2019 Operating Budget Wrap-Up

On June 18th, Doraville’s city council voted to approve the 2019 operating budget – which also required raising the city’s millage rate to 10 mills. The votes in favor of this were Koontz, Hillard, Patrick, and Geierman. Council members Naser and Fleming voted “No” on both the budget and millage rate increase.

I did not take my own vote to raise the millage rate lightly, and I spent a lot of time weighing the options. While there are some things in this budget that I personally think could have been trimmed, getting agreement from the rest of the council on those between now and the end of the month (our state-imposed deadline for having an approved budget) was not realistically going to happen.

Also, there were several things in this budget that I think are necessary to the city’s future: namely investments in professional staff. Our planning department and economic development department have both been starved for resources for years. In my opinion, that’s one of the reasons that growth in Doraville has not taken off the way it has in neighboring cities. If we don’t start investing in these departments, I don’t think we’re going to see the change we want. The new budget gets us moving in that direction

I spent a lot of time grappling with how to deal with city’s very real need to invest in itself, while also struggling with my concern that the council this year has never gotten together for a retreat or had real work sessions to identify its collective priorities for the city. I believe the budget would have been tighter – or at least we’d be sure what the consensus was – if we’d done this work ahead of time. I did not want to approve this tax increase and then have things continue status quo for another year. I wanted a commitment that the council would change the way it operates (most importantly, improving the quality of the work sessions and holding the retreat that has been promised since I was sworn in).

A conversation with a resident gave me an idea about how to reconcile those two things – he suggested a resolution that the council would look for cost savings over the next year that could be used for future investments or to reduce the millage rate. Some of the other council members questioned the value of this, but I felt that it was an important public commitment from the council to work together and also an acknowledgement that we need to be stewards of taxpayer money and be working to find efficiencies wherever we can.

The draft we agreed to is here. It was approved by all members of council before the millage rate and budget votes.  I would have preferred setting a goal amount of savings that we would look for, but went with the softer version of this that would get everyone on board.

This resolution wouldn’t have gone anywhere if it weren’t for Council Member Koontz, who helped me a lot in the hours before the public meeting to get this into a form everyone would agree to vote on. She was able to see what the roadblocks to getting other council members on board were, and made suggestions for improvement that I didn’t feel compromised the most important parts of this resolution. She showed a lot of leadership and I appreciate her support on this.

In the end, while I did not want to raise the millage rate,  I am happy that the city is finally going to be investing in itself and that the council has agreed to a collaborative process for evaluating the city’s spending and priorities. I think this is a step forward for Doraville, and may be looked back at in the future as a turning point.

FY 2019 Budget Discussions

Last week, Doraville’s city manager presented a proposed budget to the city council. Even though our property values (and the tax digest) are going up in 2019, several of the city’s costs are going up as well. There are also several needs the city has which have been ignored for many years.  Because of this, her budget proposes raising our municipal property tax from 8.951 to 10 mills.

In a meeting I had with her this week, the city manager gave me this document showing the anticipated expenditures in 2019 if we make no increases in service, along with the expected changes in revenue. To help myself understand it a little better, I reorganized this data into a spreadsheet:  

Budget-same

If we leave everything the same, while factoring in the non-discretionary increases above, we would have a deficit of about $350,000. To cover just this, we would need to raise taxes to about 9.46 mills.  

There are some important other things that the city needs to do which will also cost money – these include hiring a full time public information officer (who would be responsible for the city’s overall communications – including on the web, its newsletter and social media) and setting up an economic development contract for branding, marketing and small business retention. The city  could also use a Research analyst and GIS specialist and some other positions that will help it accommodate businesses and developers that want to come to Doraville.

Here’s the revenue increase we can expect at each step in the millage rate. I show our current millage rate, the rate at which we would need to make no cuts in services (9.46) , and how much would be generated if we raise it to 10.

