Thursday, October 22, 2015

Thoughts on Lavista Hills


I am generally skeptical of cityhood movements.   They seem to have been more motivated by ensuring white dollars don't end up benefiting black citizens in other parts of a county.  A secondary goal is to provide greater opportunities for a Republican "farm team" of local elected officials.  In a county such as DeKalb, this is especially important.  There is only one commission district where a Republican can get elected.  County-wide offices, forget it.  There are only a few state house and senate districts that will elect Republicans too, so if you live in a DeKalb as a Republican, you are largely out of luck if you have dreams of electoral office.


I have several concerns about the formation of Lavista Hills which must be balanced with benefits before deciding whether to vote Yes or No on the referendum.

Hidden Motivations

This is purely a partisan, political concern.  Most people won't care, but I do, and so do many of my friends.  As I mentioned earlier, one of the goals of these new cities we have seen in Fulton and DeKalb is to provide a farm team with electoral experience for Republicans in heavily Democratic counties.  Lavista Hills is no different, although the voting data indicates that Lavista Hills will be a swing city.  It will be difficult for crazy people in either party to be elected to the city council or as mayor.  There is a slight built in GOP advantage in the districts, but it appears to me that the boundaries of city council districts are designed to create a 3-3 split to be broken by the mayor, who is largely expected to be former Rep. Kevin Levitas, who was a Democrat in the state legislature but who had the most conservative voting record of anyone in the Democratic caucus, including rural members!  Some might say he was a DINO, so that makes me wearily suspicious.

A lot of what seems to be driving the cityhood movements in DeKalb are the endless scandals involving county government and school board.  Having the last superintendent sent to prison for violating RICO statutes, along with the open graft by school board members since removed or kicked out of office, is enough to make any DeKalb taxpayer, let alone parents, pull their hair out.  So I get it, and I will support anything that brings order to our schools and restores the quality that DeKalb used to produce. 

That does not mean I don't see an endgame involving the schools in DeKalb.  Namely, I believe the end goal is to break up DeKalb County schools and use a coalition of cities to create new, wealthier, and majority white school districts.  Yes, that would require amending the Georgia constitution to lift the cap on the number of school districts or to allow localities to band together to form new districts.  Such a bill (HR 4) is already in the legislative hopper.   Republicans have 119 members in the state house, 1 short of the number needed to amend the state constitution.  In the state senate, the GOP has 38 members,  which is a constitutional majority.  Only if Democrats hold together can this amendment be stopped, but it's unclear to me if Rep. Taylor Bennett will be able to vote No if his constituents in Brookhaven really want him to vote Yes.  We shall see what happens.

I believe the goal is to have Brookhaven, Lavista Hills, and maybe Tucker...with Chamblee and Doraville thrown in for good measure so that the district isn't TOO white... to join together to form a new school district and seceding from DeKalb County schools after the state constitution is amended.  I'm not sure such an outcome would withstand judicial scrutiny, but I do believe it is one of the prime hidden motivations for cityhood.


The prime question for me is whether Lavista Hills is even viable financially given the paucity of commercial real estate within the city boundaries.  Brookhaven poached Executive Park, and yes, that was because Children's Hospital of Atlanta wanted to go with an existing city rather than wait and see what happened with Lavista Hills.  Still, that was a huge blow to potential revenue for a new city.  And the unfortunate splitting of Northlake along Lavista Road also is a blow to revenue for the city.  Yes, it was necessary because no one could agree on the boundary that would let both Tucker and Lavista Hills to be viable.  Personally, I think 285 should have been the boundary between Tucker and Lavista Hills.  It made sense geographically, but local politics around the schools again played a big role. 

Lavista Hills will be a huge city of about 67,000 people and mostly residential.  Can Toco Hills, small strip malls, and half of a decaying Northlake really support cityhood without a massive tax increase?   There are lots of opinions out there, and I found the Carl Vinson Institute Study and this editorial most helpful in forming my thoughts.

Costs will rise, but not where you think 

Cities have the ability to levy franchise fees, which will simply be passed on to homeowners on their bills.  This means cable, telephone, etc. will have fees passed on to residents to pay for whatever franchise fees the city imposes.  It probably won't be much, but it is an increase.

Goodbye HOST credit

Cities largely lose HOST credits compared to unincorporated counties.  There's also the issue of different exemptions available in cities versus counties.  This is why tax rates (called "millage") between city and county are not directly comparable .  Cities generally have lower millage rates but that's because you lose the HOST credit, so a lower millage can raise the same amount of money.  This is why the property tax bills will probably be a wash when you look at the bottom line for homeowners.

