By: Pat fox and The investigative reporters of Georgia Weekly POST
Bob Lundsten, chief of staff to DeKalb County Commissioner Elaine Boyer, is a leading political expert on county, state and municipal affairs.
In an interview with The Georgia Weekly Post, he addressed several issues during this heated election season. The conversation turned to the formation of new cities and their relations with the counties.
Lundsten has become a driving political force in DeKalb County, and as a seasoned politician, he has had a front-row seat, witnessing the emotional separation by Dunwoody from DeKalb County and seeing its first mayor and police department take the oath of office. A resident of Dunwoody, Lundsten’s proximity to Commissioner Boyer has made him vulnerable to incoming fireworks. Gerogia Weekly Post looked into his connection, if any, with current investigations by DeKalb County Board of Ethics in a separate investigative report.
New cities, taxes and proposed new services were discussed. The impact on the financial health of the county was an urgent concern of his. Lundsten is known to disagree from time to time with his fellow DeKalb County politicians. He was a leading opponent to a city-wide bond to displace and remove entire communities in Dunwoody by taking property and converting it into parkland. "5% of the population," he said.
The $66 million bonds generated a lot of anger among the residents. It was soundly defeated by Dunwoody voters and brought in three new faces to the city council, including a new mayor. Lundsten said the new cities are doing well.
"The two cities in DeKalb do have a financial impact on the county as they gobble up commercial properties and leave out residential areas they do not want," he said. With the advent of these new cities, there are still unanswered questions over the future of DeKalb and Fuliton counties. Tax assessment and collections are the sole responsibility of the county. "The county will always control assessment and tax collection," Lundsten said.
Taxes, capping taxes, increasing taxes, bonds, and spending tax funds are becoming the subject of many conversations around the dinner tables at homes and condos from Buckhead to Johns Creek. Proposing a big-ticket item such as fire department, water, drainage or sewer have flooded offices of elected officials with protest notes and emails. It is election time. This is gradually becoming an election issue.
Lundsten believes that cities can take on fire departments. It is allowable in the charter. In his opinion, this is where it stops. But when it comes to water and sewer, he does not believe a county-wide service could be taken over by small cities. "It would be outrageously expensive to start that up," he told the Post.
When the first new cities began forming some eight years ago, it was a process rife with emotion and hope. Even so, some who hitched their wagon to this star are now having second thoughts. The past decade has seen an array of new cities spring up across metro Atlanta.
Protests have become loud in places such as Dunwoody - population 47,000 - where close to 8,000 of the 25,000 registered voters cast ballots for cityhood back in 2008. Brookhaven – with a population around 49,000 –- faced strong opposition when it incorporated two years ago.
More than half a dozen new municipalities have sprouted up in a political climate that has compelled residents to seize control of government from their county. The drive for more local control has been strongest north of Atlanta where Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Dunwoody, Milton and Brookhaven residents are now in charge of their own streets, police force, their own zoning, their own future.
Even residents of Buckhead, a northern district of Atlanta, have become more politically energized, forming the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods in 2008. The organization represents close to three dozen homeowners associations and lobbies nearby cities on their behalf.
For the most part, residents in these newly minted cities wished overwhelmingly to escape what they came to fear from the counties: unbridled development, insufficient public safety, poorly maintained parks, decaying streets and runaway taxes.
But since they voted to incorporate, discontent has surfaced among residents in some of the new cities. Some have expressed “buyer’s remorse,” over the direction their new governments have taken. In the 2013 municipal election, many Dunwoody voters expressed their opposition at the ballet box. Political food fights became the norm. Concerns over political monopolies of elected and appointed officials were expressed by several groups of home and small business owners. Term limits became a new motto for concerned residents.
Sandy Springs, the first of the new cities to incorporate in 2005, set the stage for others to follow. But few have been able to match its success in privatizing public services and saving millions in taxpayers’ dollars. It also helps that the city of 93,000 has a healthy commercial tax base contributing to city coffers. The north Fulton County city is home to three Fortune 500 companies and encompasses some of the most valuable corporate real estate in the region.
Though certainly not a pauper, Johns Creek has a much smaller commercial tax base and has found itself trying to play catch-up on a road system long neglected by Fulton County. The city of 70,000 incorporated in 2006 and operates under a tax cap that limits its ability to raise property tax rates. Johns Creek has just witnessed one of the most telling mayoral elections in recent Georgia history. The re-election of Mayor Mike Bodker to a third term became mired in an internal investigation led by city council members. It is the subject of investigative reporting by the staff of the Georgia Weekly Post. Recently, Johns Creek’s Charter Commission, with virtually no opposition from residents, lobbied successfully to ease its tax cap so that residents could vote in a special election whether to allow a tax increase. The city has not proposed such an increase, but the legislation could help solve some funding issues should residents consent to follow that path.
