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Monday, May 13, 2013

Tucker Together Informational Meeting, April 30, 2013

 Informational Meeting, April 30, 2013

Tucker Together's first information meeting was held at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church on Lavista Road in Tucker.  With the general purpose of these informational meetings being to provide Tucker residents and business owners with basic information to allow them to make an informed decision about incorporation, this meeting's particular focus was on Public Safety.  The meeting was moderated by Ann Rosenthal.

The first half of the meeting featured a presentation  by the DeKalb County Police Department, represented by Police Chief Cedric Alexander.  An audio recording of the meetings introduction, the presentation by the DCPD, and a follow up Q & A session for just the police can be found here.  (This audio clip is edited to just include the police presentation.)

A concern raised by several attendees was that the Public Safety discussion was limited to just the county police as there were no representatives from any of the smaller cities.  It would have been much more helpful to have heard of how police services are offered and budgeted in some of DeKalb's cities, which might have included Dunwoody and Decatur, as their experiences would be more consistent with a proposed City of Tucker police department.

The other half of the meeting featured representatives from the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University, to include Dr. Katherine Willoughby and Prof. Jim Martin. The audio recording of their presentation and the followup Q & A  session can be found here. (This audio is also edited to include only their portions of the meeting.)

Tucker Together's next informational meeting will be held on May 21, 2013, also at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church. The focus of this meeting is believed to be Planning & Zoning.

Audio for the DeKalb County Police (with meeting introduction by Ann Rosenthal)

Audio for the Andrew Young School

The Tucker Initiative Answers Some Questions.

The audience was encouraged to ask questions of all the speakers after their presentations, and those questions and answers are included in the audio recordings.  However, some of the answers were either too short and lacking in detail, or the intent of the question was misunderstood.  So, the Tucker Initiative is offering its own answers
to the same questions asked of the Andrew Young School representatives, to provide that additional information, or to bring the answer into tighter focus. These are only the questions directed at the AYS; the questions for the police department are not included.  These answers represent only the views of the  City of Tucker Initiative.

1. Lately cities have been passed by general acts of legislation, not necessarily needing the delegations required signatures.  Can you comment on the passage of local legislation?

Traditionally, at least for the 50 years before 2005, the General Assembly operated by the principle of 'Home Rule' with regard to its counties.  In practice this meant that the General Assembly would defer to the county government and to that county's delegation within the General Assembly with regard to local bills (bills that only affected the one county). As for new cities, or the expansion of existing cities within DeKalb, this meant that both the DeKalb County government and the county's elected representatives within both the House and Senate would have to approve the new city or the proposed annexation.  Therefore, prior to Dunwoody forming in 2008, no new cities had formed in DeKalb County since Pine Lake in 1937, and Avondale Estates before that, in 1924.  The existing cities grew very slowly, with very few, and generally very small, annexations.

DeKalb County was largely rural until after WWII, when suburban growth began in earnest and DeKalb became a bedroom community for the booming City of Atlanta. The county began offering county wide services generally limited by the state constitution to municipalities, and county government grew at the expense of the existing cities.  The political power structure had evolved to the point where county government purposefully prevented city growth. A law enacted by the General Assembly in 1965 expressly banned any new city from forming within 3 miles of an existing city. This law, designed to protect the growth aspirations of the existing cities, also served to entrench the county based political power structure, and effectively killed even the remotest chances of a new city forming. A 1973 constitutional amendment confirmed the right of county governments to provide municipal type services.

The transition from Democrat controlled state government to Republican controlled state government was completed in 2005 when both Houses of the General Assembly had Republican majorities for the first time. Changes to the principle of Home Rule soon appeared as the General Assembly, driven by the Republican base in Atlanta's suburbs, repealed the 3-mile rule and changed procedural rules to allow the enactment of new cities to be treated as a state bill and not a local bill. The result was the formation of the City of Sandy Springs after 30 years of trying, over the objections of both the Democrat controlled Fulton County government, and the Democrat dominated county delegation to the General Assembly.

