Dunwoody debates tax cap in quest for fire protection

Dunwoody’s push to create its own fire service has brought charges from residents that it is reneging on a promise to keep a lid on property taxes.

Right now, Dunwoody’s charter does not allow a tax rate increase over 3.04 mills. Anything higher must be approved by a vote of residents.

A group of residents have mobilized saying the city is changing the rules to allow for a tax increase in cases where it takes over services from other jurisdictions, such as fire protection.

“I don’t want to give up my right to have a say in what goes on in my city,” said Merry Carmichael, one of a handful of residents who spoke against the change Wednesday at a Charter Commission meeting.

Despite this and several other pleas from residents, members of the commission voted 3-2 to allow the City Council to raise part of the tax levy by 20 percent if Dunwoody takes over fire service from DeKalb County.

The commission’s action is only a recommendation and must still clear the Georgia Legislature.

For more than a year, Dunwoody has explored forming its own fire service with several neighboring cities. Right now, Dunwoody residents and businesses pay DeKalb County $6.1 million in taxes for fire protection each year.

Dunwoody City Councilman Terry Nall says the county’s service leaves parts of the city vulnerable.

“We have no control for fire protection services,” he said. “We’re totally at the mercy of DeKalb County.”

More importantly, Dunwoody has no say in the level of service it receives, where rescue units are based or whether all stations have rescue units, Nall said.

While he acknowledges the county’s efforts, Nall said he thinks local control would improve response times and provide better coverage. Right now, he said, about half the city lies in areas where the response time is slower than the desired maximum of about 5 minutes, 20 seconds for fire and medical emergencies.

A multi-city North DeKalb Fire District could provide an increased level of service for the same millage rate Dunwoody residents now pay to DeKalb County, he said. The Charter Commission recommendation, he said, offers some flexibility to achieve that increased service level, although he doesn’t anticipate the need to raise the tax rate .

Although split on the proposal, Charter Commission members eventually recommended allowing a new tax for services that replace those provided by another government. The new, local tax would be set at the same level as the rate being paid to DeKalb County at the time of the switch.

In addition, city leaders would have authority to raise that rate by up to 20 percent without a vote of the public.

Commission Chairman Max Lehmann opposed the measure, saying if localizing fire service is a worthy pursuit, it should be able to withstand eight months of public scrutiny and a vote of the people.

“Without any kind of voter approval, it goes against the spirit of what I thought this charter was designed to represent,” he said.

But a majority of commissioners said they thought elected officials should have some flexibility when establishing a new service. They also pointed out the city’s current tax rate of 2.74 mills has never been raised and is well below the legal cap.

“I’m very concerned about deterioration of county services now,” commission member Beverly Wingate said. “I think we have to be able to act quickly to make changes if we need to.”