Friday, January 23, 2015

Community meeting notes: Atlanta, unincorporation [Jan 22]

MANA organized a community meeting to continue informing the community on cityhood and annexation issues in our area. Over 175 people attended. Our thanks to the International Community School for lending their facilities.

The MANA Working Group has launched an online survey and is going door-to-door to encourage residents to voice their preferences--at the time, it appears that our options are to remain unincorporated or petition to be annexed to the City of Atlanta. Volunteers were available to administer the survey, which is also available online. The volunteers also collected signatures opposing City of Decatur's commercial annexation that, as Zoning Chair Theresa Same noted, attempts to capture 8 of 11 entrances into our neighborhood.

+ Survey (for Medlock Park residents only)
+ Petition to the DeKalb Delegation to say NO to City of Decatur's Unreasonable Annexation (open to all DeKalb County residents)

Kudos to the MANA Working Group for a very informative and well-run meeting!

Introductory remarks

DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader and Atlanta Councilman Alex Wan gave brief summaries of key issues as they see them, and then handled questions from the audience.

Commissioner Rader noted that historically, new city proposals were individual and well defined, compared to the current crop of overlapping maps. Annexations are handled by the state legislature rather than the county delegation. On the issue of remaining unincorporated, this remains viable as long as we are a fairly large population (~ half million), there would be the capacity to provide services and that ability won't collapse overnight, however, annexations that reduce the unincorporated area can affect the cost of those services. The annexations that we are seeing are based on the tax base, and you can see that they are adjacent to residential areas that are not included and cannot influence decisions--state laws do not protect against this. Annexation is a local delegation issue so continue to voice your concern to your DeKalb Delegation and specifically to Rahn Mayo and Elena Parent. [for a full list, see ______]. Rader acknowledges that the County has in some cases disappointed the public and this has created vulnerability (that we now see as efforts to incorporate new cities). Remaining engaged is essential: talk to your legislators, general assembly.

Councilman Wan stated that Atlanta is not negotiating in favor of annexation or pushing the idea; Mayor Reed supports efforts to join the city (e.g. Together in Atlanta map that includes Fernbank Elementary and therefore the Clairmont neighborhood). Wan discussed common concerns such as property taxes (similar or lower for properties in the $200K range; higher in Atlanta for higher-value $400K+ homes, but that these differences are often overstated). Councilman Wan reminded us that even if annexed, property values and property taxes are tied to DeKalb County. As to safety as a concern, Atlanta has a larger police force per capita. Atlanta water bills are very high, however, annexed areas would continue to be serviced as they are now therefore, if annexed, our neighborhood would continue to be serviced by DeKalb. As to what changes we might expect once annexation happens, probably nothing drastic, but Wan highlighted that Atlanta has become more fiscally responsible in the last 10 years. Its bond rating has improved, which will allow them to negotiate a new infrastructure bond that would benefit newly annexed areas, too. Also, Atlanta reinvests 3.5% of its general fund in infrastructure projects.

Questions from the audience

Q:  How about property tax exemptions for seniors?  Wan acknowledged that Atlanta's exemptions for seniors are not as generous as unincorporated DeKalb's. If annexation proposals go to a referendum, as the city prepares an operation plan, that would be the time to negotiate.

Q: School reorganizations if we remain in DeKalb, disadvantages? Rader noted that the County cannot protect itself from annexation and that impacts schools; cities bring more certainty in the school issue. There is a possibility of an intergovernmental agreement between DeKalb County and City of Atlanta. Shifting attendance, if Druid Hills goes to Atlanta, would be disruptive.

Q: Intergovernmental problems with jurisdiction, would we run into problems where Atlanta says "Call DeKalb" and DeKalb says "Call Atlanta for that issue" with regards to safety, permits? Wan agreed that this happens and can be an issue but public safety is everyone's concern. GIS mapping is very clear about boundaries so that should reduce mix-ups. If there is a referendum, he would insist on a well-articulated agreement to avoid such issues. Rader added that there are lots of boundaries everywhere, things get worked out.

Q: What would shift if we were annexed to Atlanta? Certain services remain with DeKalb, about 2/3 of the tax bill covers roads and drainage, parks and recreation. Building permitting (fees, sanitation) would shift but Rader noted that Dekalb's sanitation system is very good and affordable.

Q: Do we need to decide now, do we lose the opportunity to annex--are there drawbacks if we don't proceed now? Wan said that there is no harm in hitting the "pause" button. If a referendum fails, we can continue to lobby. The challenge is that there are 3 methods for annexation:
- legislature draws a map that is voted on
- 100% method (petition to municipality)
- 60% method (those championing the annexation have to collect signatures of at least 60% of landowners and voters, then petition the municipality they seek to join) --> this is the highest bar

So, the reason to push for annexation via legislative map is that it's the easiest to get through because you just need to secure legislator votes vs. population votes at the 60% threshold.
Schools ARE an issue. If annexation happens, DeKalb will have to reconfigure.

