The so-called cityhood movement is spreading south.
Following the incorporation of Dunwoody and Brookhaven, other residents of north DeKalb County are hoping to create cities of their own.
The final days of the General Assembly were like a geographical game of musical chairs, with DeKalb legislators filing placeholder bills to allow their constituents to research forming cities in the swath of unincorporated DeKalb between Brookhaven and Decatur.
The problem is that some of these proposed cities would have overlapping boundaries.
The most organized incorporation effort has been led by a group called the Lakeside City Alliance. According to a bill filed on behalf of the group by Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, the proposed city would have about 63,000 residents and would be bounded by North Druid Hills Road to the south, I- 85 to the north and Tucker to the east.
Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, introduced a different placeholder bill for her constituents interested in creating a city in the Druid Hills/Briarcliff area near Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Oliver said she believes the talk about forming cities stems from an uneasiness in the area.
“I think the energy around Lakeside following the creation of Brookhaven has been destabilizing for north DeKalb,” Oliver said. “Many citizens, particularly on the west side… are concerned about being gobbled up.”
Mary Kay Woodworth, chairwoman of the Lakeside City Alliance, said there is a tremendous amount of interest in the possibility of creating a city.
About 600 people attended the organization’s first meeting in February. A recent meeting on incorporation hosted by DeKalb Commissioner Elaine Boyer drew so large a crowd that organizers had to turn people away from the Tucker Middle School auditorium. And the group’s April 1 meeting was postponed to find a larger venue.
Woodworth said the group formed because of residents’ frustration with their county government.
“We’re long-time DeKalb County residents and for the past few years, 10 years at least … we’ve heard people talking about dissatisfaction with DeKalb County government,” Woodworth said. “It’s just a churning issue that keeps coming up: collecting a lot of money from the county and it not being spent in our local areas.”
Woodworth said she thinks the recent incorporations of Brookhaven and Dunwoody inspired interest in the Lakeside effort, as well as an annexation referendum around Chamblee last year.
DeKalb County School System’s accreditation probation has also made people want to take action, even though the Board of Education is a separate elected body.
“It appears there is somewhat of a movement toward municipalization,” Woodworth said. “They’re completely different topics, but I think people are paying more attention to what’s happening in DeKalb County government because of the school issues.”
But not everyone is on the same page. A group of Tucker residents, angered by the original Lakeside map that only included a portion of their community, demanded that it be removed. The Tucker community now has a placeholder bill of its own that would allow it to explore the option of incorporating.
To make matters more confusing, some residents outside of Chamblee will have the option again this year to vote on being annexed into the city.
“Last year [former Rep.] Elena Parent had a bill for Chamblee for local annexation and it lost by 13 votes. There were issues that were not disputed about ballots that did not include the question about annexation. There were some flaws in that election process,” Oliver said. “We wanted to give Chamblee another chance based on the flaws of the election last year.”
And though it didn’t pan out, the city of Decatur was considering annexing some of the unincorporated area outside its borders too, Oliver said.
“They’re interested in annexing but they decided not to move forward with a bill this year,” Oliver said. “They’ll be back.”
She hopes that with so many options available, the residents of unincorporated DeKalb will begin talking about what is best for their communities.
“There’s a lot of activity. There’s a lot of opportunity for citizens to engage and make decisions on what they want,” Oliver said. “The more people at the table, the better opportunity we have for a good discussion. And that’s my goal for the rest of 2013 and 2014.”
In order to create a new city, a bill must be introduced in the first year of the General Assembly’s two-year legislative cycle. Residents must then raise the approximately $30,000 needed to fund a study that will determine whether or not a city is financially feasible in their area. If the study determines the proposed city would be viable, the bill may be considered by the General Assembly the following year.
If approved by both legislative chambers and signed by the governor, the question of incorporation will go before voters on a ballot referendum. At least a simple majority, 50 percent plus one, must approve the city in order for it to be created.
Millar, who sponsored the Lakeside bill, said he doesn’t expect any serious cityhood efforts will come out of the flurry of last-minute placeholder bills.
“Do I think some of these bills are going to be going anywhere? Absolutely not,” Millar said. “I think the only one that will go anywhere — if they can raise the money — is the city of Lakeside.”
Millar noted that the creation of new cities has been a partisan issue in the past, with the bills to create cities in the metro Atlanta area led almost exclusively by Republican lawmakers. But this year, all of the last-minute incorporation bills were sponsored by Democrats.
“All the Democrats have done for the last couple years is complain about the growth of cities, and now you’ve got five bills filed by Democrats for cities,” Millar said.
“I guess the municipalization trend in DeKalb County is now bipartisan. There’s a bipartisan feeling that our current form of government isn’t very effective. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next year.”
Millar thinks there are likely a few factors that have led to the desire to incorporate new cities.
“It’s a reaction to DeKalb County, and it’s a reaction to Brookhaven and Dunwoody, and, ‘We don’t want to be left behind,’” Millar said.
DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader, who represents portions of the proposed cities, said he worries that the people left behind would be the remaining taxpayers in unincorporated DeKalb. They could potentially pay higher taxes as a result of wealthier tax bases being drawn into municipal boundaries, he said.
“There’s always the issue of the tax base they’re looking to incorporate is richer than county as a whole. That leaves the county tax base poorer than the new city,” Rader said. “Those are the issues that occur every time one of these things happens.”
Rader said there’s a broad constituency potentially affected by being drawn inside or outside the boundaries of a proposed city.
“In the case of Brookhaven, there was a majority vote against the city of Brookhaven everywhere south of Windsor Parkway. But there were insufficient votes to overcome the votes north of Windsor Parkway,” Rader said. “It’s the dynamic of ‘How did we get pulled into this’ or ‘how did we get left out of this?’”
Rader said the current process allows the groups studying new cities to draw the boundaries.
“If two differently bounded cities pursue the same area, it’s not clear how you reconcile that,” Rader said. “Who makes that call? They either have to reconcile that themselves or the Legislature has to pick winners and losers.”
Rader said if different groups looking to create cities aren’t able to resolve their border conflicts, there’s no legislative mechanism in place to do so.
“The party line has been ‘this is about self-determination.’ But who gets priority in self-determination?” Rader said.