Sunday Morning Meditation – The nature of DeKalb
There’s a scene in “No Country for Old Men” where Anton Chigurh, a hit man, has a gun pointed at another hit man, Carson Wells. They’re sitting in a hotel room, staring at each other. Chigurh has a peculiar grin on his face.
“You should admit our situation,” Chigurh tells Wells. “There would be more dignity in it.”
“You go to hell,” Wells says.
Chigurh laughs. “All right. Let me ask you something. If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”
Our legislators have a few rules for forming new cities. It’s a two year process. People who want to incorporate can’t just draw random lines around anything on a map. New cities must include enough commercial property to be deemed financially viable, meaning there’s enough of a tax base to support the residents that live in them. Residential doesn’t really support itself. That’s why cities like Decatur and Avondale are suddenly interested in unglamorous things like Wal-Marts.
Wal-Marts print tax money. Neighborhoods eat it. That’s the municipal ecosystem, its nature if you will.
Tucker had a feasibility study. So did Lakeside and Briarcliff, which have merged to become the proposed city of LaVista Hills. Unfortunately, their feasibility is based around some of the same pieces of commercial property.
Now a five-member subcommittee of the House Governmental Affairs Committee, a group of folks who probably wish they didn’t have email addresses and cell phone numbers right about now, are going to play Solomon with the whole thing. They’re required to draw up and agree to a map that enables one or both cities to move forward next year.
Doing that might mean splitting up some of the commercial property in each map. LaVista Hills also has another problem there. The city of Brookhaven, the Hungry Hungry Hippo of DeKalb County annexation, wants some of the property in LaVista Hills’ plan, too. That would be Executive Park and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for those of you keeping score at home.
The Brookhaven City Council tried to do something similar with Chamblee which resulted in a huge lawsuit. Chamblee eventually won out, but not before an appeals court weighed in.
So if Brookhaven gets CHOA and Executive Park before LaVista Hills does and if some of LaVista Hills’ commercial property goes to Tucker, is that still financially feasible? And isn’t LaVista Hills supposed to have its own financial feasibility study anyway?
Well, no, actually. During the Dec. 3 hearing we learned that the House Governmental Affairs is waiving the feasibility study rules. Representatives of Tucker and LaVista threw a lot of different numbers out during the hearing. Until now there’s only one set of numbers the General Assembly has officially recognized. That would be the figures in feasibility studies provided by the fine folks at the Carl Vinson Institute, or an entity comparable to CVI.
Rules got us to where we are. The House, exhausted by Metro Atlanta political drama, is channeling its inner Anton Chigurh. If the rule they followed brought them to this, of what use was the rule?
If we’re going to start suspending rules, then I would assume the proposed City of South DeKalb, which is undergoing a feasibility study and may not be economically viable, should be able to form a city this year without one. Right? Because the rule obviously didn’t matter, or you wouldn’t be so casually discarding it to get DeKalb County out of your hair.
Or what about Stonecrest? It hasn’t completed a feasibility study for its new map either. Does it even need one?
Or what about Decatur? Decatur’s trying to annex property on the premise that it needs a better ratio of commercial to residential property to provide better services for its residents. Do they really need that Wal-Mart after all? How about Avondale Estates?
If you’re going to make up rules for one cityhood movement, you better be careful about the precedent you’re setting for another. What happens if you allow LaVista to move forward without knowing whether or not it will be feasible and then you tell some other city, “Nope. You’ve got to follow the rules”?
If we’re going by the rules, these cityhood groups would have to agree on a map, then get a feasibility study before moving forward. That takes two years, at least. They should be able to move forward, but they should play by the same rules as every other cityhood movement before them. Why not and spend the next session fixing the basic problems with DeKalb County government? The fundamental reason this is all happening is DeKalb County dysfunction. Fixing that dysfunction is entirely within the purview of the legislature, if that’s what it wants to do.
But instead of fixing the problem, the House has created a panel that is potentially enabling the creation of governments that aren’t financially feasible. Or they could create one government that is feasible and leave the rest of unincorporated areas with DeKalb’s pension debt. Because the best solution to a dysfunctional government is creating a government that possibly can’t raise enough taxes to support itself, or creating one that can and saying “good luck with that” to everybody else.
Right before Chigurh shoots Wells, Wells looks at him and says, “Do you have any idea how crazy you are?”
Chigurh says, “You mean the nature of this conversation?”
“I mean the nature of you,” Wells says.
Crazy may be in DeKalb’s nature, but the last time I checked three of the members of that panel don’t live here. Let’s hope DeKalb’s crazy isn’t contagious.