You may have recently read stories about American Medical Response (AMR) – DeKalb County’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and ambulance transport service. There have been stories about long response times and an alleged assault by an AMR employee, who has since been terminated. I’d like to address these concerns and give my thoughts regarding the current state of EMS and ambulance transport services provided in DeKalb.
As I have stated in the past, I am deeply concerned about services provided by AMR to all residents of the county. I have concerns about their response times and ability to meet the terms of their contract. As a resident of Dunwoody, and a mom, I am personally invested in making sure that we have high quality and timely EMS.
In DeKalb County, the Fire Department responds to the vast majority of medical calls and begins providing appropriate patient care until an ambulance arrives to transport the patient in needed. All firefighters are certified Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) and many are certified paramedics. This level of training is consistent with the crews of an ambulance service, which includes one paramedic and one EMT.
There does appear to be some misinformation as it relates to me, my position, and actions concerning EMS in Dunwoody, District 1, and all of DeKalb County. As a result, I’d like to provide some clarity regarding my position on the city of Dunwoody’s recently declared “state of EMS emergency”.
First, I am not opposed to Dunwoody taking on the obligation to provide any service; including EMS, Fire, etc. My posture is open and agreeable regarding the decisions of all cities on how best to serve their residents. If a city moves in that direction, I will be here to work with them. In fact, this happened over a year ago when Chamblee removed the city from the special tax district for roads and took on this service for themselves.
However, the city of Dunwoody has not sent any official correspondence to me regarding their concerns with EMS. No one from the city has called me and requested a meeting regarding this matter. No one from the city has asked me to join them at meetings they held with various county officials and contractors. No one from the city has requested a meeting with the BOC and our Public Safety committee on this matter. I am more than happy to assist the city with any talks they are having with the CEO and administration. Unfortunately, the city has not coordinated any of their efforts with me and not informed me of any of the meetings they have had with the administration.
Upon hearing of Dunwoody’s city council unanimous vote late last month to ask the state to let it provide its own EMS, I invited the city to participate in county commission committee meetings to discuss this issue. The BOC does much of its work within the committee structure and I think that the city would find it useful to attend committee meetings that are working this very issue. In our committee meetings, we often have city leaders attend and we ask them to sit at the table with us, so we can get their input. Since I have not heard from any member of the Dunwoody city council, I will once again extend this invitation.
I have read comments in social media posts that express concern for the potential for loss of life. Sadly, in April there was a death in a situation where ChatComm, the 911 service provider to the city of Duwnoody, dispatched only to the Dunwoody Police Department. A 911 call was received at 1:28pm. The caller called back ChatComm 911 at 1:57pm because no one had responded. At 1:58 ChatComm transferred the call to DeKalb. At 2:02pm, DeKalb dispatched DKFR and AMR. At 2:10pm DKFR was on the scene and began care. AMR arrived at 2:15pm and transported the patient to the hospital where she died later in the afternoon. It is impossible to know the effect of the almost 30 minute delay in dispatching by ChatComm. It does suggest that we should take a broader look at emergency response protocols and response times. Public safety is the most important role of government.
I continue to focus and work to improve the quality and efficiency of county government in all aspects and at all levels. We have made improvements in some areas. However, we have many areas that need a great deal of attention and reform. While the county is in the process of putting a new bid out for ambulance services, it is important to realize that when any jurisdiction (DeKalb or Dunwoody) changes their EMS provider or decides to bring it in-house, there is a transition period that includes buying new/more equipment and hiring and training staff.
EMS is a service that jurisdictions are struggling with nationally. A quick Google search yields copious recent stories from Modesto, CA , to Warren, OH, to Rochester, NY, to South Fulton, GA and even the City of Milton nearby. While we are working to improve the ambulance response times in DeKalb, it is important to understand the context of the larger problem and the dynamics that are creating these challenges. For example, are the changes in insurance/Medicare reimbursement rates disrupting the market for this service? What impact does the tight labor market having on employee recruitment, quality, and wages? Should Dunwoody consider a supplement for faster response times as some cities in North Fulton have done?
For anyone seeking to understand how best to evaluate and improve EMS, I came a cross this useful article: The Great Ambulance Response Time Debate . I found it helpful in setting up a framework for discussing how best to improve this service.
I hope this will give everyone a clearer insight into my thoughts on EMS in Dunwoody and DeKalb. I respect and support the prerogatives of cities when they wish to take over county services. I have and continue to work on this issue to improve EMS for my district and the whole county. I encourage Dunwoody officials to reach out to my office so they have direct access to the Board of Commissioners. Additionally, I hope that they will reach out to me with specific requests and include me in any meetings so that I can effectively advocate on their behalf.
Open Letter To: The Taxpayers of DeKalb
DeKalb County Board of Commissioner
Brookhaven, Chamblee, Doraville, Tucker and Dunwoody City Council members, Mayors and City Managers
Re: Sewer Capacity, Sanitary Sewer Overflow (SSOs), and Consent Decree
I am writing to share with you my thoughts and observations about the status of DeKalb’s sewer system pursuant to the recent reports of significant sanitary overflow (SSOs) in Brookhaven and Lithonia.
As you know, DeKalb is under a Federal Consent Decree (CD) to make improvements to the sewer system to prevent SSOs. The DeKalb Department of Watershed Management (DWM) website is where you can see all the various reports DeKalb submits to the EPA, report a spill, and review various other important components of the CD program.
