By Bob Balgemann
Voters in Dunwoody will decide July 15 whether to join their neighbors in Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Milton as new north Georgia cities. But the outcome of the referendum is anyone’s guess if a recent public forum on cityhood is any barometer of public sentiment.
DeKalb County was labeled by cityhood proponents as not being trustworthy. They said local control, especially over zoning, would be greatly enhanced by having neighbors as City Council members instead of county commissioners who don’t live in Dunwoody and don’t share local concerns.
But opponents said the unhappiness was really with county CEO Vernon Jones, who soon will be gone as his term in office expires. They also said financial projections for the proposed city of 39,000 were too rosy, given today’s uncertain economy and threats of lawsuits over Homestead Option Sales Tax (HOST) funding.
So it went for 90 minutes as about 150 people, many of them retirees and most of them residents of Dunwoody, listened to panels of three on either side of the incorporation question.
Residents gave equal applause to the two sides. But one possible sign of their deeper feelings came when cityhood opponent Brian Pierce said there isn’t a problem with the county’s zoning decisions. That claim brought loud groans from many, lending support to proponents’ claim that “local control’’ is at the root of the incorporation effort.
Much had been said earlier about the influx of multifamily housing to Dunwoody despite opposition from other residents.
The panels disagreed on several financial issues, including how much money Dunwoody would glean from the lucrative Perimeter Community Improvement District.
State Rep. Jill Chambers, R-District 81, who represents part of Dunwoody, said the CID is under a contract with DeKalb County. Any changes must be approved by commissioners and the CID board. This has to be resolved, she said, “because Dunwoody expects to receive a lot of revenue from the CID.”
But proponent Rob Augustine said, “The CID will be part of the city’’ if voters approve incorporation. “Tax money will go to the city of Dunwoody to pay for services it will provide.’’
Those services would include police, roads, parks, code enforcement, zoning and land use. The notion of sharing police services with Sandy Springs was rejected because of the numerous stops a phone call would make before an officer could be dispatched.
While Pierce said financial projections aren’t realistic, consultant Oliver Porter, who helped launch the city of Sandy Springs, guaranteed that Dunwoody would receive more than the $18.7 million estimated for its first budget.
“I heard incorporation of Sandy Springs would kill Fulton County,’’ he said. “But the county showed a surplus” in its budget.
When Pierce said there’s no guarantee Dunwoody would receive any HOST income, Porter responded: “HOST is not a part of the operating budget. Let’s forget about HOST; it’s a smoke screen.’’
But Chambers said DeKalb County made it clear during the last state legislative session that it would sue over losing HOST revenue. She expressed the concern that tax money due Dunwoody “will be tied up in litigation.’’
HOST is an additional penny sales tax approved by voters to help reduce the property tax and for capital improvements.
A proposed budget prepared by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia estimates Dunwoody would receive $1.5 million in HOST dollars the first year.
The DeKalb government came under fire from Augustine, who said he didn’t trust it.
Another city proponent, Tom Taylor, said Dunwoody residents are not receiving much in return for the tax dollars they contribute to DeKalb. “We can do better.’’
Chambers said she thought it was too bad that county officials such as Commissioners Kathie Gannon and Elaine Boyer were being “insulted’’ during the forum. In actuality, she said, Gannon and Boyer vote in line with recommendations from the Dunwoody Homeowners Association.
In summation, Pierce said this is “the wrong plan. There is a lot of uncertainty. Proper planning was not done. There is a lack of business support. We need more realistic projections; go look and see for yourself.’’
Proponent Denny Shortal said the county government “has a proven track record of being irresponsible with your tax dollars. It’s a matter of trust. Who cares more for you, your neighbor or the folks in DeKalb County?’’
Afterward residents had a chance to be heard through questions submitted earlier in the evening.