Mills

This budget process has been a frustrating one for me, because I believe there has been a lack of leadership from the city council when it comes to deciding the city’s priorities. I accept ownership for my part in that lack of leadership. We have not given the city’s staff any meaningful direction about what is important to us as a body or where we want to invest our resources. I tried to have some of these conversations at our budget work session, but it was too little too late.  

Expecting 6 people to agree on all of our collective priorities for Doraville and to achieve a consensus that the city’s staff could work from during a 1 hour work session a few weeks before the budget needs to be passed was unrealistic. I can’t fault the staff for prioritizing everything in this budget, because the council has not given any direction about what our priorities are or where it would be OK to make cuts. I’m hopeful that we can provide better guidance in the future and that the council will restructure the way it handles work sessions altogether (a 1 hour work session before the public meeting is not cutting it).

Based on my own priorities, I have suggested that the council look at these areas of the budget if it wants to offset the impact of tax increases:  

  • We spend over $700,000 on “Recreation.” Is this money well spent? Who are the people taking part in the programs being offered? How many of them live in Doraville? Are we providing the activities that people who live in Doraville want? Could the amount we spend in these budget line items be reduced?
  • Homestead exemption is a tool that can help us promote home-ownership. I would like to offset tax increases by increasing our homestead exemption. I think this would help encourage landlords who haven’t invested anything in their properties to sell to people who would hopefully decide to live in our neighborhoods.
  • Doraville police do a great job. With that said, they make up a huge part of the budget, and I don’t think we’ve really given them much direction about where their resources should be focused. Given that our police force makes up 60% of the budget, the council should be focusing more on this line item every year.  

Comments I received in the last work session and in one-on-one discussions with some council members lead me to believe there’s not a lot of appetite to tackle any of the above  areas right now. That said, I am going to continue pushing that we look at these areas, even after we are through budget season.

I still want to hear from you – at the upcoming budget meeting on Monday night, or via email or phone call. I can be reached at joseph.geierman@doravillega.us or 678-373-9137. I am sure that the other council members want to hear from you also. They can be reached at:

If you do not support raising the millage rate, I’m especially interested in what areas of our services you think we should cut back on.

Property Tax Assessments – Appeals Process Reminder

Property taxes provide a large chunk of revenue for municipal and county governments, as well as for public schools. These taxes are calculated based on an estimate of property value that is made by the county’s tax office annually.

While I think that the assessors are generally trying to be fair, they may not always get it right. We are lucky that in Georgia, all property owners have the right to appeal their property tax assessment within 45 days of receiving it. You are able to file your appeal online, and you will receive a hearing date with the assessor and a board of other property owners (who may judge your case if you and the property assessor can’t work out a fair value) sometime in the Fall.

It’s an easy process, and won’t take more than a few hours of your time. It could also save you hundreds of dollars annually. You can find instructions for the entire appeal process here: https://www.dekalbcountyga.gov/property-appraisal/appeal-process.

Hat tip to Dunwoody Councilman, John Heneghan, who has posted reminders about appealing property taxes annually for many years. The deadline to file is 45 days after your assessment was sent out (so around July 16).

Doraville Press Release on Pending Litigation

There have been several news stories recently about a lawsuit filed against the city of Doraville. Unfortunately I cannot comment on the pending litigation, but I can  point you to this statement that the city has released:

 

City Statement Regarding Revenues Collected for Fines

Stepping Down as a Nextdoor Lead

About 5 years ago, I heard about a new “private social network” called “Nextdoor.” It seemed to solve a lot of the problems that I had seen with neighborhood email lists:

  • Each “Nextdoor Neighborhood” was only open to people who lived within the boundaries of a physical neighborhood.
  • Members had to use their real names.
  • Discourse was meant to be civil. It was a national network, so people outside of a core group would eventually hear about it.
  • People did not have to follow every discussion (a lot of complaints about email lists was often that peoples’ inboxes were being spammed by vocal advocates of one position or another)
  • There were light moderation tools, but it was still meant to be a forum that was open to pretty much everyone who lived in a particular place.