My opinions about the status of the CD and the efficacy of the DWM is based on my review of the history of actions, inaction, and staffing changes within the DWM and other county departments.
The first problem with the management of the CD and the DWM has been the significant turn over in leadership staff. I have not yet completed three years on the Board of Commissioners (BOC), yet I have seen three directors of this department. Only one of the directors has been a licensed Professional Engineer (PE) – our current director. Prior to my time on the BOC, there were changes to leadership just as frequently. The result of this flux was that the activity that should have been initiated by the CD was anything but robust.
When our new DWM Director and two new Deputies were hired by the county in late 2015, they started reviewing and auditing the status of the DWM regarding its compliance, regulatory, operations, and CD requirements. Based on meetings and reports, it was clear they found the DWM lacking in many areas. I had come to believe there was zero compliance management and the new team’s review validated my concerns. They identified that DeKalb had been misreporting SSOs to the EPA and set about to correct previous reports and accurately report current issues. They found many compliance and regulatory issues and proceeded to report and remediate these. Many of these findings have never made their way to the BOC as a whole or the public.
Early in their tenure, the new leadership team within DWM, indicated that we were behind with our CD work. They were clear that if DeKalb did not speed up work on the CD, the county would miss the deadline. The team developed a plan that would enable the work to get done timely. They recommended prequalifying several firms for a design “design-build” approach and then letting them bid as these large, important procurement packages were released for bid.
The “Design-Build” method is used by other jurisdictions in Georgia. This method is also used by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).
From GDOTs website: “Design-Build combines preconstruction services with construction services into a single contract. Design-Build projects allow the contractor to participate in the project’s design in an effort to reduce costs, improve communication and expedite project delivery.” You can read more about the efficiencies of the Design-Build approach on GDOT’s Design-Build manual website.
This process was first delayed while the legal and procurement staff took time to examine the new methods DWM professional engineers wanted to employ. Recently, the administration has held up the contracting of awards that have been approved by the BOC.
A sample list of some of the delays and problems I see:
• The BOC awarded the RFP#1 on April 11, 2017. To date, that award does not have an executed contract. Why has the administration failed to act?
• The sewer main where the spill was located in Nancy Creek/Brookhaven was identified for replacement. The scope of work is within the collection system design build package RFP#3 that is currently held in the Procurement department for their review. Why has the administration, through Procurement, delayed important projects?
• The assessment on the sewer line in Lithonia that spilled this week was scheduled for assessment under a recent award for trunk line assessments and cleaning. This procurement had experienced delays. Some major firms are not bidding because of some of our burdensome requirements.
• Major project deadlines within the consent decree are now confirmed by outside engineering consultants to be unattainable. Completion of CD projects will go past the June 2020 deadline.
• A major task codified in the CD is to develop a Hydraulic Model of the sewer system. Why wasn’t this model one of the first priorities upon publication of the CD executed on 12/13/2010 and published in the Federal Register on 12/20/2010? Why does the County administration resist acknowledging that DWM has developed, through a robust effort in 2015-2016) a Hydraulic Model for use pursuant to the CD language quoted below?
“Once the Model is fully developed for each Sewershed, the County shall authorize new sewer service connections or increases in flow from existing sewer service connections in that Sewershed only after certifying that the receiving portions of the WCTS have adequate collection and transmission capacity and the applicable WWTF has adequate treatment capacity to accept flows from such new sewer service connections and/or increases in flows from existing service connections.”
“In developing estimates and projections for certifying adequate capacity, the County shall use flow meter data, the Model, and sound engineering judgment. All certifications of adequate collection, transmission and treatment capacity shall be made by a professional engineer registered in the State of Georgia and shall be approved by a responsible party of the County as defined by 40 C.F.R. § 122.22(b). The County shall maintain all such certifications and all data on which such certifications are based.”
While many variables that now affect the CD negatively are mistakes and delays from the past, the administrations in 2016 and now, 2017, are compounding the mistakes and delays. Rather than listening to the professional engineers who have successfully navigated systems through these types of projects in their career, the administration has become increasingly opaque.
The work that needs to be done to fix the decades of neglect of the sewer system is serious business. This is not the time for press conferences, photo ops, deft political maneuvers, or bringing back former officials who got us into this predicament. More spills will continue to occur if the administration continues to ignore the Hydraulic model and sound engineering judgement. Clogged sewer pipes and contaminated streams and rivers do not fix themselves by hearing rhetoric and empty promises. This will only get better if the County administration is transparent and robustly supports the qualified team of professional engineers and our strategic partners without delay.
I sent the following email to the Dunwoody Mayor, City Council, and Staff. I am posting it here so that you also can hear my thoughts and concerns on this important issue.
Re: MOU regarding the permitting of temporary buildings on DCSD property
Mayor, Council Members, and Staff,
I am writing regarding Item #12, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with DeKalb County School District, that is on your agenda for Monday, May 8, 2017.
I assume based on the MOU, the City’s discussions with the school district, and recent inspection activity around school trailers, that the City has now accepted that it must enforce all applicable municipal ordinances and regulations; the only exception being those that relate specifically to zoning powers in Chapter 27 of Dunwoody’s Code of Ordinances. I appreciate that the city has adjusted course on this matter and is attempting to comply with the enumerated and codified powers of the City Charter and Code.
