DeKalb, Brookhaven squabble over cost of services for new city

Brookhaven thinks $500,000 is plenty to pay DeKalb County for six months of police protection and nearly a year of running and maintaining its parks while the new city gets started.

DeKalb thinks the city is off by more than $3 million.

Both sides have pledged to keep talking, but in a few weeks the county will finalize its midyear budget. Until there’s a deal, other DeKalb residents will have to help pay for those services.

“It sounds like (the city) should just pay it,” said John Carr, a retired contractor who lives in Brookhaven. “We’re residents of the county, too.”

City leaders, though call the county’s price for police service “ridiculous” based on studies they’ve seen.

When Brookhaven launched into existence as Georgia’s newest city in December, the people shepherding the city into reality were optimistic about hashing out a deal with DeKalb to keep providing services well into this year.

Such transition deals have been the norm with the region’s new cities, which often gradually take on their own services, such as police. But the optimism doesn’t reflect the battles over money that have sometimes raged between the cities and counties they carved themselves from.

Fulton County, for instance, sued Sandy Springs for $1 million to cover county-provided fire protection for about a year before the city established its own department. Sandy Springs, which launched the cityhood movement with its 2005 incorporation, finally settled this past December, paying $500,000 out of its general fund.

Such cost negotiations with DeKalb appeared settled as early as March, with Brookhaven paying $525,000 a month for police protection and $400,000 for 11 months of maintaining six parks, according to county emails obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The city’s total bill was projected at $3.55 million, with a payment plan yet to be worked out.

But in May, Brookhaven suddenly countered with just $500,000 total for six months’ of police service and nothing for parks, according to a June 19 letter the AJC obtained from County Attorney O.V. Brantley to Brookhaven Mayor J. Max Davis. The memo ends with a pledge of a court battle if a deal is not reached.

“This is not a tenable legal position,” Brantley wrote, adding it also violated the “previous course of good faith” dealings with the two sides.

Davis, who was out of town and had not seen the letter, said he would not comment on specific negotiations.

Generally, though, he said he and other city leaders plan to pay something but question what they see as a high price tag.

“Paying $525,000 a month for police services is frankly ridiculous,” Davis said.

The county’s figure is about $67,000 a month more than what the Carl Vinson Institute estimated the city would spend on its own police force. The institute, which conducted the financial study on Brookhaven’s viability, said the city’s police force will cost about $5.5 million a year. That total does not include specialized services offered by DeKalb police, such as SWAT teams and a police helicopter.

The county’s proposal also is about 20 percent higher than what Dunwoody paid DeKalb for services in 2008 during its transition to cityhood. Dunwoody paid DeKalb $430,000 for monthly police services at the time, for a city that has just about 1,000 fewer residents than Brookhaven.

Despite the similar size, Dunwoody faced fewer calls for police service than Brookhaven, which has seen significant police activity along its section of Buford Highway.

Dunwoody was also able to set up a police force in just under four months because it had another four months to plan between its election for city leaders and its launch date. Brookhaven had just two weeks between sitting a City Council and starting as its own city.

Jen Heath, a technical project manager from Brookhaven, said she would like both sides to soften into a deal so Brookhaven can finally launch its police force, as it projected last winter it would by June.

The city now aims to have 50 officers patrolling the streets by late summer. Brookhaven doesn’t plan to run its own parks until next year.

“I would like to see us manage the services on our own,” Heath said.

Even as the two work out payment for parks and police, DeKalb will still continue to provide several other services to Brookhaven residents. The city and county have already agreed, for instance, that DeKalb’s sanitation crews will keep picking up curbside trash and recycling.

County firefighters will also serve the city, though Brookhaven is in four-party talks with Chamblee, Doraville and Dunwoody about creating a new fire district.

County officials finalized those agreements this week. Also last week, the county’s chief operating officer, Zachary Williams, and City Manager Marie Garrett met to continue talks.

The city plans to bring a new offer to DeKalb, which is providing more details about its expenses.

“It sounds like we are getting closer,” CEO Burrell Ellis said Thursday. “We just want to make sure we are looking at it objectively and covering our costs. But we are committed to delivering services to all county residents.”

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