I was sold, and became the founding member of the Northwoods Nextdoor group. I’ve actively promoted the tool since, because I think it’s valuable for neighbors to connect with each other and to know what’s happening in their area.  I’m proud that the Northwoods is the largest Nextdoor neighborhood  in Doraville with over 530 members (about 19% of Northwoods households are represented there).

As the founding member of the Northwoods network, I’ve also been the primary lead (moderator) for Northwoods for the past 5 years (I just received a “badge” from the site for doing this). I’ve tried to use a light touch with moderating – opting to close conversations that were just people arguing the same points back and forth only after they had gone on for a while, gone off topic or if there were other threads that were commenting on the same thing; only voting to delete comments that were truly insulting to others, and trying not to let my personal feelings about comments someone made affect how I chose to moderate.

Since being elected to city council, I’ve been concerned about how effective I can be as a Nextdoor lead. I feel like I cannot fairly moderate discussions that are commenting on issues that I will vote on or have voted on in my capacity as a Councilman. At the same time, the moderating on Nextdoor function is necessary – especially to close conversations that have gone on too long, or to delete particularly insulting comments aimed at individuals. After considering this for a while, I decided last week to nominate several people as Nextdoor leads and to retire my “Nextdoor lead” status.

The people I nominated into these lead positions are community leaders in Northwoods, or else have been active on Nextdoor for a long time, and do not have a history of getting involved in a lot of back-and forth arguments with others. I nominated several of them so that no individual has the burden of having to make the call on every single post. It’s going to take them a while to learn how the site works – I’m sure they’ll all do a great job.  It’s not always an easy job, so please be patient with them while they get their bearings.

I appreciate all the people who have joined Northwoods’ Nextdoor site over the last 5 years, as well as the new leads who are filling in for me now that I’m stepping down.

 

Doraville Budget Season – Initial Presentation

At the June 4th Doraville city council work session, ahead of month-long deliberations on the city’s 2019 operating budget, the city manager gave an overview of where Doraville stands today with its budget and what she and other members of staff recommend we do going forward.

You can read the entire presentation here.

Some key points:

  • The city gets the bulk of its revenue from property tax collection. The value of the tax digest has gone up, so the taxes the city estimates it will get in 2019 have also gone up.
  • Taxes for the city are calculated in “Mills” of assessed value – one thousandth the taxable value of property. A Mill in Doraville is still worth much less than in neighboring cities – a function of having more residential than commercial properties.
  • Healthcare costs will be going up $310,000 for the city in Fiscal Year 2019
  • There are some other obligations the city has that are going to be due in 2019
  • Because of this, she does not recommend rolling back the current property tax rate, even though expected revenue is up.

In addition, there are a number initiatives that the city might want to embark on that are not currently funded (and that there is no funding for) with the current tax levels. These include several building improvements, IT upgrades, and staff hires. The city would need to raise 10.451 mills in order to achieve everything that was presented to the council on Monday night, it would require a tax rate of 10.451 mills (this would be an increase of $90 a year for someone who’s home is worth $175,000). The city’s millage rate is capped at 10 mills, so in the next presentation they give to us, they will show the cost of each initiative in an a la carte fashion. We’ll need to decide whether we want to raise taxes even to 10 mills.

There are several meetings that will be happening in June where the budget is going to be discussed.

  • June 11th at 11:30am: Millage rate Public Hearing #1 (No Council Action to be taken)
  • June 11th at 6:00pm: Millage rate public hearing #2; Budget Public Hearing #1. First read of ordinances to adopt the millage rate, budget, and other associated ordinances
  • June 18th at 6:00pm: Millage rate public hearing #3; Budget Public Hearing #2
  • June 18th at 6:30pm: Regular Meeting: Adoption of ordinances for millage rate, budget, and other associated ordinances
  • June 28th at 6:00pm: Possible meeting date if adoption of ordinances does not occur on June 18th.

For those that are interested, I’ve uploaded a copy of the county’s preliminary tax digest estimates that you can view here.  

The millage rate and budget must be adopted by June 30th, 2018. I would like to hear more from you about what you think of this presentation – where you would like to see the city spending more money, and where you would like to see it spending less money. You can email me at joseph.geierman@doravillega.us or call me at 678-373-9137.

