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Archive for January, 2012

Brookhaven Maybe!

I’ve lived in the Brookhaven neighborhood since 1978.  In that span of time, a lot of changes have happened, changes that made Brookhaven a better place to live.  Now, there is talk of cityhood for Brookhaven, and it is an interesting question.  I’ve written about it before, but here’s my latest take on the issue:

Background

This all started with Sandy Springs, Dunwoody and others.  From there, things have branched out, but Sandy Springs, located in Fulton County, serves as the original model.

To quote Wikipedia:

Debate over incorporation [of Sandy Springs] began in the 1970s when the city of Atlanta attempted to use a state law to force annexation of Sandy Springs. (Buckhead had joined Atlanta in 1952.) The attempt failed when the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled that the law was unconstitutional. In response, the Committee for Sandy Springs was formed in 1975. In every legislative session since 1989, state legislators representing the area introduced a bill in the Georgia General Assembly to authorize a referendum on incorporation. Legislators representing the city of Atlanta and southwestern Fulton County, who feared for the tax revenue that would be lost, blocked the bills using the procedural requirement that all local legislation be approved first by a delegation of representatives from the affected area.

Note that the process of founding the City of Sandy Springs effectively began in 1989, but actually started much earlier.  Things finally came to a head in 2005, sixteen years later, with a referendum vote by those who would be within the limits of the new City of Sandy Springs.  94% of those voting approved of the measure, noting:   Many residents expressed displeasure with county services, claiming, based upon financial information provided by the county, that the county was redistributing revenues to fund services in less financially-stable areas of the county, ignoring local opposition to rezoning, and allowing excessive development.

Two years later, other Fulton County municipalities, Johns Creek (formed in 2006), the City of Milton and the City of Chattahoochee Hills (both formed in 2007), all came into being under similar circumstances.  By 2008, the city formation movement moved across county lines into DeKalb County, with the formation of the City of Dunwoody.  As with the Fulton County cities formed in the early 2000’s, voters massively approved the idea.  And, as with the new cities in Fulton County: “Critics claimed that incorporation of Dunwoody, as in the incorporation of Sandy Springs in 2005, would take away a great deal of tax revenue from the rest of the county, leading to shortages of services, tax increases, or both for everyone else in the county, as has happened in Fulton.

What is a City?

When you Google that question, you get a variety of responses, but here’s a decent answer:

A city is a place where you live, work, go to school and play. A city is a place where you carry on your day-to-day life.

That said, a city is unique unto itself.  You’ve got Paris, France and Newark, New Jersey.  The restaurants are better in Paris.  Not that there aren’t good ones in Newark, but you get my drift.  But you have to wonder just a bit about what form a City of Brookhaven will take.

Brookhaven City Limits

Now there is a proposed City of Brookhaven, and unlike previous efforts to create independent cities in metro Atlanta, a possible City of Brookhaven is somewhat different because there is not as clear a citizen mandate as there has been with the earlier cities which are its precedent.  Further, the push for a City of Brookhaven is not centered in an area that people presently call “Brookhaven”, but in an area considerably to the north of that location.  This is because the central personalities of the City of Brookhaven movement are generally clustered in an area north of Oglethorpe University, far from “downtown” Brookhaven.  And it is with this issue that this discussion will center.

Geopolitical Spheres of Influence – Defining what constitutes “Brookhaven” is a little vague.  The same issue comes up with “Buckhead“; the real estate people periodically describe a house in Brookhaven as being in “Buckhead”, because there’s a nice cachet to being in Buckhead.  And higher real estate prices, too.  But is Lenox Square in Buckhead?  Piedmont Hospital?  Chastain Park?  The same problem happens with “Vinings”, another high dollar area.

In any case, my view is that “Brookhaven” is south of the Ashford community (Ashford Dunwoody Rd at Johnson Ferry Rd), east of the DeKalb County line with Fulton County, and west of Clairmont Road (and maybe not even that far).  “Brookhaven” certainly does not continue up into Chamblee and it doesn’t continue that far south of Cross Keys High School.

