galvanizing as a major cleanup of unethical county leaders is well underway. When corruption indictments, trials or convictions end or suspend the careers of the county’s CEO, a commissioner, a school superintendent and a school chief operating officer, DeKalb County offers a fresh page of history. At this point, where can things go but up?

Political fission

As the zeal to carve up our jurisdiction into multiple municipalities seemingly moves with all the fury of a splitting atom, I can’t help but wonder where it all ends. Will every subdivision have its own mayor and city council? Will neighborhoods inside these new or expanded cities begin to rebel when their local governments begin to let them down?

In the battle for hearts and minds, we’ve seen how rumors of cityhood and annexation have turned DeKalb residents into a bunch of perennial wallflowers panicking over a Sadie Hawkins dance. If this push won’t stop, let’s go for it.

I have in mind a city of my own. It lies just southeast of the VA Hospital and Clairmont Road on .56 acres, about half that when South Peachtree Creek rises. It is, more specifically, my house and the property attached to it.

Its five residents will enjoy enough municipal services to qualify as a city. It will have one orange hatchback designated for trash pickup and dumping at undisclosed locations at midnight on Saturdays. It will have its own zoning department to approve or deny, say, one young resident’s plan for a beekeeping operation within the city limits. Police services will be provided by the resident canine, a shepherd mix already on patrol. I call this imaginary city Suckatur.

It’s a ridiculous idea, isn’t it? But it points out where our current choices came from and where we are going: in DeKalb County, either we all hang together or we go our separate ways.

Ben Smith can be contacted at [email protected]

Columnist Ben Smith, who writes this column with his wife Michelle Hiskey, is a veteran reporter and website designer who has freelanced articles for The Toronto Star, CNN, AOL.com, the Daily Report, among other publications. He worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 22 years covering primarily politics and government. Ben earned his bachelor's degree in English from the University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn. Ben and Michelle live in Decatur with their two terrific daughters.

19 replies
  1. Anon says:

    Ben-
    Cool Story.
    Interesting that you didn’t mention any of the 5 or so CVI studies done in the last 10 years related to something relevant…like…I don’t know….incorporations maybe?
    Sandy Springs- CVI projected revenue: $73M 1st Year Revenue: $83.9M Current: $83.1M
    Johns Creek-CVI $46M/1st Year $51.7M/Current $69.4M
    Dunwoody- CVI $18.8M/1st Year $18.3M/Current $31.7M
    Brookhaven- CVI $23.8M/1st Year&Current $26.3M
    But the 1997 study about a HOST tax that was undermined by a fundamental change in the law is sooooo relevant.
    Hey…since you tried an ad hominem attack on ‘scary CVI budget numbers’…maybe you could try every other ad hominem attack in the ‘anti-incorporation’ playbook? Guilt of association with the ‘real’ brand city? Hmmmm…there has to be one you didn’t try, right?  Don’t be like those republicans in Gwinnett? Ok…what about ‘balkanazation’? Riiiight. Just scream..’that map doesn’t look right!’  Oh, you tried that, too?  I got it…use California’s budget crisis and resulting local revenue fallouts to try to make people think that happened anywhere but California? Really..? Another Layer of Government? Shoot. How about attacks on leaders and city employees yet to exist? Ok…you could scare people with ‘they are going to need $$ so they are going to just be slaves to delvelopers!” Man..you really ran the gamut here.  Let’s get serious then…scream ‘racism!’ Whoa…you should have saved that for it’s own column.
    Ok…time for unintentional irony…
    “Looking more broadly at the region and its history”…don’t you mean ignoring other cities in the region and instead comparing this to California?
    “But learning from history..” Is that what you call ignoring changes in state law that allowed counties to provide municipal services and also established the ‘three mile rule’ effectively locking in the status quo of political entities over the next 30 years and contributing to unmitigated sprawl, inefficient delivery of services, and a limiting of forming towns…something that every state in the US seems to believe is the natural outgrowth of denser population in order to provide local communities with identities and more efficient delivery of services.  
    Of course there is irony and then there is flat out hilarity…”Ben and Michelle live in Decatur”…no you don’t. You live in DeKalb, but I guess that’s only good enough for the body of the article, not for the bio.Report

