The vast majority of residents at a Monday meeting to learn about cityhood in northern DeKalb County said they were unsure they wanted to be part of a new city.
And everyone was even less sure about where another new city might be.
In what was billed as an information-only session hosted by the Briarcliff Woods East Neighborhood Association at Oak Grove United Methodist Church, the vast majority of 100 or so residents raised their hands to indicate they were unsure about cityhood. Only a small number showed they favored or disliked the idea.
Fran Millar, DeKalb County's sole Republican state senator; Tom Taylor, a DeKalb state represenatative, and Dan Weber, a former state senator in DeKalb, spent roughly 90 minutes talking with residents about cityhood in the county. They spoke about everything from the necessary $30,000 cost of a study to determine a future city's feasability to the different services a city can offer. (Peachtree Corners, for instance, is "city-light," which means it exists almost solely to give its residents control over code enforcement and zoning and doesn't offer much in the way of tangible services.)
No boundaries for a city were discussed. After the meeting it wasn't clear who wanted a city, where that movement might start and what communities it might include. It was obvious that Monday's meeting was the very beginning of a difficult process that might seek to organize swaths of residents and communities into a collective enterprise. But, this area, the North Druid Hills-Briarcliff area (or the Lakeside-Emory-Northlake area or whatever else you choose to call it), has existed for so long officially as unincorporated DeKalb County.
One resident, a marketing executive, said one of the most important questions that needs to be answered is, at its heart, about branding: "Where do we live right now?"
It's a question that doesn't appear to have vexed the many residents who have organized into nearby cities recently such as Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs, areas that arguably had clearer identities before they became cities.
But Millar, of Dunwoody, said it was important to look at what residents could get out of cityhood.
"When I think of North Druid Hills, this area, I think of preservation. I think of zoning," he said. "When something goes wrong, you've got someone down the street you can complain to."
Millar, Taylor and Weber also sought to dispel assumptions about cityhood – things that might drive some residents to want it in the wrong way. For instance:
- The chances of a city getting its own school district are almost nill, Taylor said. No matter what, most of your property taxes will still continue to go to the DeKalb County School System.
- Starting a city doesn't mean you're seceding from the county. You will most likely continue to pay for some county services such as water and sewer and garbage collection. About 80 percent of tax revenues will continue to go to the county, Millar said: "When cities are created, people are still part of Dekalb County."
- It's a difficult battle and a slog of a process. And if you can get cityhood approved by the legislature, the residents still have to vote in favor of it.
All of this is also separate from a movement to create a City of DeKalb, which is the subject of a study committee in the legislature. Millar said he thinks it's nearly impossible that would happen, and no legislation proposing it would make it off the floor of the House or Senate.
A number of residents expressed frustration that the meeting had no one speaking against cityhood. Although Jeff Rader, DeKalb County's District 2 commissioner who has spoken against cityhood before, was at the meeting, he left early before making any remarks.
"You have shown us quite simply that you're all pro-city," one resident shouted as a woman explained that any new city needs a significant amount of commercial or industrial property to finance a city without over-taxing residents. "Let's move on to another question."
Kevin Levitas, a former DeKalb state represenative who represented Briarcliff Woods, said at the next meeting he organizes, speakers opposing cityhood would be invited to speak. He said he was shooting for Nov. 29 as a tentative date.
No packets or heavily detailed information about cityhood was handed out. Millar, Taylor and Weber offered mostly anecdotes and general reflections on what it took to get cities started in Dunwoody and Brookhaven. Millar, for instance, said Dunwoody had 90 days to organize a police force for the city, once voted approved it – a Georgia record, he said.
"Even when these cities are created, they still have warts, believe me," he said.
Another resident said everyone in the room needed to consider the idea for themselves and not be pushed by state legislators.
"There's a lot of great reasons to have a city. But if you want to start a city, the leadership needs to come from you, not from state legislators," he said.
But that sort of leadership hasn't emerged yet.
"We don't need to know how to [become a city] until we know why to do it," another resident said.