Surplus may not exist

The Carl Vinson Institute study used DeKalb’s millage rate of 7.64 to analyze the viability of LaVista Hills, and determined that Lavista Hills would likely run a surplus of about $1.7 million at the end of the day.  Sounds good, right?  Well, the legislation establishing Lavista Hills caps the millage rate at 5.  The study did not use that millage rate for its calculations.   Here's where the drama begins.  The anti-cityhood folks (DeKalb Strong) ran the numbers themselves using the 5 millage rate, and determined that Lavista Hills would run about $114k deficit

So who do we believe?  The Carl Vinson Institute is well qualified to do viability studies, and they have largely been correct about cities that have been formed in the last decade.  While I wish they had conducted their analysis using the 5 millage limit, the Institute was crystal clear in emphasizing that their report is an educated guess about the potential income of the city. It is not the same thing as a budget passed by an elected body and managed by professionals.  A projected deficit of $114k in a projected budget of $34.5M (0.3%) is almost a rounding error in the world government budgets.  I know that's not popular to say, but my experience working with the federal government has proven it to be true.  It should be very easy to overcome such a deficit if Lavista Hills has a competent city manager - without impacting taxes or services.

There is no guarantee here, but isn't that self-government is about?  Isn't that why we should theoretically want to incorporate, so that we can make these decisions ourselves rather than relying on the corrupt county government?


DeKalb County might as well be a board member of Lavista Hills YES! with the ongoing corruption with our last elected CEO going to prison for running a pay-for-play scheme, the disastrous water main leak that left most of what would consist of Lavista Hills without water for days in the middle of July, to the explosive "report" by Mike Bowers.   Bowers charges to the county run up in a partial investigation do appear to be outrageously high, but there should have been a proper contract by Acting CEO Lee May to define the scope and the agree on the cost.  That said, the allegations in the report are damning, especially how Bowers was blocked in seeking information.  The data dump on questionable charges was a tad unfair because Bowers had not allowed commissioners and others in question to defend those charges.  Still, the impression those charges, valid or not, gave was bad. 

Let's be clear:  DeKalb County has always had a fair amount of corruption and pay to play.  I do not know if earlier administrations, especially in the "golden age" of Manual Maloof, were just more discreet or how they kept the county running well while also "taking care" of friends and allies without the stench of corruption and incompetence that permeates DeKalb today.  I think that the larger white economic and political power structure has less tolerance for black officials doing the same thing that white officials do when it comes to corruption.   When a change from white rule to black rule happens, the network that will tolerate a certain amount of graft and corruption from white officials is usually less tolerant of black officials doing the same things.

I do not condone corruption, black or white.  People who hold offices of public trust should hold those duties sacred.  Yes, being an elected official doesn't come with great pay, and it requires a LOT of personal time.  Not to mention dealing with citizen activists and general gadflies who seem to only know how to complain about anything and everything.  Yet, that's the deal you accept when you run for public office.  The power you hold as an elected official must be compensation enough for all the problems and issues and loss of personal time that service entails.  But I don't think I'm too far off in my observations in this area.

Looking at the history of cityhood movements in the last 10 years, other than Sandy Springs, it's interesting that once it was clear that Republicans probably wouldn't win the Fulton County Commission chairmanship in normal circumstances that suddenly ALL of North Fulton wanted to incorporate and incorporate now.   It's also interesting that only after it was clear that county-wide offices could win election without EVER campaigning north of I-20 (which is the rough boundary between overwhelmingly African American south DeKalb, and the increasingly white north DeKalb) that Dunwoody and Brookhaven broke away.   Yes, I'm looking at you, Vernon Jones and Cynthia McKinney. 


Lavista Hills proposes to provide police, parks, roads, and zoning.  If I am missing anything, my apologies. 

DeKalb has a pretty decent police capacity, but my recent experience trying to report the theft and use of my debit card has me thinking a smaller city department could do better.   I'm not sure how, but somehow my debit card was stolen, and transactions were made.  I didn't notice the first one, but I did the second, and when I called the company to report fraud, I got a whole lot of information about who stole my card, addresses, emails, phone numbers.  I tried to go in person to report it to the police, and my precinct is co-located with the DeKalb Police HQ in Northlake.  The first I tried to report, it was a Saturday morning and while the building was open, literally no one was around.  The building was deserted.  A few days later, I tried to go immediately after work, only to find out that they wouldn't take any reports outside the hours of 10-4 or something equally impossible for someone WITH A FULL TIME JOB.  I mailed my statement and the evidence I collected to the precinct captain listed on DeKalb's police website, and I did get a call and email from a detective a week or so later.  The fact I had to go those links to just report a crime, and turn over evidence, is ridiculous. I couldn't help but think this wouldn't happen if I were in Brookhaven or Dunwoody.