It was much easier to revise and re-write the charter of the City of Dunwoody to expand the powers of elected and appointed city officials. The city’s five-member Charter Commission rewrote the bylaws giving city officials greater authority in municipal operations without a vote of the residents. Many local residents have protested. E-mails flooded the Georgia House and the Senate. House and Senate rules made it easy for the sponsors to get it through both houses. Both bills – sponsored by former Dunwoody Councilman Rep. Tom Taylor, and supported by Sen. Fran Milar of DeKalb County -- were rushed through the House and Senate and later signed by Gov. Nathan Deal. Gov. Deal, incidentally, has been invited to the annual Dunwoody Fourth of July Parade.
Dunwoody and Brookhaven split from DeKalb County, Dunwoody in 2008 and Brookhaven in 2012. The two cities also have caps on personal property tax rates, and, like Johns Creek, they each operate slightly under that cap. Attempts by local governments to gain more power over expenditures are becoming very alarming to many. Few elected officials seek new tools through changes of the charters. Some are trying to bypass public approval through referendums or make minor changes with a word here or a comma there. Capping taxes is the foundation to those cities as written in the charters.
"It is all about money. Our taxes have to stay the same," one homeowner told the Post. "We do not want our taxes to go up. We did not vote for big government or a fire department. We are losing control over our new city," she added.
The rage for communities to break away from big governments in favor of local rule continues to gain traction, especially in north Fulton and DeKalb counties. Back in 2008, the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation went so far as to suggest seceding from Atlanta in order to form a City of Buckhead. And just this year, state legislators considered cityhood proposals from the DeKalb County communities of Lakeside and Tucker.
Yet, even with the surge in self-governance, some residents have questioned whether their voices resonate any better with a city council than they did with a county commission. More vocal still were protests from neighborhood groups last year over Sandy Springs’ approval of a controversial project allowing a developer to replace an old apartment complex on Roswell Road with a 630-unit mixed-use development near Windsor Parkway. Nearby residents, including some from Buckhead, objected that the new complex would complicate an already impossible traffic situation.
Though support has been overwhelming in Sandy Springs, there were a few concerns raised that their new city is adopting the same “big-government” attitude they wanted to escape when they were under the control of Fulton County. Even some in Sandy Springs have raised objections to the city’s plan to establish a City Center along Roswell Road, just north of I-285. The plan, estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $90 million, calls for a government complex with green space, nearby retail and wider sidewalks.
Similar protests over development and government spending have been raised in some of the neighboring cities.
Some of the loudest protests have occurred in Dunwoody, where residents in 2011 voted overwhelmingly to reject two city-backed bond issues to pay $66 million to buy several high rise rentals, demolish them and displace their communities and convert them into parks. Since then, dissent has grown more prevalent.
Last year, close to 1,000 residents signed petitions to stop the city’s plans to alter Dunwoody Parkway, install a roundabout near Dunwoody High School and expand a trail through Brook Run Park. All told, the projects added up to more than $3 million.
More recently, the city ran into opposition in its plan to form a local fire department separate from DeKalb County. Launching its own fire department could cost more than the city has available under its tax cap. But the funding problem may have been solved when the Dunwoody Charter Commission - appointed by elected public officials - voted last year to change the city’s bylaws allowing the city to tax residents for fire and rescue as long as the tax does not exceed the five-year average imposed by DeKalb County for providing the same service. The legislation was championed by State Rep. Tom Taylor and State Sen. Fran Millar, both facing re-election this year. To the surprise of many, the senate bill did not look close to what was drafted by the five-member Dunwoody Charter Commission. Anger by taxpayers, caused by the passing bill, have made re-election plans by the sponsors more difficult.
The two seasoned politicians were challenged by two newcomers to the political scene of DeKalb County. Supported by several republican groups from left to right to far right, Dr. Brad Goodchild has become a new household name some are hoping will end Taylor's 12-year political resume. It did not work out. Goodchild, a third generation of dentists in DeKalb County, is a member of a family that can trace its roots back in the United States to the 1800s, and it is one of the oldest families in Dunwoody. This is the family's first run for public office. Recognizing the anger among voters over changes in the charter, Dr. Goodchild is campaigning to unseat Taylor. On May 20, Dr. Goodchild was able to get only 26% of the vote. He lost to Representative Tom Taylor. Mr. Taylor won over 70% of the votes at district 79.
Millar, also a Republican, faced a challenge in the primary against Atlanta resident Dick Anderson, who was campaigning on a platform of limited government. Anderson, a political activist for many years, gained the support of the local Tea Party. Backed by the entire political system of DeKalb county, it was an easy win for Fran Millar.
