Candidate Q&A – Eric Tumperi, Decatur City Commission
Decaturish.com contacted every candidate running for office in Decatur and Avondale Estates and provided them with a list of questions. Eric Tumperi is running for the District 1 Post B seat on the Decatur City Commission.
Here are his responses:
1) Why are you running for this position?
Balanced and Prioritized Decisions: We need to make decisions based on our priorities, believe in our plans and stick to what matters. Even though we have strategic plans, 10-year plans, unified development codes, and other quality standards, our city appears to be making decisions in a one-off fashion when push comes to shove. Twenty-five years ago, we were playing from behind and had to bend here and there to make things happen. We are now “winning”, we should no longer be cutting corners, sacrificing what matters, or adjusting building codes in order to woo developers to Decatur. Rather, I propose that we work better together as a city and its citizens, supporting one another and going to bat for our shared interests.
Decatur Schools Come First: Our City School System is our number one asset, and our city government does not always act accordingly in its decisions. We need a city government that recognizes that our highly rated school system is driving our rising home values, and the reason new home buyers are willing to pay a premium to move to Decatur. Our City government says the right words, but when a key decision is to be made that would show Decatur Schools Come First, the city government does not always follow through. Our schools badly need land for their explosive growth, and when the School System came calling for the DeVry property and then the Callaway property, the city government and city commission did not do all that they could to help.
We need our own Urban Small Town Plan: Decatur is special and unique – unlike other small metro/urban communities. The “benchmark” cities our city leaders have chosen to compare us to do not feel at all like Decatur. We need to aspire to greatness that is uniquely Decatur. The “benchmark” cities that the City of Decatur chose to compare itself are not at all similar to Decatur’s core geographic, cultural and demographic make-up. We are five miles east of one of our country’s largest cities, and we have very little natural commercial property. The closest community among the ten benchmark cities that the City has chosen, Clayton MO, has 7,000,000 square feet of office space, and 1,000,000 square feet of retail. That is not like Decatur which has less than 1,000,000 square feet of office and retail space combined. The other benchmark communities have much larger land areas and are quite a distance from large metro urban areas or are truly rural communities/county seats. The idea of benchmarking is useful, but who you choose to benchmark matters. We need to set our own course on what makes Decatur special, and I believe the City Commissioners have a strong role to play to ensure that every citizen, young and old, new and long-timers, have a hand in our future.
2) What makes you the most qualified candidate for the job?
Three things set me apart.
Experience: Thirty plus years of managing people and businesses, and nearly 20 years of volunteer leadership in Decatur and beyond.
Analytical, Open Minded and Direct: As a senior executive of high tech companies, and as a board president or executive member of multiple non-profits and PTAs, I have developed and exercised an ability to synthesize complex and voluminous information, to quickly see “what matters” and to ask the tough question “at the moment of truth”. In my work as the Renfroe PTA President for four years, and then the DHS PTSA President for four years (8 of out of the last 10 years), I have led the effort to bring vibrancy, collaboration and growth to each PTA. One of the challenging and fun aspects of these PTAs has been to listen to and engage the hard working committee leaders, and to personally get involved in their work by diving in on behalf of students and staff at our great city-wide schools.
I guide and help define goals that inspire and align interests, helping the “team” see their role in working to achieve those goals through shared interests. My professional career is full of thousands of decisions of what to do, and not to do, and in reviewing the hard work and creative ideas of hundreds of professionals who worked for me or my companies. Many successes as well as my share of failures have taught me the life lessons that only come with time and opportunity. I want to bring that experience to the City of Decatur and our friends and neighbors.
3) Decatur’s decreasing diversity is a concern for many in the city. Are you concerned about Decatur’s diversity? If so, as an elected official, what will you do to promote diversity in the city of Decatur?
I too, am concerned. As our house values have soared, and in many cases, our smaller homes have been “upgraded” to larger sized homes, market dynamics have essentially pushed the vast majority of our neighborhood homes into upper middle class abodes. This generational change has been evolving for a while, but has accelerated and solidified over the past ten years. Looking ahead to ways Decatur can retain and possibly expand its diversity, here are the two things I will promote and work for if elected:
– Zero encroachment on the Decatur Housing Authority (DHA) land – this is a jewel to the city and to the city school system. I will work to remove the commercial zoning status of the land currently undeveloped on the corner of West Trinity and Commerce that is adjacent to the DHA. And, no other land currently designated as part of the DHA would be “zoned” commercial for potential future commercial development. The current corner “greenspace” lot can remain as greenspace or improved as a city park; OR the only allowable development on that land would be for a future expansion of the DHA itself. I will work hard to protect this portion of our infrastructure to ensure that Decatur can continue to serve a strong and vibrant low-income community.
