DeKalb Task Force on Operations “Kabuki Theatre”

July 3, 2014 12:02 pm

by George Chidi · 12 comments

Vaughn Irons, co-chairman of the Task Force on DeKalb OperationsVaughn Irons stopped me when I called the Task Force on DeKalb Operations illegitimate last night. It’s unfair to call it illegitimate so soon, he said. Perhaps its not too early to call it Kabuki theatre though, as Commissioner Jeff Rader referred to it after things wrapped up with most folks in the room shaking their heads.

Interim CEO Lee May put this DeKalb undiscombobulation group together to address the underlying problems spurring groups like Lakeside and Tucker to form new cities.

Two of its 17 members didn’t make the meeting last night, with no comment from the county or the commission. April Atkins told me last week that she resigned to keep her work life as a community affairs specialist for the FDIC separate from outside matters like the commission. She can’t have the press emailing her at work about stuff like this, she said.

And DeKalb commissioner Stan Watson … probably doesn’t want to be anywhere a news reporter might show up right now.

I want this to work. DeKalb needs this to work. 

The loss of tax revenue associated with incorporations poses an existential economic threat to everyone in the county left behind. New cities will radically change the service balance of the county, bushwhack the county’s pension fund, undermine bond obligations for hospitals, and almost certainly result in a huge tax increase on the county’s poorest residents.

The tax-shifting problem alone implies catastrophe. South DeKalb’s zip codes languish in the top one percent of the nation in foreclosures, and about 85 percent of homes south of Memorial remain underwater on mortgages, compared to about a third of homes in the rest of the county.

But May can’t just waltz into the legislature and say, “Look, if you let these cities incorporate, we’ll have to raise taxes on everyone else by 30 percent, which will kill economic development for a generation and turn south DeKalb into a permanent ghetto.” Because the legislature doesn’t care. It has been vacillating in its commitment to home rule where Democrats are concerned, views DeKalb’s travails as self-generated and wants an excuse to stomp it flat before demographic changes catch up with Republicans. May has to show that he’s properly identified the problems, and has a plan to address them — a plan with wide, popular support.

“It is my sincere hope this task force can come to a consensus on how we can fix DeKalb in one fell swoop, and make the most of the one year cooling off period that we asked the Georgia General Assembly to afford us,” May said in earlier comments. The group should make a plan “that we can control from a DeKalb County standpoint and not be beholden to outside entities,” he added last night.

That’s the task force’s real job: manufacture consensus. And, by God, that’s what they’ll produce.

Near the end of the meeting, task force commission members had begun discussing how citizen participants would be chosen for the subcommittees looking at HOST payments and incorporation issues, where all the actual work of the commission would be done. Phyllis Mitchell, a facilitator from the county government, told them that they had received more names than they knew what to do with, but they would be winnowed down to a list before the next meeting.

By whom, no one seems to know.

I asked half a dozen of the commission members if they had any idea how those names would be chosen. None did. I asked Edmond Richardson, Lee May’s chief of staff, how those names would be chosen. He claimed he didn’t know, while categorically refusing to confirm if May himself would choose. Lots of passive voice used in that conversation. No accountability assigned.

Apparently a team of citizens chosen by invisible fairies floating over Decatur will lay the groundwork for recommendations that may reshape the entire county’s political structure.

But it’s too early to call the task force illegitimate, even though the process for picking the team lacks transparency. The commission realizes that the subcommittee assignments have to appear transparent, so the committee should be given a chance to act, Irons said.

Except, the committee hasn’t taken any actions so far to take control of the process at all. The agenda for the committee meetings is being set somewhere in Lee May’s office, right down to who is presenting. The meeting facilitator essentially dictated the process to the board, including stage-managing the nomination of co-chairs for the committee.

With florid praise, Rep. Billy Mitchell (I think) nominated John Shelton, CEO of DeKalb Medical Center, to chair the task force. A moment later, DeKalb commissioner Sharon Barnes-Sutton nominated Vaughn Irons, Chairman of the Development Authority of DeKalb County for the job. And then suggested that they co-chair the group, to the surprise of many on the board.

Many, but perhaps not most. Despite an objection raised by Rader that co-chairs will contribute to a lack of focus, the vote carried.

Notably, Shelton is white. Irons is black. The co-chair situation appears meant to defuse accusations that the task force is a creature of racial politics. But the neatness of that maneuver speaks to a deal struck behind the scenes, and the facilitator alluded to earlier communications between May and committee members about preventing an elected official from chairing the commission — communications that have not been made public, despite a pledge for “all the documents” of the commission to be placed on the public website.

A hearing schedule appeared out of the blue, generated again by some nameless, faceless unaccountable bureaucrat in the county offices. “Here, new committee, is a meeting schedule. Don’t worry about setting your own agenda,” one might imagine hearing. “We can take care of that for you. We’ve also taken the liberty of scheduling overlong presentations to take up all the time you may spend discussing actual matters before your committee, and commissioning eight studies on municipalization law, tax and governance issues on your behalf. Let us know if there’s anything you want to change there. If it’s not too much trouble.”

The stage managers graciously allowed 15 minutes of time for representatives of Lakeside, Briarcliff and Tucker to state their case for incorporation … which is why the whole flipping task force is meeting in the first place.

As Rep. Mike Jacobs began to incredulously question Tucker’s representative about their proposed map, the back and forth appears to have been too much for Sharon Barnes-Sutton. “We’re not supposed to be debating tonight and I want to go home at eight,” she said. Right. They’re not supposed to be debating tonight. That’s not on the agenda.