Another Dunwoody charter change supporter in the Legislature was Republican Mike Jacobs of Brookhaven. He also faced a challenge in the primary from attorney Catherine Bernard, also of Brookhaven. She is a public defender. Brookhaven residents recently raised eyebrows over the salary - $214,000.00 and $200 per hour for overtime - paid to City Manager Marie Garrett. The controversy led City Councilman Jim Eyre to resign his post and walk out in frustration. Ms. Bernard of District 80, was unable to gain ground. She lost the election to Mike jacobs. Mr. Jacobs was able to get 74% of the votes. He was elected for another two years term, serving as a member of the state House of representatives. It was a low turn out. According to data provided by the the secretary of State, only 941306 out of 5,040,952 registered voters came out to vote. "The voter turn out was less than 19%". Said a press spokesman at Brian Kemp's office.
In Dunwoody, many called the charter change of the new city of Dunwoody a betrayal of the original intent of the charter, claiming that any alterations in the tax policy should be put to a vote of the residents. It is known that plans for charter changes were first proposed by Mayor Mike Davis two years earlier. Conversations started at a home of one of the Post's publishers immediately after his election as mayor. Dunwoody's City officials, however, maintain that the charter change does not constitute a tax increase, merely a shifting of revenues from DeKalb County to a new provider.
A locally operated fire department, they argue, would give the city greater say in improving efficiencies in response times and guarantee greater safety to its residents. The opponents still demand, “Put it to a vote!”
The needs of these new cities to raise revenues to pay for streets and other infrastructure long neglected under county supervision is not unique to Dunwoody or any others. Some of the cities have instituted fees as a means of raising money to pay for services, such as storm water system repairs. Officials in the new municipalities maintain that costs are scrutinized far more closely than under county control, while government services, especially police, have improved without a tax hike.
Most of the new cities formed with considerable local support. Sandy Springs residents voted 94 percent in favor of incorporation. A year later, 88 percent of the voters in Johns Creek cast ballots in favor of cityhood. Dunwoody residents approved their incorporation with 81 percent support of those who voted. Brookhaven was a different story. Many residents who had the advantage of studying the struggles of neighboring cities including Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Dunwoody mounted a strong and noisy drive to remain under DeKalb County’s rule. As a result of the issues raised in Brookhaven, the incorporation effort passed with only 55 percent of the residents voting in favor.
They argued that in order to keep taxes low, residents would receive less police protection and pay higher permit fees to help make up the difference. They also said all the zoning codes residents had fought so hard to implement and preserve could be totally rewritten.
The city of Dunwoody spent close to $300,000 and two years for a zoning re-write. Many called it a waste of money, arguing it should have been done in-house by updating the current ordinances.
The Georgia Weekly Post staff is preparing a separate investigative report dealing with the absences of public participation and effects on decision-making and public hearings.
But despite misgivings and some “buyers’ remorse,” the cry for self-governance remains in the air of the region.
Though still under the governance of the City of Atlanta, Buckhead’s neighborhood, civic and business communities have coalesced into a political force that often works independently to secure their quality of life and economic prosperity.
And in East Cobb County, a community of close to 170,000 people, the idea of incorporation was raised as a campaign issue two years ago by none other than former County Commission Chairman Bill Byrne. The idea failed to garner support, although it did generate more than a small amount of public debate.
More recently, DeKalb County residents in Briarcliff and Tucker commissioned feasibility studies on incorporation and presented the findings to the Georgia Legislature this year. Neither proposal gained enough support to secure state approval, but the campaigns continue.
Meanwhile, the new cities that have formed continue to establish themselves, and a great many residents remain vigilant reminding local leaders of their duty to preserve a responsive government that adheres to the values expressed by the voters who gave them power. They have not fallen stagnant. Many homeowners groups regularly attend City Council meetings to keep watch. Some have called for further independence from county rule.
While residents of the new cities have secured a cap on the local property tax rate, some have called for more independence from the county by lobbying for a freeze on property assessments, which remain under county control. They argue a tax rate cap in the city is no good if county appraisers can simply raise the value of their property.
Another campaign, which garnered a great deal of attention in Dunwoody over the past year, deals with cities forming their own school districts. Dunwoody committed $50,000 to pay for a feasibility study of the issue. But such a move requires legislative approval, and the campaign failed to garner support at the Capitol this year.
The drive faced steep odds from the outset because it takes on the entire school establishment. Many are elected, and they want to keep their seats. The local legislative team of Sen. Miller and Rep. Taylor, with the support of the former campaign manager for Mayor Mike Davis, failed to convince the leadership to bring it to the floor for a vote. The proposal was withdrawn.
Nevertheless, the campaigns themselves are evidence of a vibrant citizenry charged with the ambition to take control of their government and keep it responsive to those it serves.
While interest in forming local governments began with a public roar, some City Councils now preside over empty auditoriums. Residents have put their new governments on auto pilot and assume they are flying a straight path.
The state Legislature could have provided better oversight of these new municipalities to protect their residents.
It is a work in progress.