Thursday, September 18, 2014

Notes from MANA community meeting with Councilman Alex Wan, Atlanta District 6

MANA community meeting with Councilman Alex Wan, Atlanta District 6, September 17, 2014

Announcements by Lynn Ganim, acting MANA president:

This meeting is part of a series of meetings where MANA is reaching out to public officials to better understand how our neighborhood may be impacted by annexations or by new cities that include us or happen close enough to impact us.

  • We have reached out to identify a County representative but have not been successful
  • To learn about Commissioner Gannon’s Blueprint for DeKalb, attend Sept 30 meeting 
  • The interim CEO has appointed an operations task force that meets weekly at the Maloof Bldg; citizens are welcome to attend
  • MANA’s Oct 7 meeting will feature Rep Mary Margaret Oliver, who has been closely involved with recent cityhood proposals and will explain the legislative process
  • MANA will conduct a survey (house to house) to better understand our residents’ concerns and preferences

Councilman Wan has represented ATL District 6 since 2010. He grew up on the area, and attended Clarkston High, GA Tech School of Engineering, and completed his MBA at U Penn. In addition to his Atlanta appointment, Mr. Wan also works as director of development for Emory University’s libraries. Mr. Wan clarified that at this meeting, he is representing the City of Atlanta and District 6 and that he is not part of the Emory governance team (that would handle any cityhood/annexation discussions). Extensive meeting notes follow.

Mr. Wan explained that he represents the area surrounding Piedmont Park, which has a  “similar flavor” to our area. Atlanta is not aggressively pursuing areas to annex but will welcome community-driven annexation proposals. His presentation focused on questions that he fields regularly, and he welcomed questions. He noted that municipalities are defined by the services they provide, and he discussed Atlanta’s record in these areas:

Public safety: Atlanta has improved greatly in recent years, and has boosted its police force. Crime stats are down 16%. Current ATL police force is in the 2,000 (and serves ~440K  residents), DeKalb police has ~1200 officers (to serve ~730, 000 residents) [figures retrieved via wikipedia].

Infrastructure: no doubt, ATL suffered during the recession but has turned a corner and is focusing on infrastructure, roads, etc. A $250 million infrastructure bond is currently a priority, to cover maintenance backlog. This funding is not being secured through tax increases but rather by eliminating waste and inefficiencies. The goal is to recover $20 million/yr ; progress towards this goal for 2016 is well under way.

Zoning and neighborhood character: ATL has one of the best established processes, based on neighborhood planning units that review every variance, SLUP or land use change. The city rarely overrules a neighborhood’s wish
Water: Atlanta has high water rates but Mr. Wan noted that if our area is annexed, DeKalb would continue to provide our water infrastructure therefore we would continue to pay DeKalb rates.

Taxes: The Druid Hills Civic Association ( has a comparison of what taxes would be for a DeKalb property annexed into ATL. A home under $200K would enjoy lower taxes in Atlanta but homes in the $300K-up range would pay higher taxes. Atlanta has rolled back millage rates in the last 5 years. Atlanta had a ~$650 million budget in 2009 (and ~$& million in reserves) and now work son a $560 million dollar budget (with ~$170 million in reserves [?]): that’s close to a $100K difference and yet, services are now better. ATL’s and ratings have been increased by 2 levels which means lower interest rates.

Several questions were asked at this point:

Q: If some services go from Dekalb to Atlanta, is there an offset so that citizens are not double-taxed?
Q: How about the cost of trash pickup?
Q: Has ATL improved its budget by undercutting pension obligations?
Q: Are these tax calculations based on assessed values?

Mr. Wan said that trash collection was not included and indeed is higher ($265/yr for DeKalb, $586 for ATL)

Regarding pensions, this has been a big issue for many governments. In 2011 ATL began a difficult process for pension reform that has been a model for the whole country. Defined benefits were eliminated and employee contributions were added

Q: HOST—how does that figure into Druid Hills calculations? Will HOST continue.
A: Mr. Wan is in Fulton County therefore not very familiar but  agreed with audience comments that HOST proportionally grants higher benefits to cities.

Q: How about Sandy Springs?
A: They separated from Fulton County. [incorporated]

Q: How about property tax exemptions for seniors?
A: DeKalb would assess and administer property taxes and would calculate these. City of Atlanta also has some.

