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Senator Millar weighs in on Dunwoody’s enforcement of building codes

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 <senatorfranmillar@gmail.com>
Date: April 19, 2017 at 9:58:31 AM EDT
To: “Jester, Nancy” <njester@dekalbcountyga.gov>, 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” <njester@dekalbcountyga.gov>
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.
–Nancy


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.
-Terry Nall


Jester, Nancy
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?
–Nancy


On Apr 19, 2017, at 10:23 AM, Fran Millar <senatorfranmillar@gmail.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” <njester@dekalbcountyga.gov>
Date: April 19, 2017 at 10:29:38 AM EDT
To: Fran Millar <senatorfranmillar@gmail.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:
Fran,

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.

Terry


From: Fran Millar <senatorfranmillar@gmail.com>
Date: April 19, 2017 at 10:47:46 AM EDT
To: Terry Nall
Cc: Nancy Jester <njester@dekalbcountyga.gov>, 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.

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Enforcement of city ordinances/code – the implications of the 2002 Georgia Court of Appeals ruling

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: terry.nall@dunwoodyga.gov 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.

–Nancy

Nancy Jester”

A Better DeKalb – My view on the recent developments in school building and redistricting plans

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.

Section I

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.

At the most recent school board meeting (11/7), the promise to Doraville for a new elementary school seems to have been quietly removed from previous plans.

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.

Section II

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?

Section III

Based on the input that I have received, a few things are clear.

  1. Municipal boundaries should be respected.
  2. Walkable community feeder patterns should be respected.
  3. Communities all across DeKalb do not support large format high or middle schools (schools with student populations greater than 1500-1700)
  4. Communities do not want split feeder patterns.
  5. Doraville deserves a high school.
  6. 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.

District 1 budget review

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.

audit-2015

audit-2016

2015-and-2016-budget-comparison

NO on e-SPLOST – Here’s Why

On May 24th voters across DeKalb will see an e-SPLOST referendum on their ballot. If approved, it will be the fifth, 5-year e-SPLOST program for DeKalb County School District. What have we gotten for the almost $2 billion, over 20 years, of the e-SPLOST program? What can we expect from an e-SPLOST V?

I was on the Board of Education when e-SPLOST IV was designed and won approval. I voted no as a Board member to even take the referendum to the voters because the design was based on inaccurate assumptions and did not address the growing capacity needs of the district. I warned in 2011 that we were sentencing over a generation of children to attend schools in trailers for their entire school career.

I specifically asked that a new elementary school be built along the Buford Highway Corridor. I asked for the district to add capacity to the Dunwoody cluster, where elementary school trailers have been sitting for more than a decade, the middle school was built too small over parent objections in e-SPLOST III, and the high school isn’t prepared for the growing number of classrooms it will soon need.

I see a pattern in past e-SPLOSTs that left children, teachers, and taxpayers worse-off in aggregate despite the almost $2 billion we all paid to improve and expand our county’s schools. This pattern has existed across multiple superintendents. Despite the spending and relatively stable student population (hovering around +/-100K students), the use of trailers has grown over the years. The building needs also grow over the years because of your assets receive almost no maintenance and care.

All the spending to improve the learning environment has done little to improve academic aggregate outcomes in DeKalb. In addition to the poor aggregate achievement levels in DeKalb Schools, the one other consistent feature of the district has been the administrative staff. Yes, each new superintendent has brought in a few new people. Some of them have been a welcome change. Unfortunately, the district is plagued by the quiet undercurrent of perennial administrators that have been influential across multiple superintendents. And, no one should be shocked to learn that the exact same two outside consulting firms that brought you the last e-SPLOST debacle are also providing the guidance for e-SPLOST V.

These same failed administrators are now quietly advising the new superintendent behind the scenes and designing e-SPLOST V. Why should we expect anything different from the same people who have been so consistently incompetent, wrong, and biased? On what basis could anyone believe they should be the architects of the next e-SPLOST program? There’s a word for doing the same thing and expecting different results.