One clear definition of Brookhaven could be derived from the Livable Communities Initiative for Brookhaven, which limits the notion of the community to the area around the MARTA station, with a stretch up to Oglethorpe.

After several iterations, a proposed “final” City of Brookhaven appears here.  One of my concerns is that the boundaries of this “city” are being driven by forces in which my Brookhaven neighborhood does not seem to have a voice.  There have been meetings to be sure, but the actual boundaries of the proposed city are being formed by people from the area around Perimeter Mall, not around the Brookhaven MARTA station.  Continuing “Brookhaven” up to I-285 and down to I-85 seems a stretch, but it is a logical line of demarcation.

This is Brookhaven – Say what you will about one of our neighborhood activists, he does have a canny way of hitting the mark on some things.  Like when he stood up at a Brookhaven Community Connection meeting, pointed down to the ground and said “THIS is Brookhaven”.  And, in a quite odd way, he was exactly right.  The building that Hudson’s Grill (where the BCC meets) currently occupies has been a part of Brookhaven since before my time.  When I moved into the neighborhood from Butthead in 1978, the building housed a Davis Brothers cafeteria.  And, it was something before that, back when it was still the town of North Atlanta.

Saying those things does express the notion that Brookhaven, while not having defined geographic boundaries, does have a state of mind.  And, that state of mind does have some sort of image with the typical Atlanta resident.  They may not know exactly what it is, but it certainly centers on the area around the MARTA station.  As such, this area called Brookhaven doesn’t have a whole lot to gain by creating a City that encompasses so much of what isn’t Brookhaven.  If “Brookhaven” is a brand, those who currently live in other nearby areas benefit from Brookhaven’s presence more than Brookhaven benefits from theirs.

Brookhaven – The Bedroom City – One of the attendees at a Brookhaven Community Connection meeting observed that the “City of Brookhaven” shown on the map is almost exclusively residential.  And, as pointed out by Jerry Cooper, “single family neighborhoods “lose” money from the taxation perspective”.   That is, it costs more to service a community of less dense development because the cost/benefit ratio is different than area of high population density.

Also, we don’t have a nice steel mill throwing off tax revenue.  Yet, the Carl Vinson study of a proposed City of Brookhaven fleshed out the details.  In theory, a City of Brookhaven is possible.

Brookhaven Yes!

There are some good reasons to form a City of Brookhaven.

DeKalb Governance – DeKalb County has a form of government unique within the State of Georgia.  In recent years there has been some tweaking, but overall, the governing structure shows continued signs of internal conflict.  Consider this recent news article “Power struggle heating up in DeKalb“.  To wit: “A battle that goes to the heart of control in DeKalb County government is heating up, with one official talking about hiring an outside attorney.

This matter has been brewing for years and it costs DeKalb County money.  The current CEO used to be a mere County Commissioner; during that period, he was constantly locking horns with the CEO at that time.  Now that he’s the current CEO, he has taken a liking to the powers of being CEO.  So, the power struggle continues.

The final reconciliation of this power struggle will have to take place with the DeKalb County delegation to the State of Georgia General Assembly, which is currently in session.  It was this delegation that originally formed the DeKalb Chief Executive Office form of government that we currently enjoy.  To wit:

In 1986, DeKalb’s delegation in the Georgia General Assembly created a unique chief executive officer (CEO) position, which is the chief elected official.[4] The local legislation that authorized the position made it unique among Georgia’s 159 counties, all of which have a standard county commission or a few still with a sole commissioner. As a result of this legislation, all county employees report to the CEO rather than to commissioners for day-to-day operations. Then, the CEO served as the chairman of the seven-member county commission, but did not vote except to break a tie. In 2008, the Georgia General Assembly amended the act to allow the DeKalb County Board of the Commissioners the authority to preside over meetings of the county commission and to set the agenda for meetings of the county commission.

