Lee May stood at the back of the House Governmental Affairs committee room at the capitol yesterday, watching the DeKalb municipalization movement’s efforts unravel, in a state of rapt disbelief and wonder with the rest of us, I may only assume.
The meeting was quick. State Rep. Mike Jacobs told the committee that the last-minute maps and the last-minute deal between the proponents of a new city of Tucker and a new city of Lakeside depended on legislation for both moving forward this year. But the legislature had already effectively killed Tucker’s bid this year.
State Sen. Fran Millar, the stalwart champion of Lakeside through this mess, grumpily withdrew the legislation while vowing never again to introduce a Lakeside incorporation bill. South Fulton can get a vote in a week, he grumbled at the hearing. “When Republicans don’t let people vote for self-determination, shame on us.”
May, CEO of DeKalb County, had been calling for a pause in the cityhood movement; first for three years, then when that was laughed off the table, for one year.
Thus, the accidental CEO received an accidental pause.
It may be easy enough after this for Democrats in DeKalb to claim some squalid political victory over the municipalization movement, and over the idea of white Republican-dominated cities in majority-black, majority-Democratic counties. I think that would be a grave error.
None of the problems cited by people pushing for new cities in DeKalb have gone away yet – the unreturned phone calls and emails to county commissioners, a former CEO facing corruption charges, grand jury reports describing a culture of corruption in the county’s executive offices, a horror show in the county permitting process, a police force hemorrhaging officers for years under budget constraints and politicized management.
And, questions of equity and social justice aside, the relatively affluent dwellers of the area formerly known as Lakeside are still covering more of the county tab per household than the relatively poor residents of south DeKalb.
One problem appears to be solving itself – the school system no longer faces an immediate threat of losing accreditation, although that’s predicated on returning a school board to office that doesn’t suck.
But Tucker’s cityhood supporters will probably have to push forward again with an incorporation bill next year. Tucker’s efforts arose as self-defense to prevent Briarcliff and Lakeside incorporations from splitting their historic community. The political antecedents for creating cities remain in place. Tucker may have to incorporate to be certain it will remain a contiguous community.
An economic development draft report released last week cited the increasing municipalization of DeKalb and the erosion of the county’s tax base as the chief threat to county development. “Infrastructure in the unincorporated areas of the county is older and in need of repair and replacement, but the drastic reduction in revenues leaves the government unable to reinvest in roads and other infrastructure,” the report notes.
The report does not mention the catastrophe the incorporations pose to the county pension fund, which is underfunded by about $640 million. New cities don’t contribute to the pension of the police officers and fire fighters and other county workers who had been serving those communities before incorporation, allowing them to lower their taxes by ditching that debt. The county today pays five percent of its taxes into the pensions.
Nor does it mention the distribution of HOST tax money, which disproportionately benefits cities.
So, all of the legislative rigmarole misses the point. The political gods have given Lee May until the end of the year to get DeKalb’s house in order before this starts all over again.
May has pressed for more money for police, including take-home cruisers that started to be farmed out to line officers last week. He’s establishing an office of accountability and an office of constituent services to address the neighborhood issues that metastasize into blanket opposition to county government. The ethics board has been fully funded and is preparing to staff for investigations. The county is – supposedly – revamping its construction permit and business license process.
I’m not sure that’s going to be enough. Neither does May.
Last week, May announced the creation of a task force for DeKalb County Operations to address municipalization in DeKalb and the county’s form of government. The task force, as described to me, will look closely at the way incorporations work in DeKalb, potentially to present a plan for carving up the county in a way that doesn’t leave islands of unincorporated and economically un-viable territory behind and without leaving a rump county holding the bag on pensions.
It’s an unenviable task, given the conflicting interests of stakeholders. That’s why I’m saying no one should gloat. The failed Lakeside bill didn’t make things easier for anyone.