I call the current approach for e-SPLOST V, the “Kitchen Sink” referendum. Every school in DeKalb is listed as a potential for everything. The message:

“Vote for e-SPLOST V because you might get a new school. Or you might get an upgrade. Or nothing. But you have to play to find out. Go ahead, spin the wheel, and let’s see what DeKalb has in store for you. What could go wrong? And remember – It’s for the children.”

Yep, they’ve thrown the kitchen sink language right onto your May 24th ballot. The usual list of naïve and political operators are out there trying to rally support for this ridiculous referendum. There are the Charlie Browns who keep trying to kick that ball even as the rest of us know Lucy is going to yank that ball away every time. There’s the shrewd political types who received promises behind closed doors that their interests will be protected.

Hope is not a method and backroom deals are proof that e-SPLOST has never been about children. It certainly has never even been as simple as trying to put permanent roofs over our students’ heads. It’s been run by the same people with the same failed track record for years.

DeKalb Schools have seen their operating and capital coffers swell with your money as the economy has recovered. Very little has trickled down to the classroom. With all the resources that are at hand, their shouldn’t be a leaky roof, a broken HVAC system, moldy ceiling tiles, or the need for parents to send in basic cleaning supplies. But, sadly, these situations remain.

It needs to be stated and discussed that the school district has morphed, e-SPLOST, into a maintenance program as well. Even worse, the district spends your taxes on new capital projects that it doesn’t maintain. The school district should be dedicating millage to maintenance so that this cost is not shifted to an e-SPLOST program. This protects your investment.

• Until the school district replaces the failed administrators that have brought us to this low point;
• Until the school district gives us a concrete schedule of building projects for e-SPLOST V;
• Until the school district ends it’s opaque, uncooperative attitude, until the school district properly attends to the maintenance of the assets it already has;

Just say NO to this tax. The district will only make change when the spigot is turned off for a while. I’m voting no until the school district cleans up its act and gives me a firm project list. To vote otherwise is to embolden the incompetent bureaucrats who have brought you here and enable the continued trend of putting special, political interests ahead of what is in the best interests of children and taxpayers.

TAD Talk

On Tuesday (5/3/16) the Chair of the DeKalb Board of Education, Melvin Johnson, was interviewed for “Closer Look” on WABE, 90.1.

Click here to read the transcript or listen to the interview.

The interview was striking because of the blatantly false statements made by the Chair of the Board or Education and his refusal to understand the basics of school finance, how a TAD works, and the financial realities of the project.

Early in the interview, Dr. Johnson said, “all funds generated by tax dollars should go to student learning.”  He went on to say, “We are judged by how we manage our funds.  We are judged by the product and student outcomes.”  That sounds wonderful, right?

Sadly, DeKalb Schools does not even comply with state law requiring 65% of total operating expenditures be spent on “direct classroom expenditures”. And, our weak state Department of Education hands out waivers like candy.  The state legislature should really do something about that.  But, I digress.

For Chairman Johnson to say “all funds…should go to student learning” is duplicitous given the fact that such a low percentage of taxpayer dollars actually make it into the classroom.  Furthermore, Dr. Johnson hasn’t exactly been a faithful advocate for improving the percentage of your taxes actually going into the classroom.  Nope, he and the majority, kept right on spending your money on bloating the bureaucracy.  The district also has some interesting procurement habits but I’ll save that for another blog.  And while they were spending all your money for the benefit of adults and not “for the children”, they accumulated a mountain of cash.  As of the end of February 2016, DeKalb Schools has over $225 million in operating reserve cash.  For the same period the capital fund reserve is over $260 million.  With money like that, why aren’t your classrooms at half the size?  Why aren’t teachers getting bigger raises?  Why are your kids in trailers anywhere?  Why do you have to buy toilet paper to send to your kid’s school?