While this system may have worked well when Manuel Maloof was CEO, the effectiveness of the CEO position has been consistently more expensive for the County in passing years.  There is periodic discussion in the DeKalb delegation about changing this situation, but it never seems to get resolved.  Presumably, the formation of a City of Brookhaven might provide them with the motivation to correct the problem.

County Spending – At the same time, the loss of County tax revenue that would occur if a City of Brookhaven forms would be significant.  I keep hearing the number $25 million, but who knows?  In any case, a reduction of revenue would force DeKalb County to bring its financial books into balance.  One sure way is to cut spending.  Another is to raise taxes, which brings us to……

Certainly the recent 26% increase in DeKalb County property taxes should draw popular attention, especially when the bills arrive in homeowner’s mailboxes.  At the same time, there is a strong ground level sense that more government is not necessarily better.  The generally alert voter has already seen the significant increase in governmental presence in their lives.  You can’t turn around without running into another regulation or law that wasn’t there ten years ago.  Or five years ago.  Given that healthy distrust of government, it is hard to make a compelling case for even more, no matter how good the intentions might be.  The matter comes down to local control of spending.

As with Sandy Springs, decades earlier “Many residents expressed displeasure with county services, claiming, based upon financial information provided by the county, that the county was redistributing revenues to fund services in less financially-stable areas of the county, ignoring local opposition to rezoning, and allowing excessive development.”  It’s déjà vu all over again.

In any case, DeKalb County seems to have a hard time controlling its spending.  This was fine when times were flush, but with the continuing recession, money is tight everywhere.  This is further complicated by the structure of DeKalb’s county government.  The spending goes hand in hand with the uncertain governance issue.  The Commissioners enact spending cuts, the CEO circumvents them.

I Am Somebody – At the same time, there is a compelling argument for a City of Brookhaven because of the issue of representation, a fact which is frequently used in promoting such a City.  This is because our current representation at County level is simply a matter of numbers.  That is, when we contact our elected County representatives, we are just one of about 40,000 people.  With a City, our representation levels would put us at about 10,000 people per council member.  Of course, just who represents us will be a matter of how each city council district is configured, a point which is currently in dispute with people in my neighborhood.

Zoning & Development – “single family neighborhoods “lose” money from the taxation perspective” –  There is a notion at the County level that denser development is more desirable from a taxation perspective.  That is, when you have the choice of a single $400,000.00 house sitting on 1/2 acre or three $250,000.00 houses sitting on 1/2 acre, there’s not much choice if you’re interested in tax revenues.  But it goes beyond that, for apparently utilities also lose money in less densely populated development areas.  So, there’s a financial incentive for dense development.

In our immediate neighborhood, there have been two denser developments which replaced less dense housing built in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  In both cases, tax revenues increased because of this increased density.  One side effect, however, has been that denser development also requires wider roads and more parking spaces.  It’s a trade-off.

For the moment, redevelopment in the area called “Brookhaven” has largely come to a halt, but it won’t stay that way forever.  You need look no further than down N. Druid Hills Road to the area near the intersection with Roxboro Road.  There has already been one higher density redevelopment in the vicinity, and there has been one proposed redevelopment for even higher density.  For the moment, this most recent redevelopment has been put on hold, but the developers are sure to be back.

Currently, any proposed redevelopment would take place at the DeKalb County level, and would have the best interests of the County at heart.  Regardless of how the neighborhood might feel about it.  To be sure, there will be public meetings and such, kabuki-like affairs where people stand in line to vent their opposition.  And after the public commentary segment is over, the County goes ahead and does what it planned on doing all along.  With few short-term political consequences to those doing the voting.

Denser development on N. Druid Hills Road will eventually result in that road becoming four lanes instead of the current two.  And maybe denser development is inevitable.  You might not be able to fight City Hall, but it would be nice if your voice was heard more clearly.

