Blueprint for DeKalb Meeting – Tuesday 2/11/14
Our DeKalb County reached a ‘tipping point’ in 2013: nearly everyone now agrees that fundamental reforms are due. Beyond that general agreement, reaching consensus proves difficult. Even listing a Top Ten of the issues, crises and challenges that brought us to this tipping point invariably raises disagreement on one point or another from one quarter or another. We all seem to be going our separate ways.
To move forward we should consider, “what does reform look like?” We believe it includes these broad principles:
- Marginal adjustments no longer suffice. We need comprehensive solutions as big as our problems.
- No one change suffices. We need approaches as multi-faceted as our problems.
- Many levels of government must be involved. The Board of Commissioners can and must play a key role, but so too must the Board of Education, the DeKalb delegation in the State Legislature, our municipalities, and our business and private sector leaders. Each must act, do so in concert, and proceed on a jointly agreed timetable.
- Governmental transparency is a must. We cannot negotiate changes so fundamental and so diverse behind closed doors.
- Citizens’ voices count.
We believe there is a broad consensus to proceed on those terms.
Upon what problems should this multi-dimensional, transparent process focus? Again, we believe a broad consensus exists to address issues in five areas:
OPERATIONS: Everyone who does the County’s business and everyone who does business with the County should be able to rely on published standard operating procedures for every department. The immediate issue is with purchasing and contracts.
ETHICS: We must have confidence in the integrity of the people who constitute our government, and that demands an independent auditor, an outside appointment process for ethics boards, and limits on vendor’s contributions to candidates.
ELECTIONS: A clear contributing factor to our problems has been elections with low voter turnout with the power of incumbency clearly in play. More voters, new voices and broader conversations are needed.
GOVERNMENTAL STRUCTURE: With the proliferation of new cities and land grabs, the nature of structural reforms depends in great measure on what decisions we make on cities, operations, ethics, and elections. If we are looking for changes as big and as multi-faceted as our problems, then simply convening a Charter Commission and amending our Form of Government is no panacea. Structural reform is the end goal of the process, not its beginning.
HOST SALES TAX: The sales tax no longer funds needed infrastructure improvements and misallocates proceeds. In addition, everyone thinks that those at the other end of the County get a better deal. This highlights the need to revisit the HOST legislation.
We believe there is a consensus to develop a Blueprint to Redefine DeKalb on this basis.
We believe that the way to maintain this consensus as we add details to the Blueprint is to engage in an open discussion that tests ideas in a non-confrontational, non-adversarial manner. We need to talk. It is in that spirit that we humbly offer the following initial details so that all stakeholders can engage and offer suggestions. Here is a starting point:
IN THE AREA OF OPERATIONS
Administrative Procedures: Businesses and many governments have documented procedures so that those conducting business with them know what to expect. It is paramount that the Purchasing procedures assure transparency in selecting professional services. The recent Grand Jury called for this reform, and our DeKalb Delegation partners will need to amend the Organizational Act to allow this change to be accomplished. Compliance with these procedures is a watchdog role that should be performed by a compliance officer outside of County government. All of our departments need standard operating procedures. It has taken us years to modernize our permitting procedures. This work must continue to make dealing with DeKalb County a smooth and fair business transaction.
IN THE AREA OF ETHICS
Restrict campaign contributions from vendors: Some groups are advocating the State restrict campaign contributions to $250 from companies and individuals who do business with the government. Amending state regulations to limit contributions from vendors to elected officials and their special projects would be a huge step towards restoring public trust.
Internal Auditor: Hiring an internal auditor has been advocated for over 3 years. It will improve integrity and transparency and provide independent, technical oversight of government contracts and operations. An internal auditor will also improve the checks and balances between the CEO and Board of Commissioners.
Board of Ethics: The proposed 2014 county budget contains additional funds for the Board of Ethics, and that is an important step. One other change is essential, the Board of Commissioners and the CEO should not be appointing the people that will oversee them. There are better ways to fill the Ethics Board.
IN THE AREA OF ELECTIONS
Change local election rules: Despite the problems DeKalb faces, the same people continue to be elected. It is difficult to run for county government, especially against an incumbent who has the advantage of access to more campaign contributions and name recognition. Perhaps it is time to change the election rules. Term limits should be explored. The advantage of incumbency could be checked by term limits, encouraging new leaders to step forward bringing fresh ideas and change.
IN THE AREA OF GOVERNMENTAL STRUCTURE
Apportion all of unincorporated DeKalb into equitable boundaries: The “Genie” is out of the bottle with forming new cities, and there is no way to turn back. While people have the right to self-determination, the “problem” with cities is the way the state allows them to be formed. The current proposals for new cities have set off something of a panic. We should not form cities based upon our fears, but instead we should form them with an understanding of the benefits and costs for everyone.