I do have concerns about the substance of the MOU.
1. The precedent of treating a property owner (DCSD) differently than other property owners with respect to ordinances and regulations with which they must comply appears to give favor to one property owner over all others.
2. Section 8 of the MOU states: The inspections certifying compliance with the approved plans shall be accumulated/assembled and at the end of the project or as requested by City, shall be submitted to the City for City’s review. The City will issue Certificate of Occupancy upon compliance.
Reliance on a vendor selected by DCSD to inspect and document compliance with the City’s code seems like an abrogation of the City’s obligation to enforce them. The issuance of a City Certificate of Occupancy based on a vendor that has a financial relationship with the property owner (DCSD) likely leaves the city with increased risk and liability. This risk involves the most precious residents in the city – our children.
a. Would the City of Dunwoody give any other property owner the ability to contract compliance with a vendor of their choice, that they paid, and give that owner a CO?
b. If the answer is “no”, then why does the city think that this MOU structure is a good idea?
3. The applicable City Code does not seem to contemplate temporary, portable buildings. The only place where the Code contemplates temporary buildings is in Chapter 27; specifically, Sec. 27-186 through 189. Chapter 27-188(b), states: The community development director is authorized to approve temporary buildings to be used in conjunction with construction work or pending completion of a permanent building. The temporary building shall not be approved until a permit for the land development or building construction has been issued.
The City Code only contemplates temporary structures in conjunction with the building of a permanent structure. That limitation is not specifically a zoning power and is not related to any particular zone or district. The definition of zoning power is set forth in OCGA § 36-66-3(3) and it was discussed in the 2002 Court Case about which I previously emailed you:
“Zoning” means the power of local governments to provide within their respective territorial boundaries for the zoning or districting of property for various uses and the prohibition of other or different uses within such zones or districts and for the regulation of development and the improvement of real estate within such zones or districts in accordance with the uses of property for which such zones or districts were established.
a. Given the prohibition of building temporary structures within the entire city, except as used in conjunction with permanent building construction, on what basis can anyone (DCSD’s vendor or the City itself) permit a temporary structure?
b. If the code specifically states that authorization must come from the Community Development Director (CDD) can an MOU contravene that requirement?
c. The Code only gives the CDD authority to approve a temporary building in one situation – in conjunction with permanent building construction. Would the issuance of any type of permit for a temporary building be illegal/unauthorized under the Code? Would it possibly be void? Would it possibly put the CDD in a compromised liability position?
d. Under what codes will the vendor, paid for by the property owner (DCSD), permit these temporary buildings? How could a CO be issued for a type of structure that is not permitted within the city at all?
e. As Georgia is a “Dillon’s Rule” state, might the City have a “Dillon’s Rule” problem with the unusual arrangement afforded DCSD in this MOU, in that it seems to be granting power that is not already explicitly given?
4. Right now, the temporary classrooms at DCSD property in the city, have no COs. Why is the City not interested in using the substantial powers of the City to leverage this situation to get more value for the residents of the City?
For example, why not negotiate from a position of strength and tell the school district that you will adopt an ordinance that allows them to place temporary buildings on their property in the city, if the school district will enter into an agreement with the city that says all children within the city boundaries shall attend a school within the city boundaries? As you know there is one school that feeds into PCMS and DHS but is not in the City. If this school were redistricted to another cluster, there would be little to no capacity issues at PCMS and DHS. Why not enter into an agreement that accomplishes this redistricting?
I hope that you will rethink this strategy. You are empowered by the voters of the city to use your power to benefit the city, create value, and improve the quality of life. This MOU is antithetical to those ideals. I would be more than happy to discuss this with you further. I am confident that each of you would receive much support and praise from the residents with this approach.
Please consider this letter to be an Open Records Request. Specifically, I would like responses regarding the technical questions that I have asked in my letter (see #2 and #3).
Today, Senator Fran Millar weighed in on the City of Dunwoody’s building code enforcement issue. He sent an email to me and Councilman Nall. Senator Millar asked the Legislative Counsel at the Gold Dome to opine about this matter. (Click here to read their opinion.) The opinion expressed by Legislative Counsel and Senator Millar are the same as mine. The email exchange (copied below) is interesting and speaks for itself. Thank you, Senator Millar, for standing up for the children and home owners of Dunwoody.
From: Fran Millar <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: April 19, 2017 at 9:58:31 AM EDT
To: “Jester, Nancy” <email@example.com>, Terry Nall
Cc: Dick Williams;Tom Taylor
Subject: Fwd: Governmental Zoning Immunity
Here you go -sounds like city has authority on permits, trees, etc. but not zoning. Fran
From: “Jester, Nancy” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: April 19, 2017 at 10:06:02 AM EDT
To: Fran Millar
Cc: Terry Nall, Dick Williams, Tom Taylor
Subject: Re: Governmental Zoning Immunity
Thanks Fran. This is exactly what county lawyers and my attorney have been telling me all along. Unfortunately, the city has yet to respond to me. It’s ironic that you can get a legal opinion from the state quicker than the city can figure this out. I hope that I do not need to take further action to get the city to enforce its own laws. The safety of children and the property values of all the city are at risk as long as the city continues to shirks its responsibility. Let’s hope the city quickly adjusts course.