    Reply
  2. Bert says:

    Good piece, giving voice to the concerns of many of us who are simply pragmatists and want government, at whatever level, to be responsible, efficient, and fair.  And to disappear into the background whenever possible. 
     Snarky commentators aside, there are some problems with Dekalb County government which have not been resolved over the past generation, and Dekalb voters don’t seem to be any more educated or better informed now than since the departure of Manuel Maloof.  Democratic systems have been struggling with forms and levels of government at least since Draco in ancient Greece, some 2600 years ago. 
     Which makes those of us with an historical perspective skeptical of this incorporation movement.  When the pendulum swings toward more government, laws, regulations, and authorities in the lives of the citizenry, it usually swings too hard and too far.Report

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  3. Insight says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head and did so a lot more diplomatically than many when you point to DeKalb’s spate of corruption as a driving force behind these annexations.  Name one office of consequence in DeKalb where there has not been indictment, trial, or replacement.  The CEO is headed for a second trial; the Superintendent and CFO of schools are also headed for a second trial on corruption and racketeering after being released recently due to a technical error; the judge in that matter is resigning after taking heat for releasing the Superintendent and CFO; one County Commissioner is headed to jail on a plea bargain for corruption and conversion of taxpayer funds (and is keeping her pension!), another one is being investigated for paying her boyfriend our tax monies for ‘political advice’ (repaid by a visit from the DeKalb domestic violence squad when the two got into a scrap earlier this year).  The Governor had to intervene in our schools and remove 5 school board members; the Court of Appeals too. Another investigation of the school district has been requested due to alleged ‘incorrect’ statements relating to one of our citizens boldest attempts to make things better – the Charter Cluster.   Several School BOE members filed suit after being replaced. SACS has us on ‘monitoring’ after putting the school district on probation. The Governor has tried to fix it, he can’t.  The General Assembly has tried to fix it, they can’t.  The DA has tried to fix it, he can’t.  The Justice Department will likely be all over the County soon if they are not already conducting table top investigations as this is being written.
    All these fights, suits, malfeasance, and outright contempt for the citizens of DeKalb is being funded by . . .  the citizens of DeKalb.  Its criminal, not to mention embarrassing.  Think World Class Emory wants anything to do with DeKalb?  CDC? Think again.  Ever wonder why the biggest employers in DeKalb are its governments?   Really, how much can one county take?  We have a culture of corruption in DeKalb that is making the citizens want to flee DeKalb.  I will gladly pick another government through annexation.  Annexation represents a way to ‘change’ your government, that is why people are attracted to it.  For people who have put their blood, sweat, tears, and dollars into trying to make things better only to be responded to with spite, lack of transparency, and outright theft, annexation is a natural and progressive solution.Report

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  4. ScottNAtlanta says:

    Doesn’t matter…Brookhaven will swallow up the valuable parts before anyone gets to the cityhood stage.  All that litigation is expensive you know…fighting to close the entities you relied on to make your city feasible…I say MEH to cities in Dekalb…one on another will swallow up my location…pick your poison.Report

    Reply
  5. Burroughston Broch says:

    The better solution for DeKalb would be for the entire county to become incorporated, reduce the county to its constitutionally minimum duties, and then starve it. The same solution would work in Fulton as well.
    The best solution for DeKalb would be to take the better solution and replace the DeKalb schools with separate municipal systems.Report

    Reply
  6. Insight says:

    @atlman See here:  http://web.co.dekalb.ga.us/decidedekalb/ed-largest-employers.html.  DeKalb employs over 20,000; total government over 40,000.  5 of top 18 employers are governments.  Over 25% of top employers are governments. This list includes Delta which (Delta says) is in Atlanta not DeKalb so the true figure is actually higher.Report

    Reply
  7. Jean Logan1 says:

    Does anyone know where we can view the “new” map for the combined Briarcliff/Lakeside proposed city?  Makes a difference to those of us in the proposed Decatur annexation neighborhoods.Report