Conditional Use Permit for St Martin’s Episcopal School (Former Star Towers)

At its May 21st meeting, Doraville’s city council voted in favor of granting a conditional use permit allowing St Martin’s Episcopal School to take three parcels of land along Stewart Road and to use them for athletic fields for their students. These properties currently house several vacant buildings (including “Star Towers”) and have been an eyesore for at least 10 years. I’m excited that we’ll be seeing a transformation of this area into active sports fields and well-maintained green space.

I spoke with many people who were in favor of this development, but there was also some vocal opposition to  this development – especially from people who live in the neighborhood that directly abuts the property. Opponents are primarily concerned about nuisance sound from a loudspeaker system at the side of the property closest to Buford Highway, as well as increased parking and traffic on Stewart Road.

  • To mitigate the sound concerns, council limited use of the loudspeaker at the soccer field to the hours of 9am – 9pm on weekdays and 10am – 9pm on weekends.
  • Traffic concerns are legitimate, but right turns onto Stewart will be prohibited from the property, which is a good start to addressing those concerns. The exit will be designed in a way that will hopefully reduce the likelihood that people try to make right turns there.
  • The parking for the site meets the city’s zoning requirements. I don’t think this could be used as a reason to deny an application.  

I was one of the 5 council members who voted in favor of this conditional use. I voted this way, because I think these sports fields will have economic and social benefits for the city. Specifically:

  • Cleaning up the blight on Stewart should encourage nearby landowners to improve their own properties. I also believe removing this eyesore will increase the property values of surrounding parcels and also raise the overall tax digest for the city. .
  • This is a use that will bring more people with money to spend (parents of children in private school) to Doraville. I’m hoping they will spend their money in our town on the way to or after a game.
  • The school seems to be willing to partner with the city on allowing us to use their venue for certain events – it also is providing a pocket park and will be preserving green space, which I think is positive for the community. 

I heard a few other negative comments about the proposal, which I’ll address below:

  • “This development will remove about $25,000 in annual property taxes from the tax digest” (because it’s owned by a church).

Federal law prohibits discriminating against religious institutions based on whether or not they’ll pay property taxes.  This was not an argument that I could consider even if I agreed with it.

I will say that the overall drag that these lots have had on property values up and down Stewart and Buford Highway probably far outweighs the $25,000 a year that they have been bringing in as vacant eyesores. After the improvements, I believe that we will see a broad increase in property values that far exceeds the value of $25,000 a year.

  • “Our community won’t benefit from this field, because it’s not open to the public.”

I think there are plenty of ways that our community will benefit from having an actively engaged landowner controlling these properties. The school has stated that they are willing to work with the city on allowing some local use of the facilities, based on availability within their schedule. They are maintaining a 40’ buffer between their property and the homes on Stewart Court the that will maintain much of the existing tree canopy there. They also agreed to creation of a pocket park on Stewart Road, which is mainly going to benefit people who live in that immediate vicinity.

I think there is actually quite a lot of general public benefit being offered here – certainly more than we’d see in most developments that might have happened at this location.

  • “Money was already spent to demolish these buildings.”

I cannot speak to anything a council 4 or 6 years ago may have voted for and then did not follow through on. As far as I know, nothing has been paid for demolition of Star Towers by Doraville, nor is anything budgeted for this.  

  • “We should have delayed this vote.”

I believe that a lot of consideration was given to this matter. This development came before the planning commission twice: it was first presented to them at their April 12th meeting, and they recommended we vote “yes” on it at their May 2nd meeting. We then held the council meeting 19 days later. There was a lot of time for people to speak at public meetings and otherwise advocate for and against.  I don’t think delaying the vote would have added anything to the process.

  • “We should build housing on those lots.”

I think there was a proposal to build town homes here a while back, and it was sunk by concerns about parking, traffic, etc.

I imagine that any builders that would have wanted to build housing here would want to put in multi-family housing, which would have a much larger impact on the surrounding neighborhood’s traffic than the sports fields would.

