Cities are DeKalb’s path to prosperity

Inappropriate zonings. Lack of sufficient police protection. Pot holes that go unfilled. A need for economic development.

Such are just a few of the complaints we hear from citizens as two non-profit citizens groups explore the potential creation of two new cities — one in north DeKalb County, and the other in south DeKalb — over the next few months.

In the Lakeside community near Emory University, north of Decatur, the Lakeside City Alliance has been hosting community meetings due to a budding desire by area residents to learn if it is feasible to manage their own zoning, police, parks, public works and other issues.

In south DeKalb, the Stonecrest City Alliance has formed for the same purpose: to explore the creation of a city in unincorporated areas of Lithonia, Decatur and Ellenwood near Stonecrest Mall. Residents there express the same concerns with one additional caveat: a need for economic development in south DeKalb to help restore property values.

In each case, homeowners and residents have an overriding theme in mind: local control. Many say DeKalb officials are not doing a good job of tending to the needs of local neighborhoods and would like to understand whether or a city would do a better job of spending taxpayer money.

Their anxieties about the ability of their government to manage the county grew this month when a DeKalb grand jury indicted CEO Burrell Ellis on 15 counts including extortion and conspiracy. This came a few weeks after the County Commission designated almost the entire county a “slum” in a controversial move to generate jobs.

We are hearing from our residents that both of these actions hurt our communities, do not improve property values and are prompting interest in creating city governments closer to the people. It remains to be seen, however, whether a new city is both feasible and desired by a majority of residents.

DeKalb is a county of approximately 707,000 people — larger than several states including Wyoming, North Dakota and Vermont. Each commissioner represents at least 140,000 residents, and many do not live, shop, worship or socialize in our communities. The proposed cities of Lakeside and Stonecrest would have populations of about 65,000 — and city commissioners would be required to live in districts they represent.

To finance local services, each city would retain a small portion of the tax revenue citizens send to county government for services the county would no longer provide. Other recent cities have demonstrated that services can be provided with fewer employees and, in many cases, with better results

For example, Sandy Springs, Dunwoody, Brookhaven and other newly created cities have operated with minimal staff, hiring only a city manager, a handful of others and a police force. All other tasks are contracted out to private firms or even back to DeKalb County.

In 2010, a Georgia State University audit of DeKalb’s government and found an estimated 5,500 employees on the county payroll. GSU recommended a 16.8 percent reduction in employees, including 33 percent in the CEO’s office and 30 percent in the commissioners’ staffs.

We have heard over and over that this is a huge source of frustration for DeKalb taxpayers, waiting an hour or more for a police officer after their business or home has been burglarized, or waiting years for roads to be replaced. They tell us money could be much better spent addressing the needs of citizens instead of supporting an enormous county workforce.

Lakeside and Stonecrest are listening to their residents’ concerns. They are exploring whether they can create cities that can operate without a tax increase and offer services citizens say the county just cannot get right. A city doesn’t have to provide everything the county does, but if a city can do some things well, our residents tell us it will help create a sense of prosperity, safety and satisfaction where frustration now exists.

Mary Kay Woodworth is chairman of the Lakeside City Alliance. Jason Lary is chairman of the Stonecrest City Alliance.