NB: Annexation requests to Atlanta would likely go through the Atlanta delegation to the General Assembly, not to the City itself. [updated 1/25/2015]

Q: City of Decatur's annexation map: what gives the the right? Is some of their annexation also in the Together in Atlanta annexation map? Rader noted that there is no "right", the legislative delegation can decide, if less that 20% of population then the delegation votes (9 votes form a majority). Decatur argues that it is cash-strapped and needs to increase its tax base because it's currently only 15% commercial BUT the residential is high-value so the comparison ratio (of 15% being low) is only relevant for areas with homes that are similarly assessed. Decatur is the third wealthiest city in the county. Rader also noted that he does not hear from citizens supporting the annexation; it seems that the City's administrators are the one pushing the idea. It doesn't have to happen.

There is overlap in the Decatur annexation and Atlanta Annexation maps in particular in the area along Superior Ave. but no overlap in the Suburban Plaza area.

Q: If we become an island, will the legislature force us into a city? Rader said it comes to the issue of disruption in County services. In the near term, we are large enough and should not be forced into a particular jurisdiction.

Q: What is the rush? Wan answered that as far as the Atlanta annexation, it's community-driven, specifically by the folks in the Together in Atlanta map area. That the Druid Hills Charter Cluster was withdrawn also factors into it. Rush to avoid the 60% vote option. Rader added that with new cities, as well as Decatur and Avondale Estates, there is a rush to grab commercial properties. Rader said that he understands the anxiety that if our nearby commercial areas are gone, who would want us as a residential area with no commercial assets (that help cover County costs)? Commercial property brings more income to its municipality: this is how our County was designed, with lots of commercial to help keep taxes lower on the residential.

Rader said that in contrast to cities are annexing along their edges to serve their own residents, the Atlanta annexation is more balanced. He reminded us that although Emory, CDC, Childrens Healthcare, etc. are large and have a big impact, they are not commercial and do not pay taxes the way commercial properties do. Rader joked that "it's that sucking sound" when you hear about your commercial areas going away.

Q: Damage (by annexation to Atlanta) to the DeKalb Schools System through the loss of Fernbank, Druid Hills? Rader said this is subjective. It would create a challenge to the school system, a challenge that the system will need to address. It wouldn't be the death of the school system but it needs officials focused on increasing service delivery. Status quo is not worth keeping. Elected officials need to be more responsible but first we have to put good officials in place, focus on the wellbeing of the entire county and not just that district.

Q: Overcrowding in Atlanta schools--what likelihood is there of an intergovernment
compromise? Wan said that there is overcrowding in schools adjacent to the area being proposed
for annexation, i.e., schools in the Grady cluster. He can't guess at the likelihood of an agreement but he indicated that it is probably one of the more difficult pathways. There are two thoughts out there: contract services with DeKalb (to educate students at those schools) or facilities could be reconfigured so there is no impact on the current attendance area. Wan emphasized he is not aware of any official conversations between Atlanta, DeKalb and Together in Atlanta.

Q: Who pays for existing debt relating to these schools (that could move from DeKalb Co. Schools to Atlanta Schoools)? Rader said there is no debt, that the 5 year tax cycle would persist. Any ESPLOST that passes would need approval across the board.

Q: Fernbank school would become part of Atlanta? Rader said that the sales tax would persist through the cycle and the school should be unencumbered from debt by the end of that cycle. Wan added that Together in Atlanta claims that is the case but DeKalb County schools challenge the idea and Mr. Thurmond threatened litigation. Could also be that the legislature makes a decision on this. Talk to your legislators!

Q: Is there any guarantee that our kids would go to Fernbank or Druid Hills High if the neighborhood is annexed into Atlanta? Wan said that if annexed, there is no guarantee as there are no negotiations right now. If there is no reconfiguration to Atlanta schools, might be but Atlanta could choose to reconfigure its school attendance. Rader added that other things being equal, you are typically districted to a nearby school, and to remember that a K-5 school could be reconfigured to a K-7 and so on.

Q: If  Fernbank and Druid Hills are annexed, any guarantee that those currently attending but who remain unincorporated would still be able to attend? Wan said no, unless there is an intergovernment agreement in place.

Q: Are there Fernbank kids who could be displaced if the school is annexed? Yes.

Q: How about DeKalb teachers currently teaching at Druid Hills, Fernbank? Wan said there are 2 scenarios. If annexation but no intergovernment agreement, facilities would belong to APS, and would be staffed by APS teachers. DeKalb teachers wouldn't be able to teach at APS schools. APS would rehire and place teachers at those schools. If there is annexation with an intergovernment agreement, could address the issue of teachers but the default scenario is that they would be replaced by APS teachers.