2. Is it possible to secure the boundaries of Tucker without incorporating? 

No, there is no FORMAL process available to unincorporated areas, as the state does not recognize any border other than those for counties and existing cities.  The US Census created CDP for Tucker is a data management entity with no legal standing whatsoever, and the same applies to zip code areas.

The only available means to Tucker to secure its boundaries (without going the cityhood route) is to 1) draw those boundaries on a map, 2) argue its case against neighboring communities (which also have no sharply defined boundaries, and 3) convince the General Assembly to acknowledge and respect those claimed boundaries in the city making process.  In Tucker's case against the LCA, Tucker will first need to try to convince the LCA, and those legislators supporting the LCA, to respect those claimed boundaries and, failing that, lobby other legislators to convince them to respect Tucker's claims prior to the final enactment bill for the proposed City of Lakeside.  This is the process currently in place, which is augmented by the current interest in forming a City of Tucker.  Ultimately, the final decision will be in the hands of the General Assembly.

3. What’s the next step towards incorporation for Tucker, other than forming a group?

Tucker Together is the first step towards incorporation, having filed to be a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and is tasked with researching the pros and cons of cityhood and raising funds to pay for a state-required feasibility study. After the study is completed, and assuming its conclusions support the financial viabilitiy of the City of Tucker, the first group, Tucker Together, will disband, and a new 501(c)(4) advocacy group must form. This new group will work with the General Assembly to formalize the enactment bill for creating the city, make the decisions on the form of the new city government, develop the new city's municipal charter, determine what services will be provided, and establish the new city's tax structure and its expected revenue stream and expenditures.  Ultimately, the advocacy group will campaign for voter approval.  The enactment bill will set the date for the vote for city approval, and, if approved, the date for electing the new mayor and city council. Finally, the enactment bill will establish the formal date for the creation of the City of Tucker.

4. Does the Andrew Young School do feasibility study?  How much?

The Andrew Young School is one of only two organizations prequalified by the State to do new city feasibility studies, along with the Carl Vinson Institute.  Both organizations charge approximately $30,000 for a single city study.  The possibility exists that the several incorporation groups may pool resources to have a single study cover the entire area and all the interested parties, and could have that one study look at the one, two or three city options.

5. If Tucker becomes a city which contracts out, does this mean there’s a double tax load on citizens? What are the tax consequences of becoming a city?

In theory, whether or not a new city contracts out services, the expectation is that the identified services, and the related tax revenue, will shift from the county to the city, with no double tax load whatsoever.  In theory. For example, if the City of Tucker creates a new police force, the 3.8 mils for Police Services currently in the DeKalb County budget is totally eliminated from your county bill and is replaced by the same approximate rate as the new city tax.  Property owners are no longer paying taxes to support the county police, but will start paying taxes to support the new city police.  The same applies to the expected new city services focused on parks and recreation, and on zoning and planning.  The services shift, and the tax revenue shifts.  No duplication.

In practice, it is not that simple.  DeKalb County has buried a range of costs in its General Fund for services that the new city may take for itself. There currently is no procedure to identify those costs, and no procedure to take those taxes out of the General Fund and transfer them to the cities. Formulas are in place to share non-property tax revenue between the county and the cities, but there is no assurance that they are equitable. DeKalb County, in the years since the formation of Dunwoody, has been shifting the tax load for unincorporated areas over to the General Fund, which is paid by all county residents, including those in cities.  In other words, the millage rate for the Unincorporated District in DeKalb has been lowered considerably, and the General Fund millage rate increased considerably.  The net effect is that city residents pay more to the General Fund than they did several years ago. This is a bone of contention between the county and cities, and will most likely not be resolved for several years.  We are facing the same situation as recently happened in Gwinnett Couny, where the cities had to legally challenge the county tax structure that favored the county, and that clearly had city residents paying for service not received from the county.

So yes, there is a real concern that there will be some duplication of taxes on property owners within the new cities.

