Cityhood for DeKalb County under study

The cityhood movement in metro Atlanta could get much bigger now that a state Senate committee is looking at whether all of unincorporated DeKalb should become a city - even if the likelihood of what would be the region’s largest city is a long shot at best.

Talk of turning DeKalb into Georgia’s newest city already has state and local officials worrying that the idea is far too simple to address the complex issue of funding local government.

“It makes sense to me to look at what the future of DeKalb County should be, what services they should focus on,” said state Sen. Fran Millar, the sole Republican on the county’s senate delegation, which acts as the study committee. “Those are the issues DeKalb County ought to be looking at, instead of whether to be a city.”

The last time the idea of a city of DeKalb was floated, in 2006, a University of Georgia study concluded a city would capture $30 million in fees from utilities that the county could not collect.

That kind of cash could be tempting as county officials have begun preparing the 2013 budget. With the creation of Brookhaven and likely annexation of a large area into Chamblee, DeKalb expects to lose up to $40 million in fees and taxes for its operations next year.

The study committee was the brainchild of state Sen. Gloria Butler, to address those kinds of hits. Butler declined to submit a companion bill to a House proposal by Rep. Billy Mitchell last year for a city of DeKalb, saying she needed more information. The committee is designed to get the facts behind the theories, she said.

“I want us to look at whether a city of DeKalb is better or if there is another way to run DeKalb County,” Butler said.

Several county commissioners and the chief executive said they think there has to be another way, besides cityhood. After all, the only other attempt to create a city out of a remaining unincorporated area in the metro area - the effort behind a city of South Fulton in 2007 - failed when 85 percent of residents shot it down.

As it is now, they said, DeKalb’s cash flow is threatened when cities annex or form. The upshot of a city of DeKalb would be more stable finances for services such as the countywide police department and libraries, since it would hem in existing cities and prevent the formation of any new ones.

That halts one threat to county finances but puts the pressure on cities to find ways beyond growth to fill their coffers.

“All local governments are trying to make sure they have sufficient revenues to operate, but all this does is drive revenues away from the county government and create another layer of government that further strains the tax base,” said CEO Burrell Ellis. “It could be our worst nightmare.”

There is also the matter of size. A common rallying cry in the cityhood movement has been a call for government to be closer to people. A city of DeKalb would be the state’s largest, with 600,000 residents and nearly 200 square miles.

A city of DeKalb would also encompass wildly different areas, such as the almost entirely residential areas in south DeKalb and the densely populated central DeKalb communities around major regional employers such as Emory University.

Commissioner Jeff Rader said recognizing those differences, and acknowledging that Democrat-heavy DeKalb would be unlikely to win approval for such a city in the GOP-controlled Legislature, are key to moving past the idea of incorporation.

Rader and Commissioner Kathie Gannon, both Democrats, have long called instead for carving up the entire county into zones that would allow for future cities, annexations or small tax districts.

The idea is to draw residential and commercial areas into those zones. That would counter accusations that new and existing cities cherry-pick prime developed land to boost their income while leaving residents to rely on the county for services.

A good example of such a zone is the land between DeKalb-Peachtree Airport and I-85 that is up for annexation in next month’s election, Rader said. Chamblee would gain the commercial Century Center area but also gobble up 11,000 residents if those residents agree to be annexed.

“Once you draw boundaries like that, people can exercise their right of self-determination and we can move to a more stable equilibrium for everyone,” Rader said.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.