Parks –  While the parks in our vicinity seem to struggle with funding, parks at the southern end of DeKalb County seem to be different.  Did you know, for example, that DeKalb County has a water park?  It’s the Browns Mill Family Aquatic Center, located at the southern end of the County.  Likewise, at the other end of DeKalb County, we have the taxpayer funded Porter Sanford III Performing Arts & Community Center.  You don’t hear much about the $17 million Sanford Center because it is apparently underutilized.  In both cases, these facilities cost a great deal to build and consume County resources to continue their operation.  Meanwhile, we can’t get Briarwood Park’s pool opened and Brookhaven Park is hidden away from public view.

One of the proposed functions of a City of Brookhaven is “Parks”.  Based upon the map which has been circulated, this would include Murphey-Candler Park (which DeKalb County Parks & Recreation lists as being in “Dunwoody”), Lynwood Park, Brookhaven Park, and Briarwood Park, not to mention a number of neighborhood parks and green spaces (Ashford, Blackburn, Clack’s Corner, Parkside and Skyland).  These are currently maintained or sponsored by the County.  Yet, the promoters of a City of Brookhaven only mention Murphey-Candler Park and Blackburn Park, which are located in their neighborhood.  We’re not even a City yet and they’re already ignoring us.  Oh, the irony!

Brookhaven No!

Something Must be Done! – At the January 17, 2012 meeting of the BrookhavenYES group at Oglethorpe, there was discussion about how a City of Brookhaven would save the taxpayers money, but as the evening wore on, this notion was quickly offset when the subject of Buford Highway came up.

One of the panelists who lives in the Drew Valley neighborhood got the ball rolling.  A real estate agent, this individual complained that the presence of Buford Highway was a drag on real estate values, noting that houses which back up to Buford Highway sell for “40% less than houses across the street”.

It’s hard to argue with the fact that Buford Highway is an eyesore, but it has been an eyesore for decades, if not longer.  I’ve lived in Atlanta long enough to remember when the Buford Highway was two lanes of asphalt and four lanes of compacted gravel.  If you go up the highway to the Chamblee area, you will note that streetlights, sidewalks and pedestrian crossing lights have been added.  Yet, on each side of these improvements, the ugly commercial structures remain.

For our neighborhood, there is little question that Buford Highway needs work.  The poster child for this work is visible for those who drive to Buford Highway on Briarwood Road.  As you wait at the traffic light, your eye is drawn to an apartment complex near the corner.  The structures are run down, hallway doors hang wide open, windows are boarded up.  It’s ugly.

So, the compulsion arises that something must be done about this.  I  have no doubt that numerous telephone calls have been made to DeKalb County officials about this neighborhood eyesore, yet it remains.  One of the attendees at the January 17th meeting got up and complained about the state of Buford Highway, and a lot of people, myself included, thought of this apartment complex.

Fixing something like Buford Highway calls for significant spending.  This at a time when finances are tight, and the proponents of the City of Brookhaven say that the taxpayers will save money.  Something doesn’t add up.

The Shared Experience – In many ways, the proposed limits of the City of Brookhaven echo DeKalb County itself.  The “Brookhaven” of those who are in the Murphey-Candler Park neighborhood (who are promoting the formation of a City) have very little in common with Buford Highway.  In fact, they have very little in common with the good people of Brookhaven itself.  There is no established connection of any consequence; no common thoroughfare, no shared market place, no common experience, no common lives. It’s just not there.

Alternatives? – In part, my questions about the possible City of Brookhaven center on the motivations of those who want a new city.  In looking at the map, you have to wonder why this northern area of the proposed City of Brookhaven wasn’t annexed by Dunwoody or Chamblee.  And, some of us are getting the sneaking suspicion that the northern sector of the proposed City of Brookhaven, which is where the push for a City of Brookhaven is centered, wanted to be annexed by Dunwoody but were turned down.  And, there’s the sneaking suspicion that Chamblee isn’t good enough for them.  Just a guess……

I Want to be Romanced – As “Brookhaven”, we’ve got apparently very little to gain and potentially a whole lot to lose by becoming a City.  So far, there’s been no compelling reason to make this jump.  Yes, to determine our own course of action is fine, but at what costs?