Don’t get me wrong. I would have liked to serve on this committee, and I know how much of an acrimonious cluster “citizen participation” can be. Crackpots show up to rail about their broken sidewalks and use the lectern to preach like a Sunday sermon and accuse elected leaders of everything from backroom deals to having sex with livestock. And there’s always a chance that the whole thing will blow up into a giant fireball of nothing. 

It takes effort to strain useful data from the drivel. But that’s what legitimizes the process.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

dekalbguy July 3, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Why do you repeat that party line that cities bankrupt the county. They don’t. If they did, Chamblee and Decatur would have done the job a long time ago.

George Chidi July 3, 2014 at 3:25 pm

Chamblee and Doraville have existed as incorporated cities for a century. There’s no adjustment to make for their finances.

Brookhaven and Dunwoody represented a substantial change in the commercial tax base for the county, though, and Briarcliff/Lakeside and Tucker would have an equally-stark effect over a relatively short period of time.

It’s not the party line. It’s math.

Lakeside alone represents about 12 percent of the unincorporated county’s population and a quarter of the county’s tax base. Tucker is another 10 percent of the county and 20 percent of the tax base. Take them both out and you’ve left the remaining population to eat the entire pension obligation on half the property value, never mind the remaining fixed costs associated with county government.

gcp July 3, 2014 at 4:22 pm

The county won’t entirely lose revenue from cities as cities still use county water, court system, jail, perhaps fire and ems so its not as serious as you say. Cities will continue to fund these funtions as well as continue to partially fund pension.

George Chidi July 3, 2014 at 4:28 pm

The pension thing and HOST taxes are special. There’s no legal provision for new cities to meet pension obligations — its one reason Dunwoody and Brookhaven can boast lower net taxes (a thriving commercial base built from county-level planning decisions is another.)

HOST tax distribution is uneven. The state formulas privilege cities with disproportionately high payments.

George Chidi July 3, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Commercial development patterns in DeKalb requires a real discussion.

The planning and zoning decisions of the last 30 years assumed that the fruits of commercial concentration and density would be harvested by the county government and not cities. It made sense to zone swaths of land for commercial activity around the interchange and in pockets like Northlake, because transportation access and clustering mattered more than geographic diversity.

That assumption needs to be blown up.

The county will be hesitant to encourage concentrated redevelopment if it believes a substantial industrial or commercial node will simply be scooped up by a newly-incorporated city or annexed by an existing city.

Either the way cities and counties share tax obligations has to change in some fundamental way, or the county will need to radically rethink how it wants development to move from this point. Right now, it’s in the county’s interest to encourage geographically-dispersed industrial and commercial activities far enough away from established cities and prime incorporation areas to avoid these fights in 10 or 20 years.

That may be a planning disaster, since its hard to really create jobs and economic growth without commercial density. But it may also encourage some radical concepts around live-play-work development, with small self-contained nodes of interconnected commercial spaces built right in the middle of existing neighborhoods.

Of course … some of the neighbors may object to that …

Harry July 3, 2014 at 3:50 pm

Incorporate the entire county into municipalities and eliminate the county overhead. Problem solved.

hermanlorenz July 3, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Unfunded pension liabilities are a significant issue for DeKalb County. But first off, they’re the result of the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners’ not funding them. The problem is not the fault of the existing or future cities.

DeKalb County’s budget went up $20 million this year. How much was devoted to solving this real problem? Nothing. They’d rather have it as a problem so they can blame cities. It would be easier to solve the problem itself!

George Chidi July 3, 2014 at 4:13 pm

A $1 billion budget rising by $20 million represents even money when accounting for 2 percent rate of inflation.

The existing problem of underfunded pension liabilities can be, rightly, attributed to bad management. But if a quarter of the population can simply skate on those liabilities, then the degree to which they’ve pushed obligations they incurred onto others causes an additional problem. It’s eating at the bar and sticking the next guy with the tab.

hermanlorenz July 3, 2014 at 4:18 pm

$20 million increase over $560 million last year is 3.5% increase, and it give almost $600 million available to start reducing the problem.

George Chidi July 3, 2014 at 4:26 pm

Fair enough. It’s 1.5 percent more money, net of inflation. It does not give “almost $600 million available to start reducing the problem” unless you believe the actual operating cost of county government is zero.

dekalbguy July 3, 2014 at 4:56 pm

The actual legitimate operating cost of county government is a lot less than $600 million. The County government is spending money as they see fit. One of their priorities is NOT catching up on the pension requirements. They’d prefer to blame the problem on someone.

And BTW: did you notice that DeKalb County has MORE money now that Brookhaven has gone into business? I guess it didn’t bankrupt anything!

Dave Bearse July 6, 2014 at 2:53 pm

It may be too early to call the task force illegitimate, but it’s too late to say that municipalization of north DeKalb won’t occur—it’s only a matter of the three fief groups reaching accomodation. (It went under the radar perhaps because of the late session Briarcliff-Lakeside-Tucker hubbub, the remainder of unincorporated DeKalb west of I-85 is this year either being annexed or voting on annexation per HB1138 and HB1139.)

The county would be best served by seeking to constructively participate in the process, and more importantly (as you note), seek a reasonable and fair way to apportion pension liability. Apportionment of pension liability is an issue that reaches beyond municiaplization—as in school districts with respect to charter schools—and there may thus be unexpected allies is attempting to address it.

I’m not optimistic concerning pension liabilitiy apportionment however. The walkaway precedent is already well-established. Why shouldn’t the rest of GOP-leaning north DeKalb be able to walkaway too?