If they aren’t going to spend it on the classroom, they could always give us a tax cut.  DeKalb is one of only a handful of districts that can even tax over 20 mils. Right now, we’re paying 23.73 mils.  Do you think that extra 3.73 mils is helping?  If it was, wouldn’t we see fewer schools on the OSD list rather than the net +3 that were added as targets for state takeover?  DeKalb has more schools on that list than any other district.

Dr. Johnson confidently told the interviewers, DeKalb has made improvements in graduation statistics.  Yep.  That’s right.  It’s also right for every single district in the state.  Why?  Because last year, the state removed the graduation test requirement.  Naturally, the graduation metrics increased throughout Georgia.  This has nothing to do with improvements in education.

When asked by Rose Scott, “Do you feel like the board has really vetted the opportunities, talked to all the major players involved here?”  Dr. Johnson replied, “…..We have met with Mr. Perry, the developer.  We met with the Mayor and her staff of Doraville and many others discussing options and opportunities in this regard.”  That is interesting because the developer nor the city has met with the Board of Education about this matter.  In fact, the developer and city officials have been discouraged from even meeting with school board members individually.  How can your elected officials be expected to make decisions without being fully informed of the facts?

Stunningly, Chairman Johnson stated the school board would be at a loss for a million dollars a month with the TAD.  But, we know that the current taxes paid to the school district from the property is $936,000 annually.  With a TAD, the school district would keep collecting every dime of taxes they currently receive.

Next, in addition to Dr. Johnson’s financial fabrications, he went straight to fear mongering.  In a blatant attempt to manipulate public sentiment, and threaten teachers, he suggested there is some relationship between taxes “lost” at this site and the need to lay off teachers.  That is absurd and shameful.

What is most troubling is that the school board and administration do not seem to understand that this isn’t a choice about (1) TAD versus (2) No TAD.  The choice is between TAD or Tax Abatements (via a development authority deal).  Keep in mind, the abatements are given by The Development Authority and not one elected official gets a vote. The choice is between a development that has the capital ability to fund the major public infrastructure improvements to develop a commercially rich tax base that helps fund all of DeKalb (TAD) – or – a development funded through tax abatements dropping in more apartments and less high value commercial real estate.  The apartments will bring more students to the already overcrowded schools.  And with the abatement strategy, they really won’t get one dime in taxes to help provide services for those students.  The schools will get nothing except more potential expenses.

Is it too much to ask that our school district spend our tax dollars in the classroom and have a modicum of financial fluency?…

Doraville Tax Allocation District

At this Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners’ meeting, the Board approved an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with Doraville regarding the Tax Allocation District (TAD) for the former GM Plant site. The Commission approved the TAD earlier this year. The IGA sets forth how the TAD will function and sets out the infrastructure improvements that can be financed by TAD revenues.

So, what is a TAD? How does it work?

A TAD is a defined area where real estate property tax monies gathered above a certain threshold for a certain, finite period of time, can be used for specified improvements in the defined area.

The property taxes collected by all governmental entities (city, county, and/or school district) that participate in the TAD continue to be paid to those entities. The TAD does not decrease or abate taxation on this property. As improvements are made and development occurs on the property, its value will increase. The tax that is paid on the increase in the value, gets paid, and accrues into the TAD account. Those funds can only be utilized pursuant to the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that designates the projects for which TAD funds can be used.

Let me be clear: Every dime of property taxes for this property must be paid. The TAD does not change that. The taxes that are paid today on that property will continue to be paid directly to the city, county, and school district. The taxes assessed on the increase in value of the property, also have to be paid. They go directly to the TAD for specific, pre-approved, directed uses.

The IGA that the Commission approved on Tuesday has numerous stipulations about TAD expenditures. They include a new fire station, water/sewer infrastructure, streets, and storm water management structures. The TAD is set for a period of 25 years but DeKalb has built in a review and reauthorization provision at the 10 year mark.