In short, what the real Brookhaven seems to want, or at least what my Brookhaven wants, is to be romanced a little bit.  To be told that we’re wonderful and that good things will come from a relationship.  We haven’t heard that in all the rush.  To create a City with a sense of being “there” takes time, more than has been allotted.

What’s the Rush? – The pro-City of Brookhaven types are in a big hurry about this.  To be sure, this is partially directed by the legislative schedule environment, which requires that certain things be done in a certain way.  At the same time, DeKalb County officials are expressing concern about the speed of the process, even seeking to have a moratorium on the formation of new cities.  Why shouldn’t they?  They’re facing a significant loss of revenue while still trying to figure out who’s in charge of the government.

To me, however, things are going too fast, especially in light of the fact that nobody seems all that interested in my little neighborhood of 750 homes.  And, I am reminded of a quote from a Hollywood movie, Operation Petticoat.  Lieutenant Nicholas Holden, played by Tony Curtis, heads out from the boat with a crew to “requisition”  items necessary to get their submarine out of port before the enemy attacks them again:

Lt. Cmdr. Matt T. Sherman: Where is Lt. Holden?

Lt. Watson: When the air raid started they took off. All he said was “in confusion there is profit.”

I am concerned that the rapid pace of the City of Brookhaven movement is also an opportunity for legislative mayhem.

Trash Talk – The other thing that I am concerned about is the negative talk that is associated with the City of Brookhaven proposal.  There is a tendency in modern politics to make it personal; the same stuff happens in sports.  “Your mama’s so old that her memories are in black & white“.  So, both proponents and opponents of the cityhood proposal have taken to commenting on some of the politicians.  Granted, this is an old American tradition.  And there’s more than a little anecdotal evidence to support that talk, but in the larger sense, it is a distraction.  Rather than concentrating on the possible merits of a City of Brookhaven, we’re focusing on the people involved.

One of the classic problems with the current state of American politics is that everybody hates Washington and Congress, but they like their own elected officials.  Well, I personally can’t say that about several of our former Congresspersons, but I think you get my drift.  I actually like our two County representatives; they work hard in a difficult environment.  Not that it’s perfect mind you, but I have found them to be engaging and cooperative.  Their challenge is that their position is framed by the fact that they must represent a larger number of people than just our neighborhood.  And that is the core of the discussion about the City of Brookhaven.

The Wave of the Future?

I’ve attended several meetings about the City of Brookhaven proposal, often with a friend.  It’s helpful to do that because you can debrief each other afterward on the way home.  For a while, his opinion was “Maybe it is time to lessen the power of DeKalb County.  Maybe its era of dominance is over“.   That idea is currently popular around the world.  Even Scotland is thinking about declaring its independence from England.  The discussion always seems to center on the nature of representative government.

My friend has since changed his opinion, now believing that a City of Brookhaven is not a good idea, but knowing him, he is also still thinking about the issue.  If things come to pass in the General Assembly, he and I will have six months to think this matter over before a vote in July.  So do you.

My Conclusion on the City of Brookhaven Movement

It’s too soon to vote on the matter, but it’s a great way to get the DeKalb delegation to the General Assembly to actively work on DeKalb County governance issues.  We have time to discuss this before we vote on it.

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One hallmark of our times has been the inability to reach consensus on many political issues.  It should be noted that your “gridlock” is my “checks & balances”, but even with all that, we should be able to reach an acceptable agreement on political matters.  We certainly did in the past, but not these days.  What used to be Advise & Consent has devolved into Devise & Assent.

So it is with the approaching transportation sales tax referendum in metro Atlanta.  While the entire state of Georgia is having similar referenda, Atlanta really is the center of the action.  In any case, when the subject was first raised about funding regional transportation projects with an additional 1% sales tax, I mistakenly assumed that there would be regional solutions offered.  Silly me.