On Apr 19, 2017, at 10:12 AM, Terry Nall wrote:
Unfortunately this opinion doesn’t address that a city “must” be the permitting entity or whether a formal city permit is needed at all by the school district, provided the applicable Codes are followed by the school district, whether through city offices, county offices, or through school district’s own staff, such as an internal fire marshal.
That’s really the question and has been all along.
10:21 AM (7 hours ago)
to Terry, Fran, Dick, Tom
If the city treats the school district differently as a property owner then the city is not uniformly enforcing its own laws. That will lead to some interesting legal entanglements. Also, the school district does not have an internal Fire Marshal. I confirmed this with Chief Fullum yesterday. The gentleman that you are referring to is titled a “specialist”. Chief Fullum also confirmed for me that Georgia law does not give the authority to a school district to have a Fire Marshal. That is a “supplementary power” and is exclusive to counties and cities.
And the question remains, why would the city not want to enforce their own laws to the fullest extent possible? Why would the city not want to ensure to its maximum ability that children are safe and property values protected?
On Apr 19, 2017, at 10:23 AM, Fran Millar <email@example.com> wrote:
Who else would do the permitting in the city limits? DeKalb does it for schools in the unincorporated area. Don’t understand why the city won’t do this on behalf of the community? Better compliance and safety improvement is one reason we created the city.
From: “Jester, Nancy” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: April 19, 2017 at 10:29:38 AM EDT
To: Fran Millar <email@example.com>
Cc: “TerryNall “, Dick Williams, Tom Taylor
Subject: Re: Governmental Zoning Immunity
I’m with you Fran. This is quite perplexing.
On Apr 19, 2017, at 10:36 AM, Terry Nall wrote:
I think you missed the point.
City works with school district whenever possible, such as making its initial plan reviews, etc. The school district then doesn’t complete the process with the city, but it’s not clear it does or doesn’t mean the district doesn’t MUST continue the process with the city versus its other avenues to comply. That’s the question and what Dunwoody follows is consistent with other jurisdictions outside DeKalb.
The “MUST” requirement is the pending question and it’s up to the city staff and legal to opine on it. City attorneys confirm the city is compliant, but we’re looking for their written opinion on it. There are too many fingers in the pie here. Let the appropriate people do their job.
From: Fran Millar <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: April 19, 2017 at 10:47:46 AM EDT
To: Terry Nall
Cc: Nancy Jester <email@example.com>, Dick Williams, Tom Taylor
Subject: Re: Governmental Zoning Immunity
Are you telling me the city said okay to cut down the trees and put trailers on top of the road? It seems to me the city should be proactive on behalf of its citizens versus sitting by and letting this type behavior continue. Sorry but I think your position on this is indefensible. Can’t agree on everything. Also not impressed with your outside legal advice on this and some other issues. They have been wrong before.
The following is the text of an email I sent to the City of Dunwoody and the city staff today.
“Mayor, Council Members, and City of Dunwoody staff:
I am writing to address a concern I have regarding recent correspondence about the city’s process for permitting and inspections for compliance with city ordinances; specifically as they relate to other governmental entities operating within the city’s boundaries.
This letter will conclude that based on a 2002 Georgia Court of Appeals case, (click here to read), the City of Dunwoody should seek to enforce its ordinances/code, regarding building, plumbing, electrical, land disturbance, storm water, etc. for any building activity on property owned by the school district, or county, within the city of Dunwoody.
I will further conclude that the Court explicitly stated that within a city, only the city, is imbued with the powers to enforce such things as building, plumbing, electrical, storm water, etc. codes. Other governmental entities are barred from enforcing any of these “supplementary powers” within the corporate boundaries of the city.
Please indicate for me when the city will enforce these “supplementary powers” on the recent activity that has taken place at Dunwoody High School, and provide me with the documentation that the necessary plan review, permitting, and inspection processes have taken, or will take, place.
I – Recent statements and facts
In a Facebook post regarding the construction of temporary, portable classrooms being built on the grounds of Dunwoody High School, Councilman Nall, stated:
“DCSD isn’t exempt from complying with applicable building codes, life safety reviews, etc. As a separate, sovereign government, they have a number of ways to accomplish it without necessarily coming through the city.” On April 9th at 5:55pm
In response to my question: “How would they comply with the applicable city codes in a way that doesn’t involve the city?” Councilman Nall replied: “They don’t. That’s the point.” On April 9th @ 6:26pm
”DCSD is exempt from city-specific rules, but not rules of higher government, such as state or feds. DCSD is considered a local governing authority.” On April 9th at 6:35pm
“Community Development advises DCSD submitted paperwork late last week for review. That said, also confirmed DCSD regularly initiates paperwork for city review, but doesn’t follow through to a city permit issued or city CO. This is because DCSD not obligated to work through city for reasons already posted here (i.e. separate government). As I have to post full comment thread into our open records database, I’ll not respond further on this thread. Happy to direct anyone to correct department or provide other info via email: firstname.lastname@example.org where open records info is automatically captured.” On April 10th at 12:37pm
The conclusion I draw from these statements is that the City of Dunwoody definitively holds the position, as expressed by Councilman Nall, that:
(1) DCSD can conduct any and all types of construction on their property within the corporate boundaries of the City, so long as used for educational purposes.
(2) The City is not entitled to require permits and perform inspections to insure that DCSD is compliant with any applicable city ordinances and codes.