Infrastructure is aging pretty rapidly in the area that could become Lavista Hills.  I've had multiple tires taken out by pot holes, and it seems cities have better luck with infrastructure improvements if what I see when I drive around Dunwoody and Brookhaven is indicative.  I understand that south DeKalb suffered years of neglect, so the last 15 years or so have required massive investment in south DeKalb.  I support that, but you also have to ensure that the infrastructure in north DeKalb is maintained.  One thing I liked about Burrell Ellis was that he emphasized projects all over the county.  Buford Highway, Oak Grove, and other intersections have all received desperately needed makeovers.  It never needed to be one part of the county wins and the other loses.  Maintaining the infrastructure we have, as well as getting sidewalks, would be a very good thing. 

A city will mean an extra layer of government, but it doesn't have to be a bad thing.  DeKalb has about 700,000 citizens.  Our commission districts are HUGE.  There's no good way to ensure that the everyday issues of local governance are heard, unless the problem rises to such a level that it garners wide attention.   Depending on who would get elected to the city government, we could end up with a vastly more responsive government that won't let major roads crumble or who can harangue the DeKalb trash pickup when they just don't come, even after reducing service to once a week. 

Is it worth it?

This is the ultimate question.  It does appear that Lavista Hills would be basically viable, although the paucity of commercial property is concern.  I have largely ignored the nasty back-and-forth we have seen online and in joint meetings.  DeKalb's politics have never been for the faint of heart.  And DeKalb has a long, somewhat proud history of very active citizen gadflies who appoint themselves as Guardians of the People's Money.  Some of these folks see a dark conspiracy around every corner, and others are just prickly.  Their hearts are largely in the right place, though.  They want to see their version of good government come to fruition, and they are willing to harangue officials until they get it.   

The DeKalb Strong folks have many stories of dark intentions by the Lavista Hills YES! folks.  I have discussed what I believe are the underlying motivations for forming the city in its current form at this time.  I don't think it's quite as sinister as some people believe, but transparency and facing counter-arguments head on rather than relying solely on personal attacks would serve both sides well. 

DeKalb's government is in the process of reform.  I don't think we will elect another CEO after the upcoming General Assembly.  We will likely move to a county commission with professional county manager system.  I don't think that will answer the corruption problem, and I'm not sure what will.  The culture in DeKalb among some elected officials seems to be "I put all this time and energy into this office for very little pay...I'm owed some goodies".  It's up to us as citizens to use our votes to say "This behavior is NOT acceptable."   

The General Assembly passed three bills to help start reforming DeKalb.  It's unfortunately that Acting CEO Lee May hasn't promulgated the regulations for purchasing that he was supposed to do in July.  At the same time we are voting on Lavista Hills, we vote to establish the DeKalb Ethics Board.  Much has been made of the fact that Lavista Hills officials will not have the same ethics standards that this new county board does.  I would hope that the city council would vote to either vote to subject themselves to the independent DeKalb Ethics board or establish its equivalent for the city.  We should demand they do.

The expected benefits of a government closer to the people doesn't always work...look at Brookhaven.  The impression I have of the elected officials in Brookhaven is that they are shady as hell.  All that stuff which came out against J. Max Davis Jr in his run for the state house is as bad as what's coming out of DeKalb County in my opinion.   Whether Lavista Hills will be a good thing or a bad thing will heavily depend on who we elect to city council and as mayor.  Complacency will only get us more of the same that we are seeing in DeKalb. 

My Vote

I have been inclined to not support cityhood for political reasons and because I think I'll end up paying more money for the same level of service.  When the decision to divide Northlake along Lavista Rd between Tucker and Lavista Hills was made, combined with the seizure of Executive Park by Brookhaven, I was very worried the city couldn't be viable without Decatur-level taxes.  The Carl Vinson Institute study allayed my fears, but I still worry that the commercial property in the city won't be sufficient. 

Everything I have heard from friends in other DeKalb cities about a smaller police force is that the service is much better.   Whether Dunwoody Police is overwhelmed and understaffed, I do not know.  However, the impression of my friends who live there is positive.  After my experience with DeKalb Police, I'm ready to give Lavista Hills Police a shot.

When I consider everything I've written in this blog, my conclusion is that the odds are that Lavista Hills will be more likely than not a good thing.  I'm not whole heartedly pro-city, and I still have concerns, but they are not enough for me to vote No.   On November 3, I intend to vote YES on Lavista Hills.

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