Q: What about the County?
A: Annexation and cityhood do not change what County the area is in.

Q: How about the airport?
A: City of  Atlanta owns the airport. Yes, someone is always dying to take it away but the airport is in its own enterprise fund meaning, $ goes to support the airport, those funds can’t be subverted to the general fund. Same thing applies to the watershed fund.

Q: Physical distance? Police presence here?
A: <this questions was answered later so Mr. Wan could complete his presentation>

Schools: This topic is incredibly complicated. Righ now there are no answers, just scenarios or recommendations. This would need to be negotiated between Atlanta Public Schools (APS) and DeKalb County School District (DCSD).

The Druid Hills Charter Cluster  (DHCC) complicates matters (see latest update/call to action here). It does not appear that DCSS is going to take the 2nd vote [the Cluster was rejected the first time around and was resubmitted and faces a second vote; a no vote would dissolve the proposal]. Until that vote happens… The “default” rule is that when an area is annexed, students automatically go to the ATL school system; the ruling does not address facilities or school attendance, APS determines that.

Some potential scenarios:

Gainesville GA annesxation. The receiving municipality had a contract agreement to keep students in the same schools they were at before the annexation. For this area, this arrangement seems unlikely because of what parent groups are pushing for. Who would represent those students? Parent and student affinity groups are very well organized in this area.

Depending on how large and area, many have enough assets to adjust (available facilities, adjust grades). ATL could keep those areas together as a cluster.

If DHCC considers annexation, the bigger the area, the harder the annexation by referendum would be. There is no annexation mechanism to keep it together otherwise.

Caveat: if DHCC is approved, that would pave the way for solutions. A charter is a 5 year contract. The state would preserve cluster attendance. For a functioning charter, it is likely that a contract would be renewed.

Q: Do we have any understanding about how APS perceives the DHCC proposal? We know how DeKalb Co Schools feels about it.
A: Marshall Orson [Dekalb Board of Educ District 2 rep] notes that ATL is positive about charters, new superintendent is procharter and 2nd in command formerly led a Kipp charter.
Q: What is APS’s status? The state asked if they wanted to remain as is or form a charter.
A: Mr. Wan doesn't know.
Q: Would ATL use Dekalb-owned bulidings?
A: Through annexation, there should be an arrangement to pay or compensate for assets that are transferred. The Legislature can voice an opinion about what happens.

Back to the question about police asked earlier:

If an area has a police station, the transfer/compensate scenario applies, or again, the Legislature may dictate. Because borders are not drawn yet, it’s impossible to speculate. ATL would have to review existing resources. Note that zone 6 of ATL police is in DeKalb.

Q: These comments came from an audience member who has worked for local government in a financial capacity, dealt with annexations, etc.  This area is a good tax base, affluent. Why would we want to join Atlanta? Dekalb is always going to calculate our taxes. Those taxes have to pay for courthouses, jail systems but also for shares of road maintenance, police. We have good schools. Atlanta should want us, but what’s in it for us? Look at Milton, Dunwoody: taxes will go up, and they are lower now, so what are we gaining?
A: Mr. Wan said he was not advocating for annexation, just presenting information

The commenter as above also said:  Interim CEO Lee May has said all of DeKalb County will be municipalized. The same was said about Fulton and that has not happened. Look at what has happened in the Cascade neighborhood: they have resisted incorporation by Atlanta. You hear that taxes will go down but cities have to offer services that the County already offers so why pay  twice?

Q (comment): There was a Druid Hills school meeting this Monday. Druid Hills and Briar Vista areas are gun-ho to join Atlanta and in the process, want to take Fernbank and Druid Hills High. This is huge, neighborhoods are jockeying for their own benefit.

Q: Process question (since ATL is not pursuing at this point): City of Decatur has been publishing annexation maps then their school system reacts, the maps change. Will APS react likewise?
A: Not sure what APS would do, but they are aware of these discussions. They won’t react until a map is created.

Quick review of how annexation happens. There’s the 100% method, whereby 100% of contiguous properties request annexation. This obviously becomes harder for larger groups of homes.  The “60% method” requires 60% of voters and 60% of land owners to sign a petition requesting annexation. This is deliberately hard to accomplish. The referendum option is the most common for a larger area, it requires approval by a ballot by 50% + 1 voter for the proposed annexation area.  The state legislature approves the proposal before it goes to a referendum. Currently, the legislature has given the Lakeside, Tucker and Briarcliff initiatives until November 15 to clean up their maps and present non-conflicting proposals for the next legislative session.