I believe I am protecting the interests of the neighborhood by approving this less intense use.

  • “Approval of this project was a done deal before the public council meeting”

I can only speak for myself, but no one told me how to vote, nor was I sure what other council members were going to do. In fact, I was actively waiting for the open meeting to hear the public’s comments, as well as to see what conditions the school might be willing to agree to. There are people who felt strongly on both sides of this issue, and I heard from many of them. I believe that I gave full consideration to all sides, and believe that other council members did as well. In the end, I did what I thought was best for the city, based on the knowledge that I had.

This was not an easy decision, or one I took lightly. As a member of city council, I can’t comment on a case before I’ve considered it, which is why I remained silent while someone was spreading the untrue rumor that “the fix is in.”  I don’t expect people who disagree with my vote to be happy with the outcome, but I want everyone to understand my rationale for that vote and to understand that I did give full consideration to all sides.   

View the video from the meeting where this vote took place here. 

Read the agenda packet from this meeting here. 

Changes at Buford Highway & Longmire

At its May 7th meeting, the Doraville city council unanimously approved two big changes to the area around Longmire and Buford Highway. Because of these decisions, you will see more activity in that area over the coming months and years. I think that the changes move us closer to the active, diverse and thriving vision our city has laid out for Buford Highway in both our 2016 Comprehensive Plan as well as the 2017 Doraville/Chamblee Buford Highway Master Plan.

  • The council approved a zoning change for 3747 Longmire that will allow a dry cleaning business to open there (it was previously zoned for automotive repair shops only). This brings the zoning for this parcel in line with the parcels that surround it, and to what we have laid out in our master plan.

There were a few concerns that were brought to me about this re-zoning by members of the public, which I believe the council addressed:  

Some people were concerned that, because the owner plans to use this location to process dry cleaning from other locations he owns, that the store would not be open to the public. The council addressed this by requiring in the conditions for rezoning that the business be open to the public. For his part, the owner stated that the reason he wants to open the business there is because it is better situated for retail traffic. He had no problems with adding this provision.

The other concern I heard about from residents about opening a dry cleaner in this location was that this business may pose environmental hazards to our community. Council addressed this by requiring that the establishment not use any solvents that have an ignitable flashpoint of less than 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, PERC (a toxic cleaning substance) is prohibited in this establishment.

With the recent loss of Pride cleaners in Pinetree Plaza, I think a new dry cleaner along Buford Highway is something Doraville sorely needs, so I am excited to be welcoming this new business to our city.

  • The council approved a Conditional Use Permit to allow Renovation Church to open at 5660 Buford Highway – the former Atlanta Eagle Sports Complex (it was Lionel Playworld before that). Their timeline, now that the Conditional Use Permit has been approved, has them moving into the new church in Summer 2019.

Harold Shinn, owner of Buford Highway Farmer’s Market (which is across the street this property) expressed deep concern in the public portion of the meeting about how having a church across the street from him with over 1100 members would affect his Sunday morning parking.

The pastor of the church, Leonce Crump, offered several solutions and committed to work with Mr. Shinn to make sure parking didn’t become a problem. The church would have parking monitors patrolling Longmire to make sure that people aren’t parking where they shouldn’t. He’s also exploring a deal with Chik-Fil-A to use their parking (since they are closed on Sunday). A condition was placed on the church that they must seek third party parking if there are verified complaints against them.

My biggest concern was pedestrian accessibility to the church (they are promoting its location as a short walk from MARTA as one of the reasons they are moving here).  I’m pleased to say that, in addition to extending the sidewalk along the length of their property on Longmire, Renovation Church will also build it out all the way to New Peachtree (assuming the city is able to secure right of way). They are also going to build a covered bus stop and offer a shuttle service to and from the Doraville MARTA station. 

Renovation Church’s move to our city is exciting. They should help activate a part of Buford Highway that has long been under-utilized, and I am hopeful that the people who go to church there will spend money at many other Doraville businesses. I also think that the church seems to be committed to having programs at their location that will service some currently under-served members of our community.  These are exciting times to be in Doraville!