I agree with (1). So, long as the property is used for educational purposes, a city or county cannot enforce its rules of zoning. If the school district were to try to use some part of the property for other purposes, then zoning restrictions would apply. This was contemplated and ruled on in the “DeKalb Cell Tower case” (Click here to read the Opinion and Order in that case.)
I disagree with (2). The city is entitled to require permits and perform inspections to insure that DCSD is compliant with all other city ordinances and codes, outside of the rules of zoning. Counties and school districts (political subdivisions of state government) are exempt from zoning within a city’s boundaries but they are not exempt from every other ordinance or code. The Georgia Court of Appeals explicitly stated this in a 2002 case that, ironically, involved DeKalb County and The City of Decatur. I will go into those specific details below. These are the details, as discussed by the Court of Appeals that contradict the above written statements of Councilman Nall.
I am concerned that the posture of the city of Dunwoody, in these matters, creates a very real potential liability for the city. If the temporary structures, or any other building structure on the DCSD property fails in some way, and the city has neglected or abdicated its responsibility to permit and inspect the processes and building, the city may be exposed to legal actions. I am further concerned that the state may find the municipality is not fulfilling its obligations under certain state laws.
I further note that the city has recently settled a 4th lawsuit for a member of the police force and that a recent email was sent to the Dunwoody Chamber of Commerce from a council member that revealed that the City has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about enforcement of some ordinances/codes. These facts magnify my concern about the operations and risk mitigation of the city.
II – Compliance with city ordinances/code
In June of 2002, The City of Decatur won their suit against DeKalb County on appeal to The Georgia Court of Appeals. This case is exactly on point with my contention that the city is entitled to enforce all of its ordinances, with the exception of zoning, when another government owns and builds on that property. Indeed, I would argue that the city must enforce its ordinances/codes in order to: (1) avoid any claims of negligence, (2) protect the elected officials from claims that would strip them of the “official immunity”, (3) protect the city from claims of being arbitrary in its enforcement, and (4) continue to receive the goodwill of the citizens within the city.
The history of the 2002 case is this:
DeKalb County was constructing a courthouse and doing renovations to an existing building. DeKalb allowed a contractor to commence construction before obtaining permits from Decatur and did not apply for permits relating to the renovations. The city of Decatur indicated they would seek to enforce their ordinances. DeKalb sued Decatur to seek relief from having to comply with Decatur’s ordinances. The trial court found in favor of DeKalb. Decatur appealed.
The appeals court found that:
(1) They agreed that DeKalb was not subject to the municipal zoning regulations, so long as the property were being used for governmental purposes. (Trial court got that part correct.)
(2) The Court of Appeals found that the trial court “did err by concluding that all other municipal building regulations fell under the broad category of zoning and therefore were unenforceable…”
(3) The Court of Appeals went on to say “Even under the Georgia Constitution, municipal powers relating to “zoning” are included in an entirely separate section from supplementary municipal powers relating to the enforcement of “[c]odes, including building, housing, plumbing, and electrical codes” and those involving “[s]torm water and sewage collection and disposal systems.”
Implication: While immune from zoning regulations, another government (county of school district) is obligated to follow all other rules within the municipality they find themselves.
(4) The Court of Appeals stated:
“Indeed, unless otherwise provided by law, a county is barred from enforcing its supplementary powers within a municipality, as a municipality is imbued with the task of enforcing its supplementary powers within its own boundaries. Ga. Cost. of 1983, Art. IX, Sec. II, Par. III(b)(1).”
Implication: This statement from the court contradicts Councilman Nall’s two assertions, listed above, that DCSD (1) “is exempt from city-specific rules”, and (2) that they have some other way of enforcing their supplementary powers: “As a separate, sovereign government, they have a number of ways to accomplish it without necessarily coming through the city”.
In fact, the court explicitly is stating that within the city, only the city, is imbued with the powers to enforce such things as building, plumbing, electrical, storm water, etc. codes.
(5) The court further ruled that municipalities are required to “adopt….comprehensive ordinance(s), establishing the procedures governing land-disturbing activities which are conducted within their….boundaries” under the Georgia Erosion and Sedimentation Act.
III – Conclusion
I have alerted the DeKalb County Fire Department (DKFD) to the building of the temporary, portable classrooms. It is my understanding they intend to perform the inspection and enforcement tasks with which they are imbued. I am disappointed that the city of Dunwoody did not share this information with DKFD.
I am concerned based on the statements by elected city officials, documented in writing, that the city cannot and will not enforce its building codes. This appears to, not only be incorrect, but places Dunwoody’s students, and government at risk.
I hope that the city will make a statement and demonstrate compliance with all current ordinances, rules, regulations, etc. so that the citizens of the city can be assured that Dunwoody does not operate with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding any matter.
IV – Commentary
The city of Dunwoody was born from an organic desire to have a more responsive government that was closer to the people. The expectation was to see robust enforcement of quality of life issues. The expectation included having council members that looked out for the best interests of the citizens of the city. The people that worked so hard to make the city a reality based on these expectations were not “complainers” then; and citizens that point out current deficiencies with the city should not be labeled “complainers” today.
It is the job of the elected officials to make sure the city lives up to its promise. That requires holding the employees and contractors of the city responsible for the quality of the work and advice they are giving you and the citizens. Of course, there are times that employees should be recognized and praised for particularly excellent service. There are also times when you need to speak up about the poor performance of staff. It requires dispassionate discernment on your part to see the difference. You are the voice of the citizens and not the cheerleaders for taxpayer funded staff. I know that each of you are more than capable of being the robust advocate that the citizens deserve. That is what will actually make Dunwoody better.
