As backers of a proposed city of Brookhaven made their case to the Legislature this year, many pointed to the success of the young city of Dunwoody for proof that a new city could work.
The Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia studied the feasibility of both Dunwoody and the potential city of Brookhaven, compiling reports that projected how much money it would cost to operate the cities and how much the new cities could expect to collect in revenues.
And, like Dunwoody, Brookhaven supporters say with a city, residents would get better services at a lower tax rate.
So how did Dunwoody measure up to its initial projections?
“At the end of the day, I would say they were pretty close,” Dunwoody’s City Manager Warren Hutmacher said.
There are a few big differences between the way the study projected Dunwoody would operate and the way the city actually operates, Hutmacher said.
In Dunwoody’s 2012 budget, the city will take in $22 million in taxes and fees – much more than the $18.7 million in revenue the Vinson Institute’s study suggested the city would take in each year.
Hutmacher said the city takes in more from property taxes than the study projected. Other revenues, like hotel taxes, business licenses and alcohol fees, are based on a ratio of the revenue taken in by unincorporated DeKalb County.
Ted Baggett, the local government program manager in the Governmental Services and Research Division of the Carl Vinson Institute, said the incorporation studies take into account the residential, commercial and industrial areas of a community.
“We look largely at the property tax base, determine in the unincorporated area of DeKalb how much of the commercial tax base is in the area, how much of the residential tax base is in the area,” Baggett said. “You apply those ratios to try to get an estimate of what those different revenue sources would generate.”
However, Hutmacher said, that type of calculation doesn’t always take into account factors like what type of businesses are in the area.
“There’s not necessarily a nexus between population ratios and what you’re really going to generate,” Hutmacher said.
Another major difference is in the city’s police force. The study called for 22 police officers to staff the city’s department. Dunwoody has more than doubled that, with 46 officers.
Hutmacher said it wasn’t until he and Police Chief Billy Grogan sat down to discuss the formation of the department that they decided 22 officers wouldn’t be nearly enough.
“A lot of that – prioritization and what level of service you’re going to provide – is something you can’t do until incorporation,” Hutmacher said.
What the citizens wanted was faster response times, more visibility on the roads and more community programs. Hutmacher said there are officers that are dedicated to attending neighborhood watches, community events and visiting schools.
“Could we run it off 22 officers? We can. But I don’t think we would be providing the right level of service for the community,” Hutmacher said. “The community would have been disappointed with that level of service.”
Rep. Mike Jacobs, R-DeKalb, said the decisions of how a city will be run are up to the elected officials, not the Carl Vinson Institute.
“What’s really important is electing a quality City Council. Those are the individuals that will make the decisions about how our local tax dollars are spent and invested,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs said Brookhaven supporters have looked to Dunwoody as a model because of its lean government.
“Dunwoody, with its low number of employees … and high degree of outsourcing is very efficiently run,” he said. “They have managed to keep their focus on the core functions of a city government: police, parks and zoning, and land use.”
Baggett said incorporation studies focus on the feasibility of a city. How a city actually governs is more of a reflection of community priorities, he said.
“We don’t take a position for or against cityhood. What we’re trying to do is present some information that’s helpful to others in making their decisions,” Baggett said.
Hutmacher said the differences between the way Dunwoody operates now and the feasibility study don’t mean the Carl Vinson Institute got it wrong, it’s just that city officials wanted different things. In Dunwoody, those are referred to as the three P’s: parks, paving and police.
“It’s up to them to decide that, and I think that’s pretty cool,” Hutmacher said.