A plan for the city of Dunwoody to finance a proposed fire department is drawing criticism as some residents consider it a back-door tax increase without a required public vote.

“To give us up here the ability to raise [fire] taxes 20 percent, I don’t agree with that,” Dunwoody City Councilman Denny Shortal said during the council’s June 10 meeting. “We need to keep a close eye on that.”

The debate has intensified because the Dunwoody Charter Commission, an appointed group reviewing the city charter, agreed  during its June 5 meeting to ask state lawmakers to allow the city to take over the tax millage residents now pay for fire protection, if the city ever starts its own fire department.

The commission voting 3-2 to allow Dunwoody City Council to increase the fire millage by up to 20 percent without a public vote in order to cover costs of a department.

Some Dunwoody city officials are proposing the city join with other nearby cities to create a new fire department in north DeKalb County. A multi-city department, they argue, would provide better service to  residents of north DeKalb cities than the present DeKalb County department, they argue.  Other city officials argue Dunwoody should turn to Sandy Springs for fire services.

City officials believe they could start a new multi-city department using funds raised by the current DeKalb fire tax millage in the area.

The commission’s decisions are not binding. The group, which is expected to continue meeting into September, will report its recommended changes in the 5-year-old city’s charter to state legislators, who then will consider whether to back the proposals. Any changes to the charter would be make by the state Legislature.

About a dozen residents, including Dunwoody Mayor Mike Davis and City Councilman Terry Nall, a strong supporter of the proposed fire department attended the charter commission’s June 5 meeting. Several residents spoke against allow the council to raise the fire tax millage without a public vote. They argued the city charter now prohibits any tax increase above the tax cap of 3.04 mills without a public vote.

“I am not opposed to the city looking into taking on services such as fire, library and schools, but I am opposed to their doing so without voter approval of 50 percent plus one,” resident Merry Carmichael told the commissioners. “This commission has eliminated that right. I want the right to choose with my vote which of these services I want to take on. I don’t want it dictated to me.”

Resident Jeannette Smith argued that “taking things away from DeKalb County, that’s a slippery slope.”

“How long is the county going to let us cherry pick [which services we provide]?” she asked. “You keep poking at the big bear and the bear is going to eat you.”

But commissioner Robert Wittenstein, a former city councilman, said the 20 percent increase would apply only to the fire tax. And City Manager Warren Hutmacher said the city would have to have voter approval to collect more than 120 percent of the 3.29 mills the county now collects for fire services.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.