I am writing pursuant to meetings and conversations that I have had with numerous parents, civic groups, and taxpayers in District 1. The DeKalb County School District (DCSD) is in the process of determining how to allocate the funding for e-SPLOST V and, furthermore, how to potentially redistrict for the best use of the capital resources within the district.
As a parent, a taxpayer, and a county commissioner, I have concerns and deep interest in these plans. My constituents have expressed concerns and have requested that I weigh in on their behalf regarding these matters.
In order to provide service and value to my constituents, I have sought information, opinions, advice, guidance, and consensus regarding the various proposals and discussions that the DeKalb County School District has shared with the public and the Board of Education. My letter is divided into sections: (I) The history of the school districts proposals; (II) Critiques of the final recommendation; (III) An alternative plan.
Click here to read about the original three proposals from the school district.
Click here to read about the final recommendation from the administration regarding how to allocate e-SPLOST V revenue, and adjustments to feeder patterns for schools.
Just this week, the plans for the final recommendation were released and include adding a two story, 600 seat addition to Dunwoody High School, a two story 750 seat addition to Lakeside, a three story 600 seat classroom addition to Chamblee High School, and no new high school cluster for the Doraville area. There are additions to parking as well. These parking additions include building over 100 new spaces along Chamblee-Dunwoody Road for Chamblee High School plus a multi-story parking to take up even more of their campus.
Promises Not Kept
Unfortunately, the renovations, upgrades, and expansions that were promised to common areas like gymnasiums, band and choral rooms, etc. are not part of the plan. It appears that the kitchens will be expanded and there are some small additions to the cafeteria (400 sq. ft. at DHS). In my discussions with parents the upgrades to certain common areas were a key selling point to earn support for the plan to add classroom additions. Sadly, what the parents thought they were getting and what the school district is planning are not the same.
Continued Disregard for Doraville
With all of these changes, there continues to be no regard for the Doraville community. They will be the only city that does not have a community cluster of schools. Many school attendance feeder patterns remain incongruent with the stated policy of the district and defy common sense. I realize that redistricting is difficult but continually adding seats to schools that are tucked in residential areas, on campuses that can never adequately provide the necessary space for sports or many other activities, is not rational or scalable.
Lack of cooperation with other jurisdictional authorities (cities and county)
The school district is also planning in a vacuum. At no point during the School District’s planning process has the county, or any of the cities, been consulted about traffic, hydrology, storm water and sewer capacity at the sites in Dunwoody, Chamblee, Brookhaven or in the unincorporated county.
Permitting and building codes are part of the power of the cities and counties where they have jurisdictional authority. The school district must go through these processes as any land owner must to obtain the necessary authorization to building anything on the property. The cities and county governments have a role to play in these decisions. It is common sense and a best practice to involve all entities in the planning process. That has not happened.
Disrespect for homeowners/taxpayers that do not have children in public schools
Furthermore, the community at large has never been surveyed or invited to participate in the planning process. The only conduit for information has been to the parent community in the district. This leaves out families that have children that do not attend a public school and the broader community of homeowners that may be retired or without children. They all pay a hefty sum in school property taxes. They should receive more respect and attention than has been shown to them.
Imagine the shock of a homeowner who lives near a school and suddenly has a three story parking deck that comes out of the ground; blocking the sunlight that once came into their living room windows. Imagine the removal of the natural buffers that shield adjoining properties from school campuses. Shouldn’t these neighbors and tax payers be consulted before approval of such plans?
Based on the input that I have received, a few things are clear.
- Municipal boundaries should be respected.
- Walkable community feeder patterns should be respected.
- Communities all across DeKalb do not support large format high or middle schools (schools with student populations greater than 1500-1700)
- Communities do not want split feeder patterns.
- Doraville deserves a high school.
- There is excess capacity at many high schools near those that are over capacity that could provide relief.The school district should draft a plan that sends students within cities to the high school within its municipal boundaries. In areas where more students are required than live in the city, additional students from outside of the municipal boundaries can be districted to fill the school. This will improve community cohesion, intergovernmental relationships, and foster trust and collaboration.
Before adding the large additions to Chamblee, Dunwoody, and Lakeside, the school district should look to best use the existing facilities in the county; as many high schools are underutilized.
A focus in SPLOST V should be to renovate and upgrade programmatic spaces in schools where they are overburdened and/or outdated. This is a separate issue from capacity. These types of renovations should not be used as bargaining chips to get some parents to agree to large additions to classroom seats. All of the students in DeKalb County deserve facilities that allow them to fully participate in activities like band, choir, drama, art, and sports. DeKalb has lagged behind our neighboring districts in providing adequate spaces for these types of activities.
The school district should go back to the drawing board, engage the municipal and county governments to come up with a master plan that works for everyone. This type of collaboration will demonstrate that it is a new day in DeKalb. It will be proof that the school district is looking to the larger community to strengthen and improve education and the quality of life for all students and all taxpayers.
In an abundance of caution, I have asked that staff review the District 1 budget expenditures for 2015 and 2016. No one in the District 1 office has ever had a p-card, including me. And, no one in District 1 has ever been allowed to make purchases using public funds that were not authorized by me. Even though I instituted these controls from the beginning of my service and routinely monitor my budget, I thought it was prudent to have outside staff review my expenditures.