6. As more cities are formed and the tax base is decreased, how will this impact the unincorporated portions of the county?

The county will have to adjust its taxing policies, its budget and its services to the changing landscape. This is a tough sale.  As revenues move from county to city, the county will no longer be providing certain services to those cities, so it should expect to reduce the size and scope of those services. For example the police department should cut its funding and manpower down to that required for the smaller population resulting from incorporation. If there are 900 officers servicing 700,000 residents, it should only provide 450 officers or so for a non-incorporated resident population that would total only 350,000.

Property owners in the new cities will continue to pay county taxes long into the foreseeable future. The county will continue to provide county wide services to all county residents, regardless of residence, to include the sheriff's department, courts, fire services, hospitals, libraries, MARTA, public housing, child welfare, animal control, street and road development and maintenance, among others. Storm water and sanitation are billed separately, and will continue unchanged.  School Operations property taxes are billed separately and will continue unchanged. Residents in the new cities will continue to pay taxes used by the County to pay off existing county-wide and unincorporated county bonds until they are retired. County wide sales taxes will not change.  County wide HOST and SPLOST taxes are voter approved and expire unless reapproved. That will not change just because of the new cities.

7. Can Tucker Together, somehow legally, legitimately stop the City of Lakeside from taking 40% of Tucker boundaries?

Tucker Together, as a non-profit non-advocacy group, has not tasked itself with challenging the City of Lakeside with regard to its proposed boundaries. Tucker Together will only explore the issues regarding incorporation for Tucker, and raise the necessary funds for the feasibility study. It has drawn a map to represent the proposed City of Tucker boundaries, which is in direct conflict with the map proposed for the City of Lakeside.

There are no legal means to stop the City of Lakeside from drawing its map however it pleases.  Probably the only effective option is to make a direct appeal to the LCA proponents to draw their boundaries to exclude all of those areas which are considered integral parts of Tucker.  Failing that, the next opportunity is to make the same appeal to your state legislators to redraw the boundaries when the Lakeside enactment bill is being considered in committee.  The Lakeside city boundaries as drawn today mean little until they are finalized in the General Assembly.  The only real value before then is whichever map gets submitted to the Carl Vinson Institute to set the extent of the feasibility study.

The major concern for marginal neighborhoods when they've been included inside a proposed city map is that even if the majority in that immediate community votes against incorporation, they will be included regardless if the rest of the proposed city is strongly in favor.  For example, if the included Tucker communities east of I-285 vote 95% against incorporation into Lakeside (I will concede that there are apparently 1 or 2 folks in those areas who actually do favor the LCA) they will be included, against their will, if those portions inside I-285 vote 65% or more in favor of incorporation. Those areas in Tucker constitute a fairly small portion of the proposed population, and a strongly negative vote will not be enough to sway the election. They will become part of the new city whether they want to be or not.

The best argument to use may be to ask Lakeside proponents to draw back the proposed area of the new city to its 'core' and to later add adjacent areas as part of a proactive annexation plan in the years following the initial incorporation.  That way, communities can keep the vote entirely within their community when considering incorporation, and the up and down decision is theirs, and theirs alone.

8. Is there an alternative to a city that would protect our Census Designated Place, like a township and how much would that cost?

No, there are no alternatives under current state law. First, the Census Designated Place (CDP) has no legal standing whatsoever. It is a data management tool used by the US Census Bureau to serve their purposes, and to acknowledge the existence of a generally recognized community when there are no legal entities in place.  No one should point to the Tucker CDP boundaries as justification for incorporation or for setting boundaries.  The CDP means little to nothing in these discussions.

And second, Georgia does not recognize a' township' as a form of local government in any way whatsoever. The concept of a 'township' was introduced into the General Assembly in the Georgia Township Act of 2007, by then Sen. David Adelman (D), Decatur, who is now the American Ambassador to Singapore. Although passed by the Georgia Senate, it failed approval in the House, never coming to a vote. Its basic concept was to allow the creation of a Township, which services would be limited to the power to regulate zoning and other land use, and to levy a maximum annual property tax of 0.5 mil.  That would be it as all other services and laws would remain with the county. A township would be the closest approximation we would have had to the idea of a 'City Lite', because it would be limited to the one power or service of zoning and planning, while a full city would be required to offer at least three services.