The current process is a “first come, first grab” movement that considers only economic feasibility. If the legislature needs proof that the process is unworkable, they only need to look at the three proposed cities trying to occupy the same space in order to acquire financially important properties. Yet the state only requires an economic study and the studies say they are all financially feasible.
A better method for forming cities would rely upon financial, demographic and GIS data to assess the economic and other impacts to the entire county. We propose such a model. A University Fiscal Research Center can model different boundary configurations using a broad array of data.
They can create as many boundaries as are economically viable using tax base per capita and adjust for service delivery efficiencies or other factors. Using this model of proposed boundaries, all communities can be at the table to explore improved services with more local control. The boundaries could be used to form a city based upon a set of criteria and not the fear that one’s community will be left behind.
Professional, objective facilitators would conduct a community involvement process within the proposed boundaries. This process should take place in 2014 and it will broaden the discussion about incorporation and alternatives, including annexation, special tax districts, townships, shared services, and new government authorities with control of certain services. Discussions would inform residents and explore options based on their issues. This proposal would include the boundaries proposed by the various city advocates and existing municipalities that are considering annexation.
Putting new cities on hold: While DeKalb sorts through our internal issues a delay on creating new cities would be the best thing the General Assembly could do for DeKalb County in this year’s short session. If we in DeKalb are doing something to face the call for cities, the General Assembly should give us time to solve our own problems.
Charter Commission: There are many people who question the current form of DeKalb government. A well-staffed Charter Commission is the preferable method to examine the options for DeKalb. The snowballing issues of cityhood and annexation will probably require changes to County government that we can’t predict. It is premature to redefine County government when we don’t know what functions it will be performing. A Charter Commission should be established after we understand the role of DeKalb County and any new cities being formed.
IN THE AREA OF INFRASTRUCTURE FUNDING
HOST Sales Tax: The HOST legislation needs to be revisited and overhauled. The legislation has been successful in keeping property tax rates low for homeowners, but it has failed to provide the needed resources to fund capital improvements. Only $5 million is available from HOST in 2014 for capital improvements. The DeKalb budget states that if a new city is created in 2015, there may not be any HOST funding for capital projects in DeKalb. The 5-year capital improvement budget for DeKalb is over $23 million. DeKalb has an aging infrastructure with an inadequate funding source to repair and replace it. Meanwhile the millage rate for businesses is among the highest in the State of Georgia.
Another shortcoming in HOST is the distribution of capital funds among the County and the cities. Unincorporated DeKalb has 60% of the population and receives 25% of the funds available for capital improvements ($5m out of $20m). Distribution among the cities is also skewed with Dunwoody receiving $15 per capita and Lithonia receiving $1 per capita. We should revisit the HOST legislation and adopt something to meet the demands of today.
Call to Action: We call on our Commissioners, our State partners, our citizens and stakeholders to step up to the challenge. As the legislative branch, the Board of Commissioners can enact several of the suggested reforms. Our partners in the state legislature can enact others. Citizens and business stakeholders must put on the pressure to see that these reforms are dealt with in a meaningful way as soon as possible to give this government transparency and accountability. We must engage our citizens in the cityhood issue in a meaningful way. We must explore long-term improvements to our government. We must step up to this challenge by considering a comprehensive plan to redefine our county.
Our goal here is to begin a conversation. We understand that not every stakeholder will agree with every recommendation we have made. We hope to hear from a diverse range of voices:
How would you implement reform in OPERATIONS?
How would you implement reform in PUBLIC ETHICS?
How would you implement reform in LOCAL ELECTIONS?
How would you implement reform in GOVERNMENTAL STRUCTURE?
How would you implement reform in INFRASTRUCTURE FUNDING?
Throughout, we are looking for solutions as big as our problems and changes as multi-faceted as our problems, reached by engaging every level in concert, operating transparently, and inviting every voice to the table. This is our CALL TO ACTION.
Please come together to advance the conversation:
DATE: Tuesday February 11, 2014
TIME: 6:30 PM – 8:00 PM
PLACE: Decatur Library, Ground Floor Meeting Room. Enter from parking lot in the rear.
Please join us in support of the Blueprint to Redefine DeKalb by going to www.kathiegannon.com and email us to add your name to the citizen leaders listed below. Please contact your elected officials, your congregation, your neighbors and friends and ask them to help us advance the Blueprint.
|Margaret (Peggy) Anderson|
|Bonnie J. Davis and|
|Obayana B. Ajanaku|
|Leroy Smith, Jr.|
Mike St. Louis
|Gale Walldorff and|