Instead, the “projects” chosen by leaders outside of I-285 were a hodge-podge of lane widenings, intersection improvements and the like.  As I ran down their list of these transportation projects, I realized that in many cases, I had no idea where these projects were located.  Even more so, I probably had not driven over any of those stretches of highway in recent decades, if ever.  Yet, I was being asked to support them.

Not to be outdone, inside of I-285 “leadership” chose similar projects, but at least I was somewhat familiar with some of them.  The projects chosen by the City of Atlanta were primarily devoted to the Beltline, which will not produce improvements in Atlanta’s traffic situation for many years, if not longer.  And, rather than devote all their financial energy to one segment of the Beltline that would serve a goodly number of people, they chose to split things up into two disparate segments for political expediency.  If you’re interested, my earlier coverage on the Beltline project is located here.

This Beltline expenditure proposal was made after already having received a substantial amount of Federal transit money.  That money, along with local funding, has been allocated to a project that will do nothing for the average Atlanta commuter.  Not a great moment for the Atlanta region.

I find myself in the awkward position of agreeing with one of the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s more liberal opinion columnists.  In the January 8, 2012 print edition of the AJC, Jay Bookman writes “Region should run transit“.  He’s right about a couple of issues, most notably:

  • Rather than take the political risk of deciding what projects should be built and which should not, they forced that decision upon local elected leaders in the region.

and

  • If the money to fund transit is to be raised from taxpayers in this region, with no state aid involved, then those taxpayers should have a regional governing authority that they can hold accountable. And if elected leaders from the Atlanta region are required to put their jobs on the line in designing a regional transit system, those same leaders should have substantial authority over how that system operates.

Presumably, the voters already sense that this process is badly flawed.  Thus, people like Sam Massell, a respected local political expert, view the upcoming transportation tax vote as unlikely to pass.  So do many of the  local political pundits.  Right now, there’s just nothing compelling for the average voter to choose to add another 1% sales tax to an already high burden.  Add to that the fact that Fulton County and DeKalb County have already taxed themselves 1% for decades for local transportation.

[It should be noted that former Mayor Massell, although he is unsure of the possibility of this tax’s passage, is sure that such a tax is necessary.  Please see his op-ed, “Mass transit brings freedom” in the January 17, 2012 edition of the AJC.  Also, please see John Sherman’s Q&A, “More feasibility research needed” in the same edition. ro’c]

Regardless, when the subject of Atlanta traffic comes to mind, this is the poster child:

However, the hard reality of this situation is two-fold.

  • We could add 50 lanes of highway in each direction and it would eventually look like this again during rush-hours each weekday and on game days.
  • Many of the people stuck in this traffic do not vote in elections held in Atlanta; they’re from someplace else.  Besides the suburbanites, this traffic is filled with people driving to Florida.  They’re from the snow-belt, and they don’t vote in Atlanta.  Or they’re driving a tractor-trailer truck making a local delivery (or, just as likely, sneaking through the center of town to shave off an hour of drive time, even with the backed up traffic).

No.  By leaving transit decisions in the hands of local politicians, the inevitable outcome was a melange of projects designed to garner local political support.  People driving from the snow belt will never see one of our local elected best snipping a ribbon at the opening of a new highway.  Nor will they care.  Much less vote for them.

The voters themselves have apparently signaled that they view this process as bogus and will presumably respond appropriately when the transit tax comes to a vote.  The elected class also seems to understand that things are going awry.  There is talk of change in the air, and with the State General Assembly beginning its annual session, there may be change.

We need leadership on this issue.  In part this leadership needs to be cheer leading for transportation improvements.  And those improvements need to make some sense.  If we’re being asked to tax ourselves, we need to feel that the money is being properly allocated and not going down some rat hole for the benefit of some politician’s brother-in-law.

Everybody talks transparency, but delivering it is much harder.  We need to overcome our problem with reaching consensus about political matters.   In our information age, reaching agreement about political matters has become problematic at all levels of governance.

In this case, we need leadership to address a problem which is killing Atlanta, one rush hour at a time.


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