The Dunwoody Charter Commission on July 31 took another crack at the controversial proposal to amend the foundation document of the city so it could finance a fire department.

The divided commissioners voted 3-2 to approve a proposal to create a separate city fire millage should Dunwoody City Council decide to create a city fire department. Commissioners said the fire millage – which they nicknamed a “bucket” to hold fire revenues, or a “fire bucket” – would be created to replace the DeKalb County fire millage that now pays for Dunwoody’s fire services.

The charter commissioners voted unanimously to approve a reduction in the fire tax for homeowners that would mimic the Homestead Option Sales Tax offset provided by the county. The commissioners said the reduction should be based on an average of the five years of HOST percentage reductions prior to the start of the city department.

Some city officials have proposed joining other north DeKalb cities to create a multi-city fire department. They argue the cities can provide better fire services for about the same money spent by DeKalb. City officials say the city already has the power to offer fire services.

Previously, the commission had proposed allowing the county’s fire tax collections to go directly into general city coffers, a move some residents have criticized as allowing the city council to raise taxes above the charter’s millage cap, which prohibits the city from imposing more than 3.04 mills in taxes without a public referendum.

Opponents have packed charter commission meetings to argue in favor of requiring a referendum rather than a charter amendment to allow the city to collect the fire millage.

“I think this is still problematic, but it’s better than what we did before,” Commissioner Rick Otness said before joining commission chairman Max Lehmann in voting against the new plan, just as he had opposed the old one. “I think when we formed the city, there was a compact made that the millage would not be more than 3.04 mills. This was an end-around.”

But Commissioner Bev Wingate said that because the city contracts with DeKalb for fire services, it already is, in effect, collecting indirectly for fire services. “We are already charging our citizens,” she said.

Wingate and Commissioners Robert Wittenstein and Mallard Holliday voted to approve the new plan.

“When we started the city, it was about taking local control,” Holliday said. “For me, there’s not a tax increase [in the fire services proposal]. … To me, this aligns with having local control.”

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.