Today, July 31, residents of the portion of north DeKalb sandwiched between Dunwoody, Chamblee and Sandy Springs will have the chance to decide whether their neighborhoods should become parts of a new city called Brookhaven.
The campaign over whether to create the new city has been under way for months. Groups have organized on both sides. Residents have packed community meetings that drew hundreds and neighborhood gatherings that attracted only a handful.
Much of the debate has turned on money. The Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia conducted a study of the feasibility of financing a city in the area and concluded a city of Brookhaven could operate in the black without charging more in taxes than DeKalb County now does to provide similar services in the area.
Proponents of the new city go further. They say residents will save money and pay less in taxes to receive those services than they now pay DeKalb County. Opponents dismiss that as wishful thinking, saying the new city’s planners have under-prepared for what will be needed to provide police, parks and zoning regulation in the area.
DeKalb County weighed in recently, saying it ran the Vinson Institute’s formula with the most recent tax appraisal numbers and the proposed city came out $300,000 in the hole. City proponents fired back that after the county calculations were released, new sales tax figures showed the new city would end up more than $1 million in the black.
But arguments about the city – and there have been many – have turned on more than finances.
Here’s a look at some of the major points of dispute, supplemented by quotations from web sites or other material published by the proponents and opponents in the city debate. The pro-city material comes from BrookhavenYes.org. The opposing quotes come from AshfordNeighbors.org, NoCityBrookhaven.com or NoNewCity.org.
1. Better representation/local control
Proponents of the new city argue that it will bring government closer to residents, so it will better represent their interests. They point out that no DeKalb County commissioners now live in the area that would become the city.
Opponents say that the new city will simply create a new layer of government and will be subject to its own infighting and political problems.
Brookhaven Yes: “Since your city council districts will be less than 1/10 the size of your current county commissioners’ district, your city representative will actually live in your neighborhood!”
No City blog: “The idea that we will get something better than what we currently experience with DeKalb County, or even different for that matter, is not guaranteed in the new city of Brookhaven. Especially since our city council will be set up almost exactly like our county government. And, assuming those elected or appointed to office in a new city of Brookhaven will use ‘more local control’ to act only in the best interest of all citizens in Brookhaven isn’t realistic. It’s delusional. Experience tells us in all things political, politics always prevails.”
2. The tax cut
Proponents of creating a city say residents will get a tax cut. They point out the proposed city charter includes a tax millage cap of 3.35 mills. DeKalb County now levies 6.39 mills to pay for the services that would be provided in the future by the city, and proponents say the city’s lower millage would replace that tax. The millage cap may only be increased through a public vote, proponents say.
Opponents say proponents exaggerate the benefits of the tax cut and that other fees, such as franchise fees on certain utilities, may mean homeowners ultimately pay as much or more than they’re paying now. They say the new city will face financial problems and point to ongoing arguments surrounding the start of the new city of Peachtree Corners as examples of how promises of a tax cut may end up unfulfilled.
Brookhaven Yes: “All property owners will receive a property tax cut. For homestead property (your primary home), this tax cut could be a lot or a little, depending upon how efficiently your neighbors on the city council operate the city. The tax cut is even better for commercial property owners. The HOST credit already does not apply to commercial property, so commercial property owners will see their property taxes for the two transferred line items drop at least 47 percent.”
No City Brookhaven: “Your property taxes are being reduced by a small amount, but other fees are being raised higher than the cut so you will incur more out of pocket expenses. Franchise fees are the taxes charged to utility companies for the use of the public right of way for utility poles, pipes, and cabling. We already pay 1.2 percent on our Georgia Power Co. bill now, but do not on landline phone bills. Incorporated cities, such as what Brookhaven could possibly become, are allowed to charge the utility companies higher percentages than counties. Utility companies pass that extra charge along to the consumer. Our Georgia Power and landline phone bills will be the ones where we see the increases.”
3. Better services
Proponents say the city will deliver better services because tax dollars will stay in the local community. They say the city’s focus will be on improving services without spending a lot of money. They point to the “new” cities of Dunwoody and Sandy Springs to show how a city can efficiently provide services that make residents happy.
Opponents say they are happy, on the whole, with the services they receive from DeKalb County and see no reason to change. They also say the city’s proponents underestimate the cost of services the area really will require.
Brookhaven Yes: “The city’s focus will be a smaller, more cost efficient government with improved services.”
No City Brookhaven: “All you have to do is spend a few minutes on Google and you’ll see how quickly the new cities of Sandy Springs, Dunwoody and Johns Creek have evolved into typical bureaucratic governments exercising their newfound power for what they justify as the greater good. The reality of it is that the community loses local ontrol very quickly. Governments love to govern and the bureaucrats love the power.”
4. Improved police protection
Proponents say new police forces have been effective and popular in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody and Brookhaven’s will be, too. They say the size of the new city’s force will be determined by the mayor and city council, but that it will be able to offer services, such as home checks for residents on vacation, that the county department is too big to provide.
Opponents say the new city won’t have enough police officers on its payroll when it opens for business. They argue the Brookhaven force won’t have access to some special services available through the county. They also point out the Vinson Institute study found that Smyrna, the only city in the study with a poverty rate similar to Brookhaven’s, required many more police officer than other cities cited in the study.
Brookhaven Yes: “The ultimate number of officers will be determined by the new city’s mayor and members of the city council – all locally elected by local residents. Based on its analysis of similar cities, the CVI study estimated 53 officers for the city of Brookhaven. As was the case with the city of Dunwoody, this number of officers will provide the city with more active patrols than DeKalb currently provides, regardless of citizen to police ratio.”
No City Brookhaven: “DeKalb has 1.7 officers per 1,000 residents. For Brookhaven, that would mean a police force of 83 officers. .. The proposed city budget calls for less than 1.1 officers per 1,000 residents. This police force will have only 53 officers. … [O]ther city departments sacrifice their budgets in order to have the 88 officers that would provide us with adequate public safety. Those funds will have to be pulled from other departments such as Parks & Rec or Roads & Drainage or we will suffer the consequences of our crime rate going up. The promise of perfect parks and roads will never be kept if we are to be safe.”
5. Better care for public parks
The Carl Vinson Institute study found DeKalb spent about $480,140 on parks in the area that could become Brookhaven. But, told that residents wanted better maintenance for their parks than they’d been getting, the institute based its estimate of how much Brookhaven would spend on parks on a cost-per-acre figure derived from Roswell’s expenditures. Using that figure, the study predicted a city of Brookhaven would spend $1.3 million on parks maintenance.
Proponents say the higher expenditures on the area’s many parks would mean better maintenance. Opponents argue the increase in the parks budget represents the only improvement residents will see.
Brookhaven Yes: “The CVI study allowed for a near tripling of the Park budget that DeKalb says it currently spends on the eight parks in the city footprint. With more funding and less bureaucracy our parks can be the jewel of the metro area.”
Ashford Neighbors: “The only new item of direct benefit to taxpayers in a city of Brookhaven, which we currently don’t receive from DeKalb County, is the increased amount budgeted for maintenance of our public parks. … All other expenses relate directly to elected and city employee salaries, administrative, legal and finance costs, or redundant capital expenses incurred by creating additional city departments that already exist at the county level.”