– As Decatur looks to opportunities to annex land on its existing borders, and without making a move that would devastate our school infrastructure overnight, I would advocate annexation moves that include not only commercial property but also dwellings and neighborhoods that would increase the mix of diversity into our city. But, I will not stop there. I would work together with the City staff, fellow commissioners, the school system and its PTAs, and citizen volunteer groups to make sure that upon annexation, we take overt and intentional action to welcome our new citizens and to bring them into the fabric of our city.
4) Closely linked to the above question is a question about the cost of living in Decatur. High home prices and taxes are pricing many out of the city. What role should the city play in addressing this issue?
The city should play a leading role. First of all, high quality schools and high quality city services do not come for free. And, with Decatur becoming one of the premier destination locations in all of Atlanta, home values have responded to these market dynamics. There are two sides to the coin.
The first question is: Are we getting our value for the incremental tax dollar? A family who can afford a $500,000 home who moves from DeKalb County to a Decatur home of the same value pays an incremental $18/month in school taxes. That is a great deal. For this same home, the increase in city taxes over county taxes is roughly $300/month. We get added value for police, fire and other city services – however, to assure that our City Government expenditures are aligned with our priorities, I believe that we need to have community discussions around “what matters most”.
The second question is: How do we allow our senior citizens to stay in their homes as home values continue to rise? I believe that the city can do more to increase the homestead exemption for seniors. The current plan to defer taxes until a qualifying homeowner sells the home, while a step in the right direction, is not the same as a larger homestead exemption. I will work hard to determine where we can find a 10% reduction in the city government budget (coming from an across the board review and budget action to align our resources to our most important objectives). This would allow us to fund initiatives from our “what matters most” items that lack sufficient funding today, such as increased senior homestead exemptions, greenspace projects and more.
5) Relationships between the city of Decatur and City Schools of Decatur have been strained at times. What will you do to improve the relationship between the two?
For starters, I will work to make sure that the City Commission listens to and understands the needs of CSD in relation to schoolhouse needs, and their needs with relation to annexation planning and other major development initiatives by the city. Collaboration, common understanding, and shared vision will be the cornerstones of success in avoiding unnecessary strains and conflicts between CSD and the City.
More specifically, there are two things I would propose the City Commission work on together to create a lasting and permanent positive working relationship with the City Schools of Decatur.
– Ask, and expect, that the City Government staff work collaboratively with the CSD leadership on matters of development, land use, and annexation. Initially, I would hope that the entire City Commission will not entertain any budget or plan for land-use projects, zoning decisions, or annexation decisions without full participation and incorporation of CSD impacts, plans and risk mitigation. Collaboration should be undertaken to the degree necessary to ensure in-kind response from CSD leadership to promote a healthy and productive working relationship.
– Once CSD and City of Decatur have developed a strong working relationship model, use that experience to propose and pass an ordinance that requires a defined set of metrics and processes to ensure that neither the City nor the School System can make decisions unilaterally that have a direct negative impact on the other.
6) Decatur has several apartment projects in various stages of development. Do you support the continued development of apartments in Decatur? Why or why not?
First of all, I am well aware that the taxes generated from our downtown high density condos / apartments are a major positive influx of tax revenues (for both the city and the school system). However, I believe there is a need to evaluate how and whether we do more apartment buildings than there are already in play.
– The project at 315 E Ponce was a serious offense to the nearby residential neighborhood. To allow for variances to existing building code, and then to ultimately change the code to allow a 5-story building to directly face residential structures is very “non-Decatur” in my opinion. It is this kind of behavior by City officials that must end. Not all apartment buildings are bad or evil however. We simply cannot be complicit in allowing developers to “max out” their money making potential on the backs of our citizens and neighbors who preceded such new developments.