Q: Why does DeKalb County seem so quiet regarding cityhood and annexation? Rader said it's not the County's decision. The County has focused on pointing issues that arise from cityhood and annexation. Rader said he'd continue to be our commissioner, our taxes would be paying for different services than they do now. Rader said that places evolve, in 25 years, could be that Fulton and DeKalb Counties merge. What is feasible for the region? Incorporation does not disconnect cities from the County or other areas of the county that are doing less well. Rader suggests that we "take off the parochial blinders" and consider what is best for all. County officials can't advocate but can give information, continue to try to improve services.

Q: Would Atlanta take us without our nearby commercial areas? Wan said yes. Atlanta is not looking at annexation as a revenue-maker; it has economies of scale. He'd love to have us all.

Q: If we were annexed to Atlanta, would we be absorbed into a new neighborhood planning unit our would we join an existing one? Wan explained that Atlanta has 20+ neighborhood planning units that are very involved in local zoning and decision-making. He doesn't know, without looking at a map but in general, if it's a small group of people, they'd join an existing group. A larger group might be split into other existing planning units, or it's possible a new unit would be created. Similar scenario would apply to council seats.

Q: How would Atlanta benefit from annexing us? Are you kidding?! Medlock is awesome!! 
I'm sure that's what Councilman Wan was thinking but what he said was that annexation allows Atlanta to play a bigger role in regional issues.

At this point in the meeting, Theresa Same (MANA Zoning chair and MANA Working Group member) made a few remarks about the survey. Theresa has graciously shared the notes from her presentation, below.

"I have been working with the MANA Board and a group of neighbors that we are calling the  MANA Working Group.  We have been meeting sometimes weekly since early November in an  effort to figure out how to best guide the community during these murky times.

I have been working with the group on an updated survey.  Why are we doing a new survey?  We just did one in October. The answer is that things have changed since October and in a way that has made our earlier survey results no longer a helpful tool.

What has changed?

City of Decatur – After the survey in October, which showed a preference to be annexed to the
City of Decatur, members of the Board and Working Group met again with the Mayor and the  Manager of COD to share our survey results.  COD again expressed, in no uncertain terms, that
they are not interested in annexing Medlock citing their already overcrowded school system as the main concern.  We again expressed our concern over their proposed commercial annexation which takes the entire Medline study area, including properties that are inside ouneighborhood boundaries and 8 of 11 entrance into our neighborhood.  I view this as a pretty aggressive stance, but COD shows no signs of backing down – thus our letter and petition to oppose their proposed annexation.  I think many neighbors had hoped that the legislature would force COD to take Medlock and there were early signs that this could be the case, but we have since heard our legislators back off of this stance.  For all these reasons, the MANA Board has decided that annexing to Decatur is not a viable option for our community.

La Vista Hills – LVH has released their map and decided not to include us.  They stated that this decision was made both because they felt our community has not demonstrated enough support as well as creating an island of Druid Hills and CHCA if that proposed annexation does not take place.  They did give us their assurances that if their referendum passes that they would be willing to annex us in the future if that community demonstrates the desire.  The MANA Board feels that La Vista Hills is thus not a viable option for Medlock in the immediate future.

That leaves us with Atlanta and remaining unincorporated for this Legislative Session which is what we are focusing on for right now.

As many of you know, Atlanta was the least favorite option in our last survey, which has led many to ask, why would we even pursue this option?

1.  We have been told by several neighbors that they did not believe that Atlanta was really a possibility for Medlock – I can’t tell you how many times I heard someone say that Atlanta would not cross Clairmont Road – and that they wished they could change their vote

2. Several neighbors who supported being annexed by Decatur, which was our highest vote getter, have changed their support to Atlanta

3. Now that the proposed Atlanta annexation map has been endorsed by Mayor Reed, we now know that our closest neighbor, CHCA, and 3 county schools, including our high school could go to Atlanta and many feel we should aligned with them.

4. Lastly Atlanta has stated that we have an open invitation, so we thought given the changing circumstances that it was worth finding out if there is interest in pursuing this option or not.

Our other option would be to remain in unincorporated Dekalb – be it temporarily or in the long term.  I believe that all things left unchanged, that this would be the hands down winner for our community, but as you all know things are not likely going to be the same.  All the latest indicators are that no matter what happens around us that we will be allowed to stay unincorporated for at least a year – beyond that it is unclear.