A new township bill was submitted by Rep. Mike Jacobs in 2009, and a resolution addressing the need for townships within Georgia was submitted by Rep. Michele Henson in 2013, but neither received further consideration.

9. What practical steps can we take to lobby against encroachment by others trying to annex Tucker?

Other than the procedures described in the answers to  Questions 2 and 7, Tucker Together represents the start of the only practical approach community residents can follow to limit encroachment by others into Tucker.  By offering a viable alternative to the legislature with regard to the intent and desires of Tucker residents, a proposed City of Tucker, with its own proposed boundaries, and a feasibility study indicating its probable success, would present a good, undeniable argument to the legislature which would have to be respected in the incorporation discussions.

10. Are studies recognized by the legislature that are not performed by the Carl Vinson Institute?

Yes.  Current state law recognizes only two organizations in the state as being qualified to perform city feasibility studies - The Carl Vinson Institute of Government of the University of Georgia, and the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies of the Georgia State University.  These two organizations are specified by law. Should another qualified and experienced organization be considered by a group studying incorporation, they would most likely need to be pre-qualified in some measure by the General Assembly, which may take considerable time and effectively delay the overall process.  The CVI has performed almost all of the city feasibility studies to date.

11. If Tucker were to seek incorporation, would Tucker be able to contest the Northlake boundaries already being claimed by the City of Lakeside?

The idea of 'contesting' the Northlake boundaries is something of an overstatement. All Tucker can do is to present viable options to the legislature regarding the boundary differences. This is the first time in recent state history that two or more viable incorporation movements are justifiably claiming the same areas. There is no established procedure to resolve such disputes, and this will be something of a conundrum for the legislature if it actually gets to that point. Both Tucker and Lakeside will include the Northlake commercial district in their maps that will be setting the limits used in both feasibility studies. Lakeside absolutely must have the Northlake area if it has any hope of meeting its avowed goal to not raise taxes, and most likely will be unable to meet that promise even with Northlake. Tucker, meanwhile, will not be quite as dependent on Northlake to meet its revenue goals, though it would still regard the area as very critical to its finances. And, of course, the non-advocate group for Tucker, Tucker Together, has made no promises whatsoever with regard to possible tax increases, services or anything else, unlike the supposedly non-advocate LCA.  But with all things considered, if we were to actually accept Lakeside as a viable community equal to Tucker (a stretch, I know!) then both Tucker and Lakeside have equal claims to Northlake.

12. Of all the recently incorporated cities, are there any examples you can share with us where the residents total tax bill has gone down?

With all due respect this question should be rephrased as " . . . where the residents total tax RATES have gone down." In point of fact, most residents' tax bills (the amount of tax they actually pay each year) have gone remarkably down over the past five years, where many today are paying up to one third less than they were two or three years ago, and generally the same amount as four or five years ago. Of course, this is due to the bust in property values during the Great Recession, resulting in lower property assessments and leading to the financial crises for all government agencies nationwide, not just here in DeKalb County. In response, our local government agencies have had no choice but to raise our tax rates if only to keep enough general revenue coming in to maintain minimal services for which they are still obligated.

Most of the new cities had a built in millage cap for city taxes built into their charter, which were generally set to be equal to or below the tax rates already in place by the county for services that would be replaced by new city services. Increasing that cap would require a vote by city residents. All the new cities have kept their city tax rate at or below the millage cap, so far having kept their promises. Dunwoody's overall tax rates continue to be below DeKalb County, even after the games DeKalb County has played with resetting millage rates for both incorporated and unincorporated areas.  However, because the county has raised their tax rates, the tax rates for a resident of Dunwoody have also gone up, even when the city kept their rates unchanged.

