Opinion: Race, politics, power behind DeKalb’s water, sewer crisis

During my inaugural state of county address in March 2017, I celebrated the visionary leadership of Scott Candler, former sole DeKalb County commissioner. According to his biographer, “Mr. DeKalb” pioneered the idea of county governments delivering services traditionally managed by municipalities.

Candler established DeKalb’s water and sewer systems, police protection, library services, parks and recreation programs, fire protection and sanitation services. His most controversial and prescient project during the 1940’s was the construction of county-wide water and sewer systems.

Derided by critics as “Candler’s Folly,” the consolidated water and sewer system was the catalyst that transformed mostly rural DeKalb County into metro Atlanta’s first suburban powerhouse. A sleepy county dominated by dairy farms and granite quarries became the home of tens of thousands of “white flight” migrants from Atlanta. The availability of the water and sewer system, coupled with relatively cheap land and labor costs made DeKalb a prime industrial relocation destination.

Today, DeKalb’s water and sewer system is our most valuable asset. The system’s FY2018 operating budget is $246 million, or 19 percent of the county’s total appropriation. Commissioner Candler would be proud and saddened by the current state of his beloved water and sewer system.

In 2011, DeKalb County reached a Clean Water Act settlement in the form of a Consent Decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division. The decree dictates that DeKalb must correct long-festering problems to reduce sanitary sewer overflows.

How could generations of leaders neglect and mismanage such an important resource? The answer is both simple and complex. It is a tale of two cities, or in this case a tale of two DeKalbs.

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During the 1970s migrants of a darker hue from Atlanta and across the country joined the historic migration east on I-20. Immigrants and refugees from around the world also helped to swell DeKalb’s burgeoning population. A critical mass of new residents were middle-class African-Americans who quickly sought to leverage their clout at the ballot box.

Black voting power mushroomed and a racially charged power struggle erupted over control of the county government. Hanging in the balance were the spoils of political power—influence, jobs and contracts.

Politicians and advocates of all stripes ruthlessly pursued ambitious agendas. Operational efficiency eroded as a steady stream of experienced, disaffected county employees headed for the exits. Adoption of a generous early retirement plan further drained the reservoir of institutional knowledge.

The collateral damage was widespread. Insults and innuendos filled the air, new cities formed, grand juries convened, indictments secured. Winter had come to DeKalb County. The primary casualty of the racially charged political tussle was the loss of trust in county government.

The mass turnover exposed the absence of a discreet but critical fail-safe. Written standard operating procedures were all but nonexistent. DeKalb had emerged as an urbanized juggernaut but county departments were mired in post- World War II operational mindsets.

Skewered by searing media coverage, the county became the poster child for government dysfunction. Ground Zero in this public debacle was the much-maligned Department of Watershed Management.

I announced during my March 2017 speech that a “New Day” was dawning in DeKalb and shared a painful realization: “Sadly, we have neglected and mismanaged DeKalb’s most important resource—our water and sewer system.” My top priority will be to bridge the divides that have hampered our ability to resolve longstanding issues impacting this vital system.

With the support of the Board of Commissioners and dedicated watershed employees, we have made significant progress. In 2017, critical positions were filled, nearly 100 percent of all priority pipes were assessed and $28 million was invested in sewer upgrades. The county cleaned 220 miles of sewers, removed 5.1 tons of debris, completed 1,821 stream crossing inspections, replaced 3,000 manhole covers, held the first Consent Decree public update and hosted 280 other events. We established an inter-departmental Consent Decree leadership team that includes the CEO, watershed management, law, human resources, IT, finance and planning departments and our private engineering consultants. In 2018, we have already issued contracts for sewer construction projects totaling $54 million.

The improvement of our water and sewer system is a long-term proposition. A collective journey, not an event. I am encouraged but fully cognizant that the way forward is difficult but not impossible.

Michael L. Thurmond is DeKalb County’s CEO.

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