Q: How would that relate to annexation to Atlanta?
A: Tucker aside, Lakeside and Briarcliff feasibility require getting the maps just right. Combining into one entity will be challenging. If Lakeside takes the lead, Briarcliff becomes more challenged. Annexation into Atlanta then becomes an alternative. Reps MMO, Parent, Mosby were at the school meeting earlier this week. The path of least controversy is the preferred one .  The state will decide boundaries if it must.

Mr. Wan said that the take-home message is to decide what does the community want? Annexation to a city? Remain incorporated? Must decide then lobby to make sure that legislators are aware of the community’s preference, so they will be excluded or included in desired maps. The next couple months is the time to decide. Atlanta would need advance notice if they are to lobby for annexing us.

Q: After the maps are drawn, how does ATL fit in?
A: A legislative bill would be drawn, city council would decide based on the 60% scenario.

Q: Everything implies a referendum is most likely. Is this true?
A: You must have a referendum to create a new city.

Q: What are more remote scenarios? City of Decatur annexation map that seeks commercial properties could interfere with Atlanta’s ability to annex.
A: In a clash between a new city vs annexation , the state legislature would step in. Residents need to coalesce around a choice or to fight decisions being pushed. It is very important to establish what the community want. Proposal leaders will want to exclude areas that are likely to oppose their proposals.

Q: (from a CHCA resident) Clairmont Heights could be in the way for MANA to be annexed into Atlanta
A: Yes, you need to be contiguous to be annexed.

Q: Timing: having gone to some meetings, the Druid Hills folks are not as organized as would have expected. What is the likelihood that there will be another year delay in these decisions?
A: Sure, it could happen. The school situation is  a big issue. The DHCC would be a 5-year solution but is also risky because a contract create consequences; the contract says the charter “will increase achievement.” DeKalb Schools have an incentive to not want allow a charter that requires teacher and principal evaluations. It would be preferable to have a more permanent plan (i.e., something more permanent than a contract that must be renewed/approved every 5 years).

Q: I have no preference but what is scary is getting cut off altogether from all proposals
A: that is possible, this is an unique situation

Briarcliff proposal representative Herman Lorenz was invited to comment. He said the legislature’s mandate at the end of the last session was to take into consideration “realistic published plans of cities” so that if a city puts together a map, that is to be considered.  CHCA and MANA are up in the air. Lakeside wants to exclude areas that may vote against their proposal, Briarcliff wants to include all who wish inclusion. Briarcliff planners are meeting with Druid Hills Civic Association (same time as this meeting).

Q: Can City of Decatur’s annexation be stopped?
A: this would happen through the 60% vote option

Q: Teacher contracts at schools?
A: Not sure. Thurmond is opposed to annexation

Q: If Druid Hills joins Atlanta, what happens to the Druid Hills Cluster ?
A: There is a priority on keeping Fernbank’s footprint in place. The middle school has not been discussed as much. Marshall Orson has said any decision must take school impact into consideration

Q (comment): teachers and contracts in DeKalb do not stay with a school, a teacher would refrain from signing contract until last minute

Closing message from Mr. Wan: must decide and articulate that decision. MANA should consider a survey to poll residents about their wishes (uninc., or annex)

Q: About schools, how can we have our voices hear with regards to schools and annexation decisions?
A: Annexation looks likely for Druid Hills and adjacent areas but there may be changes to boundaries for Fernbank and Briarvista. Nearby neighbors would probably be welcome. Form there, with maps created, DeKalb Co Schools and ATL Public Schools can talk. Mary Margaret Oliver and Elena Parent would push legislation

Q (comment): The  parent councils for DeKalb Schools have a joint meeting on Sept 30 at 7pm at GA Perimeter College in Clarkston. Michael Thurmond (DeKalb Schools Superintendent) will attend and will be pushed to answer about the Druid Hills cluster (about which he has not commented)

Q (comment): Also contact Marshall Orson, he represents our neighborhood but also Dekalb students at large

Q: Emory’s role in all this
A: Mr. Wan said he is not part of the government affairs office. The only stated position is that Emory does not want to be in a new city and feels aligned to Druid Hills community and likely will follow. Emory does not want to lead in these discussion.