13. The Lakeside City Alliance proposes to take only the current portion of (our) county tax bill for unincorporated DeKalb. Is this what Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs do or is this just their proposal?  They propose no increase in taxes.

This is a reflection of confusing and conflicting statements made by the LCA and others when describing the shift of county taxes to the new cities. I have also heard the claim by the LCA that they intend to take ONLY the Unincorporated District tax from the county to use as the new city tax.  This is incorrect. This was the situation for Dunwoody's city tax proposal back in 2008, but the circumstances have changed dramatically since then. In 2008, the Unincorporated District tax for all of unincorporated DeKalb was 2.74 mils (not verified independently). This is the millage rate for Dunwoody's city tax today.  However since 2008, DeKalb has reduced the Unincorporated District millage rate to 0.38 mils, increased the General Fund millage rate 2.43 mils to 10.43 mils, and added an all new line item for Police Services. In fact the LCA is actually proposing to take both the Unincorporated District tax (0.38 mils) and the Police Services tax (3.75 mils) and applying them towards the future Lakeside city tax.  You can review the LCA's property tax expectations in their Powerpoint presentation which can be found here.

14. Do citizens in a proposed new city vote on the proposal?

Only registered voters resident within the new proposed city boundaries are allowed to vote on the question of incorporation. Property owners who live outside the city boundaries have no vote, as they can only vote in the precinct of their home residence.  Businesses within Tucker, of course, have no vote on the matter whatsoever.

A common complaint, typically from the county and residents outside of the new city, is that other county residents should also be allowed to vote on the question of incorporation.  Their reasoning is that incorporation will have a potentially serious impact on all residents within the county, as it could potentially force a tax increase on residents living in unincorporated areas due to the loss of revenue from the newly incorporated area.  Justified or not, this a common ploy for some of DeKalb County's delegates in the General Assembly, but a change in the voting process will require a constitutional amendment, and is not likely to happen anytime in the near future.

15. Can we petition against Lakeside? If so, where do we start?

Well, anyone can put together a petition for or against any of the incorporation proposals as there is no formal state procedure controlling this. Those who are highly motivated will have to organize, fund and collect their own signatures for their petition, as there are no organized groups who are likely interested in doing so. Their are no rules for how many signatures are required, and there is no process to force the incorporation groups to accept or respect any petition that may be submitted. The best bet may be for localized community associations to gather enough support from their membership and request an audience with the incorporation group so that they may make their case for or against. If the incorporation group is true to their word, that no neighborhood will be forced into the new city against their will, one can only hope that they will respect such a request.

16. Does the city have to have its own police force or can they contract with DeKalb County?

To incorporate under state law, a new city need only offer three out of an optional list of 11 standard municipal services, law enforcement being only one of those services.  Typically incorporation groups offer law enforcement, parks and recreation, and planning and zoning as the three initial services the city would offer.  If the new city chooses to not offer law enforcement as one of their basic services, then the DeKalb County Police services in that area will continue unchanged, no contract required.  Peachtree Corners in Gwinnett County may be the only one of the new cities that does not offer city police services and continues to be covered by the Gwinnett County police.

There is a possibility that even if a new city chooses to offer law enforcement as one of the three required services, that it could still contract with the county to provide police coverage.  The city would have a contractual arrangement with the county that would set the requirements for that service, and would pay the county for that service out of the city's general revenue.  I do not know if this will meet the state requirement for offering a minimum of three services, but I'm sure there will be a simple work around available, if only by offering four of the optional eleven services.  I am not aware of any city that has made this arrangement with their county police, but it is certainly possible somewhere in the state.

17. Who is responsible for public schools with regard to incorporation?

The DeKalb County School District will continue to be responsible for any and all public schools within any newly incorporated area. This is not an option, and will not be an option for the foreseeable future. School attendance zones will not be redrawn to respect the new city boundaries, the new city will not have any influence on school district management issues whatsoever, and the new cities will have no input on the school district budget.  There will be absolutely no changes to the public schools with or without incorporation.

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