I am pleased that the outside review of the District 1 budget is consistent with my observations. For the fiscal year 2015, District 1 spent only 37.12% of the budget. For the fiscal year 2016, as of October, District 1 has spent 55.76% of the budget. No unapproved or unidentified transactions were found.
Below are three documents regarding the external review: (1) A narrative of the 2015 findings, (2) A narrative of the 2016 findings and (3) a chart containing the expenditures of 2015 and 2016 and their budgets (appropriations) side by side.
As most of you know, I have a keen interest in public education, and so, I have been closely following the debate about the Constitutional Amendment (Amendment #1 on the November ballot) to create the “Opportunity School District” (OSD).
Those for the amendment seem to focus on the limited nature of the OSD. The OSD can only ever include 100 schools and can take in no more than 20 schools in any given year. Schools can’t remain in the OSD in perpetuity and eventually must be returned to the district. Advocates stress the urgency of the problem and make the claim that over 68,000 students are trapped in perpetually failing schools.
Those against the amendment focus on the loss of “local control” of education. They accuse the OSD as being “more government”.
I continue to be amazed that we do not research how other states hold districts and schools accountable for their results and financial stewardship. There are some successful models all around.
I wish my friends on the right would take note of the conservative states that have much more robust state systems of accountability and accreditation than Georgia. I wish everyone would ask why public schools are not accredited by the state based on a system of achievement metrics and financial stewardship rules. The state of Texas has such a system. (Click here to read about the powers the state has when districts and schools fail children and/or taxpayers.) In Texas, the state also has broad power to intervene in failing schools and districts, including state monitors, conservators, or even dissolving a wasteful and ineffective school district. They take these steps every year. If we were to adopt such a system, we wouldn’t even need to discuss the OSD. Their system of accountability, and those of many other states, make our state Department of Education look downright useless.
Back to the issue at hand.
My thought about the local control argument is this: If you fund your school district solely using local funds, then I think that the state should have absolutely no voice or influence in your district. Zip. Zero.
So long as a district receives state funding, the state has an obligation to represent the interests of the taxpayers of the state to ensure that our tax dollars are being used effectively and efficiently. Why should taxpayers from Ellijay pay for failure and mismanagement in DeKalb? Why should someone from Alpharetta be forced to invest in the mess and procurement scandals that go on in Bibb County? Why don’t they get a say so? After all, it’s their money. Don’t they have a right to make some demands? Really, shouldn’t every Georgian be making that demand?
It is ironic to me that a number of high performing districts have stated they oppose the OSD. What is the argument they have against preventing your tax dollars from being wasted by bloated, ineffective bureaucracies that are failing children?
It appears to me that the policy of the state of Georgia, and all those that are opposed to protecting the taxpayers and kids from failure and waste can be summarized as this: We demand that you subsidize failure.
With every dollar of state taxpayer money sent to these failing districts, we only purchase more failure and waste. Don’t you think if these districts could have fixed these schools, they would have done so by now? What is motivating their recent concern for improving achievement in their worst schools? Even the possibility of an OSD has had a profound effect.
We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. I’m quite sure the OSD won’t be perfect. I’m sure it will have some successes and failures. But put yourself in the shoes of a single mom, with limited resources who is made, by government, to send her child to a persistently failing school. She is forced to see a parade of incompetent leaders and teachers come and go while nothing improves, because the school district has become a jobs program and a cash cow for vendors. And no one holds the district accountable for failing so many moms like this. What do we say to her? How do we allow the system to keep up this abuse of the vulnerable parents and children in these situations? They deserve for us to do something. We must try.
My only issue with the OSD is that it doesn’t go far enough. We need a complete overhaul in the way our state thinks about education and accountability to children and taxpayers. The OSD is a step in the right direction. I hope there are many more to come.
The county is on the precipice of setting in motion a serious of events that could substantially raise your property taxes.
It has come to light that if the county puts a SPLOST referendum on the ballot this November, and it passes, the property assessment freeze will cease to be in effect. We know this now based on a recent review by legislative counsel of HB 596. The legal opinion concluded that:
“…HB 596 serves to suspend the homestead valuation freeze currently in effect in DeKalb County if the new HOST and a Splost are approved in the November election.”
That means that 10 years of increases in your property value, which have been shielded from county and city taxes, will instantly become taxable. You will be providing the county and cities with a sales tax and property tax windfall.
As you know, I have expressed my opposition to the SPLOST because the county’s project list shortchanges real needs (paving and public safety) while spending heavily on pet projects.
Now, the stakes are even higher. At this point, even if the project list was perfect, bringing this SPLOST forward for a vote in November is irresponsible. To go forward would mean a devastating tax increase on 10 years of property value growth that has been shielded.
Unfortunately, the county has asked the cities to support the SPLOST referendum. I have been disappointed that, even before the HB 596 problem became apparent, many cities have already agreed to support the county.
If the county can get every single city to agree, they can extend the tax for another year – 6 years in total. Many city council members from cities in District 1 have expressed to me that if they agree to an “Intergovernmental Agreement” (IGA), they’ll get a more favorable distribution of the SPLOST tax revenue. The members often tell me that they have suggested the county improve its project list. I’m sure the county has taken their suggestion seriously.