– In order to make good decisions about future apartment buildings, the city has to develop a comprehensive Urban Small Town Plan that integrates schools, downtown development, traffic, greenspace, walkability, ride-ability, tree canopy, diversity and tax relief for our senior citizens. Such a plan would paint the picture of what Decatur will be like 10 to 20 years in the future. What will downtown look like – tall buildings on every lot of land, or a mix of low and high rise, greenspaces, walkable and bike-able open spaces, bike paths, and traffic planning that does not push Decatur cut-through traffic into the surrounding neighborhoods. In such an integrated plan, we would define if and where we would locate additional apartment buildings, that takes into account the impact on traffic, greenspace, tree canopy, low income housing, and the other items that matter most to Decatur.
7) Community groups in Decatur have expressed a desire for more green spaces, like parks. If elected, what will you do to promote the development of green space in the city?
Knowing how much we Decatur citizens value our environment, trees, clean air and water, walking and biking, it is quite surprising to me that the City does not have a formal greenspace plan already in place. If elected, the first thing I would ask my fellow Commissioners to do is join me in commissioning a Greenspace Board, with the purpose of creating a 10-year master plan of funding, acquiring and deploying usable greenspaces across Decatur. In the first six months, I would ask for them to identify the lots of land in Decatur that are candidates for greenspace so that as development opportunities come along, we are not moving in haste on a prime piece of future greenspace.
The second thing I would do in relation to our city’s greenspace is help us protect our tree canopy. I would ask the Sustainability Board to bring back their recommendations for protecting Decatur’s tree canopy, most of which were voted down and dramatically modified by the City Commission 18 months ago. The fact that homeowners can cut down up to three healthy significant trees on their properties every 18 months was not recommended by the Sustainability Board, yet was inserted into the ordinance approved by the City Commission. I believe that our air quality, our quality of life and our small town feel would be badly damaged if this “tree unfriendly” ordinance is allowed to remain intact.
8) Being a commissioner will require working closely with the city manager of Decatur. Are you satisfied with the performance of City Manager Peggy Merriss? Why or why not?
I have lived in Decatur since Ms. Merriss, Mayor Floyd and others got the Decatur engine rolling over twenty years ago. I give Peggy a lot of credit for what we have achieved as a city. However, one of the roles of a governance board (our City Commission in this case) is to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the senior executive charged with running the operation. For example, I have no doubt that if Peggy Merriss had a personal passion for greenspace, she would work diligently in ensuring we would have an outstanding greenspace plan here in Decatur (we do not have that today). It is the City Commission’s job to notice these weaknesses, and provide support and guidance in those areas, ultimately holding her accountable for having the right team around her that can balance and fill such gaps.
So, to answer the question: I believe that with a City Commission that has the confidence in its abilities and cares enough to provide Ms. Merriss with productive feedback and constructive criticism in her work, we would not have citizens in our city thinking poorly of her work. There is no need for that to be the case as I believe Peggy is highly talented, smart and hard worker. She just needs a governance board that can ask the tough questions, challenge her in her thinking and planning, and work together in a positive and productive way.
9) What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the city of Decatur?
Right now, our ideas, wants, and needs are diffused in hundreds of directions. Long time city residents are feeling disenfranchised, not listened to. New families with children are worried if the school system is going to fit in the buildings and space available. In the midst of our successful run as a city, we are a bit lost. It is time to regain a strong footing by having a focus on what matters most to our present and future – I suggest tackling this issue by developing and defining our Urban Small Town Plan. No organization, regardless of size, does everything really well. That is a simple matter of fact, and we should not pretend that we can overcome this reality. We need to set our list of top priorities, talk about them, support them, align our other major needs and services with those priorities, work together for making them happen, and agree that in doing so the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Doing so will provide us a path toward sustainable success.
10) What is Decatur’s greatest strength as a city?
There are three great strengths that vie for the top spot in my opinion.
– Decatur City Schools
– Decatur’s solid reputation as a place to move to – whether as a family for the schools, walkability, or as a great place to live in a small town urban setting.
– Decatur’s passionate, hard-working, and volunteer minded people (#3 depends on #1 and #2)
11) If elected, do you promise to behave in an ethical and transparent manner?
Yes. That is the only way I know how to operate. My business and professional interests do not depend on policies and ordinances set by the City Commission, in that I can truly be independent. With regard to transparency, Decatur has done some good things via technology to allow for citizen engagement. If elected, I will look for additional ways in which we can incorporate the ideas and feedback of our citizens before we make major decisions. I think that is important.
The election is Nov. 3 and early voting begins on Oct. 12.