I want to contrast the TAD and this process with the powers of Development Authorities. Development Authorities routinely discount or abate property taxes all together for a period of time through bond-lease transactions. When Development Authorities do this, the private, business interest sees their taxes reduced or eliminated. The decision is made by an appointed board; not your elected officials. Development Authorities have the power to abate taxes for cities, counties, and the school district without approval from these entities. This just recently happened in Brookhaven when the DeKalb Development Authority (known as Decide DeKalb) entered into a deal to build a new office building at Perimeter Summit. Click here to read about it. The soccer deal was structured with the Development Authority as a tax abatement deal and a cash give away. A TAD is none of these things.

With the TAD, every dime in taxes gets paid, and your elected officials have to approve of the TAD and its expenditures. Development Authority deals mean unelected officials get to eliminate taxes for private interests.

The General Motors property has languished for the better part of a decade. There have been a few attempts to redevelop it over the years but the deals have never come to fruition. Even though General Motors went through bankruptcy reorganization, the Doraville Plant was not liquidated. The plant closed and has been sitting there for over 7 years. The site has such infrastructure deficits and GM demanded such a premium price that any development would need some form of public participation.

The business community and investors have expressed their concerns about DeKalb’s business climate. The GM site redevelopment is one of the largest projects in the Southeast. Successfully redeveloping this area will improve DeKalb’s reputation, bring thousands of jobs to the area, and improve land value; resulting in a larger commercial tax base for everyone.

I have been disappointed to hear some of the comments from the school system about this project. Perhaps more than any other governmental entity, DeKalb School District, contributed to the distress and blight in Doraville. For years, the school district ignored the burgeoning student population and now the schools in and near Doraville have proliferated with trailers. The district as a whole is a negative when businesses are considering where to locate in metro Atlanta. It is ironic that the school district does not appear willing to participate in a revitalization given its history of willfully ignoring the area.

TAD participation by the school district would lead to higher collections of e-SPLOST sales taxes. The district could negotiate for the building of an auditorium large enough to hold graduations with their portion of the TAD. Right now, no such space exists in DeKalb.

I also find it ironic that DeKalb schools would hinge their disdain for this project on their view that “teaching and learning” is their “core business”. A quick glance of the school district’s budgets over the years would show you that DeKalb has failed to ever meet the state’s mandate of spending 65% (at a minimum) of the their budget in the classroom (on “direct instructional expenditures”). I suggest that to be credible in making a statement about the core business of DeKalb County schools, start first by using the taxpayers’ money for what it is intended. Keep in mind that DeKalb has one of the highest millage rates for schools in the state at 23.73 mils. Almost all other districts are capped and can go no higher than 20 mils. Even with almost 4 mils more in taxes, DeKalb School District can’t get 65% of the budget to be spent on their “core business. The old adage – “You get what you pay for” – shows us that more money into the school’s coffers have purchased something far different than “teaching and learning”.

In the School District’s critique of this TAD, they mentioned the Kensington and Briarcliff TADs and noted that their value has decreased. Indeed the value has decreased and so the TAD has seen no accumulation of funds and so there have been no infrastructure improvements or redevelopment. The cost to the taxpayer has been zero. And all the while, every tax dollar has been paid because TADs do not eliminate taxes and money only accumulates in a TAD when the value goes up.

The old GM site represents a unique opportunity for DeKalb. Unfortunately, this property wasn’t liquidated when taxpayers footed the bill for General Motors to reorganize. We were left with a property that GM held without compromising on price. Now, we have the opportunity to redevelop this site to benefit all of DeKalb, increase the commercial tax base, provide jobs, and show that DeKalb wants to be a business friendly place. We have the opportunity to make sure the necessary infrastructure and school facilities get put in place. We have the opportunity to show that DeKalb is open for business. We can take the opportunity, mitigate risk to the public, and improve value for all the taxpayers. Let’s do this and show that DeKalb is united and a great place to do business.