Keep in mind, for every dollar of sales tax collected, 75-cents will go to the county and 25-cents will get divided up between the cities (Decatur, Lithonia, Pine Lake, Chamblee, Clarkston, Doraville, Tucker, Brookhaven, Dunwoody, and Stone Mountain). For example, Brookhaven and Dunwoody will receive approximately 7-cents from each dollar of SPLOST. Nonetheless, they believe it is in their cities interest to get a small increase in their SPLOST revenue, even if 75% of what you are paying is going to the wasteful county project list. It’s like thanking a pickpocket for giving you a stick of gum while he takes your wallet.
But now, we are a long way from haggling how to divide up a few cents on the margin. We are at the point where enacting a SPLOST will trigger a massive property tax increase.
Enter the Intergovernmental Agree (IGA) issue. The only city that has yet to sign on and execute an IGA is Dunwoody. If Dunwoody, agrees to move forward with an IGA, then your risk for a sustained property tax increase just got bigger. If Dunwoody agrees to the IGA, the county can call the SPLOST referendum in November, and because all cities will have agreed, the term of the sales tax will be extended to 6 years.
Dunwoody City Council will meet on Monday, July 18th, to decide whether or not to sign the county’s IGA. Those that want to sign the IGA have suggested that it’s good for Dunwoody because it improves their SPLOST revenue by $1.5 million over the 6 year period – the county’s “sweetener” to get the city on board. I have heard the suggestion that this problem can get “fixed” in the next legislative session. Are you willing to “hope” that this gets fixed? Are you willing to take that risk with so much of your money on the table?
If Dunwoody signs the IGA it allows the city to be used as a pawn by the county in a game that has serious wasteful and taxation implications. Worst of all, if this goes forward to the ballot and passes, your property taxes will go through the roof. And, Dunwoody will have agreed to give them an extra year on that one, all in exchange for a few more of your dollars over 6 years.
Please let your Dunwoody councilmember hear you on this matter. We cannot encourage the county to move forward with such a risky and flawed proposal. We cannot support the removal of the assessment freeze. I hope that you will join me in my efforts to oppose this.
I have been asked to share my thoughts on the proposed SPLOST list. In its current form, the proposed SPLOST list is unacceptable to me. To sum up why:
- The county’s current proposed SPLOST project list is filled with “wants” while shortchanging “needs”.
- Less than 50% of the SPLOST list is focused on the original intent of the legislation – funding road paving and infrastructure repairs.
- The current SPLOST list proposes to use almost 10% of all SPLOST collections to fund a new, large government center complex.
Here’s how your sales tax in DeKalb is currently assessed:
DeKalb Sales Tax is 7%. Here’s the breakdown:
4% is a State of Georgia sales tax
1% is an Education SPLOST that goes to the DeKalb school district
1% is a tax that goes to MARTA
1% is a HOST (80% goes to property tax relief / 20% goes to infrastructure funding)
7% Sales Tax in DeKalb
So – why is there a proposal to add another penny?
The 2014 DeKalb County Operations Task Force recommended that our DeKalb County Legislative Delegation pass a bill allowing for the county to call a referendum to correct a growing inequity in the distribution of the HOST tax proceeds. Increasingly, due to the way the funding formula works, the majority of that 20% for infrastructure was going to cities. The county struggled with the loss of these funds and road maintenance suffered. The motivation behind the legislation (HB 215) that allows for the SPLOST referendum was:
- To give even more property tax relief to homeowners (convert the HOST property tax penny to 100% property tax relief) and,
- To create more infrastructure funding by adding another penny sales tax – all subject to the approval of voters in a countywide referendum.
Why I oppose the current SPLOST proposal:
In theory I favor replacing property tax with sales tax. I am also sympathetic to the unfortunate skew in HOST fund distribution. I am strongly in agreement with the motivation of legislators to help fund a robust road paving program. Sadly, as the county prepares the referendum question for the ballot, the proposed list of SPLOST projects has grown to include pet projects and monuments to government bureaucracy. This includes new parks, libraries, and an exceedingly large new government center – a Taj Mahal monument to ineffective government.
In addition to mission creep in the SPLOST list, important and defensible public safety improvements receive less funding than needed. Our police and fire departments both need new training facilities, yet SPLOST only proposes to fund 40% of this need. Fire Stations located within the city limits of any city have been removed no matter their current state of disrepair. Keep in mind, most fire stations within city limits serve areas that include multiple jurisdictions including multiple cities and unincorporated DeKalb. You should also note that you pay fire service tax to the county to protect life and property even as the county refuses to build or rebuild stations that are necessary to protect you.
I hope that elected officials in the county, the cities, and our legislature won’t be distracted by or focused on “wants” but rather “needs” as they evaluate the SPLOST proposal. I hope that our partners in city government won’t support a county referendum that provides them a new source of tax dollars for their city while burdening DeKalb’s taxpayers in all of the county, including cities, with a project as wasteful as a new government center. I hope that all elected officials will understand the county must focus on repairing the broken infrastructure that everyone must endure instead of adding more capital (Government Centers, parks, libraries, etc.) to an inventory of assets that are already poorly maintained.
We can consider a SPLOST that is serious about paving roads and addressing public safety. We must adhere to the original rationale for this proposal – paving and repairing roads and infrastructure. I will not support a SPLOST, raising your taxes, to fund pork barrel spending of any sort.