    Reply
  8. Burroughston Broch says:

    @Insight The list says “Top Employers in DeKalb County and the Greater Metro Area”, not in DeKalb County. You will see BellSouth listed, but it’s AT&T and most of the employees are in downtown Atlanta and beside the Lindbergh MARTA station – not in DeKalb. Notice the City of Atlanta with 8,657 employees – they are not in DeKalb.
    According to Delta, their headquarters address is 1030 Delta Boulevard, Atlanta, GA 30354-1989; this address is in Fulton County.
    The list is worthless.Report

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  9. Insight says:

    Yep, take ATT and Delta off the list and the % government employees in DeKalb is greater than 25%.  Not a healthy situation for taxpaying citizens. The list looks like chamber PR.  Most companies avoid DeKalb and its culture of corruption.  Nothing against government employees, there just needs to be a health balance.Report

    Reply
  10. atlman says:

    Burroughston Broch
    DeKalb’s percentage is skewed by the CDC and Emory complexes, which are major providers of productive, high paying, highly skilled jobs. I think that a lot of the DeKalb bashers seem to only consider the more populous south DeKalb while ignoring that the very affluent north DeKalb exists. Or maybe they lump north DeKalb in with north Fulton or Gwinnett. But in any case, claiming that government is the biggest employer in DeKalb is either A) playing games by ignoring that we are talking about CDC and not some county jobs/patronage program and B) ignoring north DeKalb.

    A lot of folks play games by downplaying the economic impact of and tax revenue generated by DeKalb and Fulton. Some people actually believe that their tax money is being redistributed to those counties when the opposite is true: both counties pay FAR more revenue to the state than they get back. It is because those counties are urban and Democrat. But the reality is that the places where the government is the biggest employer is not Fulton and DeKalb, but in Georgia’s rural counties, in both north and south Georgia. In many of those places the unemployment rate is far over 10%, the median salary is far below the state and national averages, and the biggest single employer is the school system followed by the local hospital. It was those counties that were absolutely hammered by school layoffs and hospital closings caused them to lose a high percentage of their already small college educated, professional salaried workforce. 
    It is fun to kick around the Democrats who run DeKalb, Fulton and Clayton, but it obscures the fact that the worst economic problems – generational poverty, terrible education, no real hope of short term economic growth – are outside metro Atlanta entirely, not inside the perimeter. And this is going to get even worse as the feds continue to wind down military installations in this state, many of whom were built for the Cold War and have only been retained as long as they have for political reasons. 
    That allows for a good comparison by the way. Atlanta lost Fort McPherson and was able to rebound by redeveloping it into a movie studio complex; not ideal but it is something that will generate revenue and spur private development. But when these places outside Atlanta lose their military bases in the coming decades what are they going to do? 
    That is why it is past time to end this nonsense and start working towards real solutions.Report

    Reply
  11. Burroughston Broch says:

    @atlman Since when are Emory employees government workers? They are counted in the services category.
    The original question by Insight was, “Ever wonder why the biggest employers in DeKalb are its governments?” Government is by far the largest single employer in DeKalb. The CDC employs 15,000 total in all of its operations, so let’s say 7,500 in DeKalb. Emory University and Emory Healthcare employ more than 27,000, spread all over metro Atlanta; let’s say 18,000 in DeKalb.
    Government employees in DeKalb exceed 41,000. QED
    By the way, there is no film complex at Fort Mac. One has been mooted, but the base is still vacant.Report

    Reply
  12. Burroughston Broch says:

    @atlman 
    “the worst economic problems – generational poverty, terrible education, no real hope of short term economic growth – are outside metro Atlanta entirely, not inside the perimeter.”
    Surely you jest. If not, go to SW Atlanta and Bankhead Highway in the City of Atlanta, spend some time, and reconsider your statement.Report

    Reply
  13. Cynde Collins says:

    It’s an interesting process to experience to say the least. What services are still better provided county-wide, without duplicating what new cities want to offer?Report

    Reply

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