A few people have asked me why the Board has not taken a strong stance on this issue?  I think I can speak for everyone when I say that we feel it our place to represent what the majority of our community desires.  In order to hear what the majority of the community wants, we need you to answer the survey.  We have tried to bring you as much information and ways to hear your feedback as possible.  Believe me if the MANA Board felt that through our research, meeting with politicians, attending meetings, etc. that there was a clear decision about the best thing for our community, we would share that with you.  The truth is that this process continues to be a very complex situation, full of uncertainties and it is still unclear to us as to the best way to proceed.

Which brings us to our current survey...  As I stated earlier that we feel our only potential options for Medlock for this legislative session are staying in unincorporated Dekalb or asking to be included in the Atlanta Annexation map.

On the survey, you do not have to include your name, but you must include your address so that we will know that you live in the neighborhood.

Question#1 – Do you support the Medlock Area Neighborhood Association in pursuing inclusion in the potential 2015 Atlanta annexation map and subsequent referendum. Yes or No

If the majority of the respondents answer yes to this question, the MANA Board will take our survey results to City of Atlanta and ask them to include us in their map and allow us to vote in the referendum, if it comes to be, later this year.  This does not guarantee that Atlanta will include us or that this map will ever make it to a referendum.

If the majority of the respondents answer no to this question, the MANA Board will be fighting for us to remain in unincorporated Dekalb.  We will also be fighting to stay in unincorporated Dekalb if not enough people answer the survey or Atlanta does not add us to their annexation map.

Question #2  I equate this question to an insurance policy.

If all the proposed annexation/cityhood proposals (CoA, CoD, and La Vista Hills) are successful, Medlock could become an unincorporated island.  If the State Legislature decides that we will
not be allowed to remain in in unincorporated this legislative session, would you want MANA to advocate that our neighborhood be included in the map for ____________?  Atlanta annexation, La Vista City or no preference.

We don’t anticipate this happening, but it has been mentioned to us enough times that the Legislature could assign us to one of the maps that we felt that we should be prepared to advocate a stance for the community if this should arise.  Decisions would need to be made quickly and we would not have time to poll the community.  That was the intention behind this question.

Current Statistics

As of the afternoon, 251 people have completed the survey.   This is only 1/3 of the minimum number I set as our goal.  If we want the survey to be truly reflective of our community, we need to get a lot more responses than we did on our first survey and that we currently have now on this survey.  You can complete your survey here tonight or online.  The link can be found on the MANA website at  We also have neighbors going door to door, but we cannot guarantee that we can reach everyone.  We may also pass paper surveys door to door this week for those who have not completed it yet.  This will again depend on our resources.  If you want to help with this effort, please come by the table at the end of the night.

The survey is set to close on Sunday night.  We may extend it a few days if our sample is not large enough.  We will share the results after the survey is closed."

There were a few more questions from the audience at this point.

Q: What else can be done to get the word out about this survey? Theresa noted that in addition to this meeting and going door-to-door, the survey is online and there's lots of information in our website at

Q: Who can complete the survey? Any eligible voter, including Medlock neighborhood renters. Multiple adult household members should complete separate surveys (i.e., this is not a 1 vote per household survey).

Q: Atlanta annexation map for us? Unknown. The survey is to determine if the neighborhood, as defined, is interested in being added to an annexation map.

Q: If La Vista Hills proposal doesn't get legislative approval, could the Atlanta annexation plan still go through? Wan said that one, both, or neither could go through.

Q: What would be the Atlanta annexation boundary? Theresa said that whatever the neighborhood advocates, and would certainly advocate to commercial include areas next to homes.

Q: Are there any sponsors for these bills? Not yet.

Q: Some group is pushing for this Atlanta annexation! Lynn Ganim (MANA President) noted that no group is pushing, some neighbors are interested in the Atlanta idea and others simply want to know what the neighborhood thinks. We are just trying to get and share information.
  Q: What group is pushing? Together in Atlanta is the group that created an Atlanta annexation map. Wan clarified that Together in Atlanta and Druid Hills are advocating, but they are not pushing Medlock to do anything as Medlock is not in their map (and they don't want Medlock as we are not in the Fernbank attendance zone).

Q: If we are in favor of the Druid Hills Charter Cluster, what can be done? Wan said that to keep the schools together, fight annexation. If annexation is going to take place, fight for intergovernment agreement.

Q: Why is there such a focus on schools when there are so few kids in the neighborhood? Ganim noted that parents are passionate about their children's education, also, that there are many more children in the neighborhood now than in the recent past. Wan also added that school quality is very tied to property values.

Q: Is there a single map showing all the cityhood and annexation proposals? valiantly is maintaining a map here.

Q: Could Medlock become its own township? Who would sponsor such a bill? Wan said it's not feasible, we'd have to provide 3 municipal services and have a feasible tax base.

Lastly, Schools Liaison Tanya Myers mentioned that the DeKalb County School System is searching for its next superintendent. This is a real turning point for our county and community. Additional information about community meetings happening soon will be posted on this website soon.