You can watch the entire city council meeting where this was discussed here.

The packet with all materials related to this meeting is located here. 

 

Community Presentations

In the city council’s last work session, we received a few presentations about projects that the city has rolled out, or is rolling out soon. I am sharing them here for any residents who are interested:

Text to 911 – this is a new feature that allows you to use your mobile phone to text “911” if you are in a situation where you cannot make a voice call. This feature is active now, and is text-only (does not support pictures/video). If you use this feature outside Doraville, in a jurisdiction that does not offer text-to-911, you will receive an error message. Police will not be able to track you via text, so you will need to tell them your location.

Adopt-A-Spot – this is a program that the city is rolling out in May. It will offer residents an official way to beautify city owned property and get support. For example, someone planting tulips in the right-of-way would be able to get the city to purchase bulbs, or provide soil or mulch. Contact city hall at 770-451-8745 to get more information

This week, I also received a copy of Dekalb County’s most recent update on the sewer consent decree. This decree has been stalled for a number of years, but the county says it is back on track. They list factors that have stood in the way of carrying out this decree in the past, and what they’ve done to address them. They also ask that residents help the county’s efforts by not pouring Fats, Oils or Greases down their drain. Contact information for the department of Watershed Management is: 770-270-6243 or  Dekalbwaterops@dekalbcountyga.gov

Where we Need to Focus

I recently received an email from a Doraville resident who had a number of concerns related to transparency and accountability in city government. I had not planned on publicly posting my response to that resident, but because I believe that a modified version of the note may have been forwarded to some folks, I want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to read the entire thing if they are interested.

My response gives you an idea of what -in my judgment – are the most important things the city needs to be focusing on. I am always open to feedback. You can email me at joseph.geierman@doravillega.us or call me at 678-373-9137.

Here’s the unedited note:

I appreciate the email.

First off, since most of these questions were originally written for the candidate forum, I encourage you to view the video from the event (the one Tim put online is here: https://youtu.be/iXG-i_N2b0k). I already answered some of the questions you sent at that time – none of my answers have changed.

I ran on being someone who could work with any of the other council members – I said that consistently during the campaign. I’m still working on building bridges with everyone on the council. As one of 7 people on the dais, I can’t “demand” or “require” that my peers do anything. In fact, that’s the fastest way to not get my agenda accomplished.

If Georgia and Federal law allows a member of council to vote on an issue, then I definitely can’t demand that they not vote. From my discussions with the city attorney and the attorneys at Georgia Municipal Association, a campaign contribution does not constitute a conflict of interest.

On irresponsible landlords – I have been working many angles to try to focus on this problem. We’re limited in what we can do by state law – the state prohibits us from creating a rental registry or requiring business licenses for people who rent homes out. The city is working with the county to conduct an audit of homestead exemption to ensure that no one is improperly claiming an exemption. If we find anyone who is, we can target them for further examination. I think now that we have a fully staffed code enforcement team, we also should see some better results on that end as well.

Regarding the city manager – this is the most critical position in the city. We did not have anyone permanently in this role when I was elected, and it was obvious that the city was suffering because of it. We quickly hired Regina Gates, whose experience as city manager of San Jose, California and Norfolk, Virginia we are lucky to benefit from. The council set a regular review process to evaluate her performance at the time we negotiated her contract. I also have bi-weekly meetings with her where I get updated on what is staff is working on and am able to ask questions and make suggestions about our operations.

On transparency, I agree with you. A lot of the ideas you have listed are good ones. I want to see a lot more transparency from the city on a number of issues. I want to have more commissions/committees made up of members of the public. I want to see our website and electronic communications get better. That said, I think we need to focus on first things first: the city was handed to this council without a city manager, without a city clerk, without a parks director, public works director or a finance director. We also did not have a contract for code enforcement. These positions are critical for the operation of the city’s basic functions – let alone improving processes or helping enable citizen committees. In the first three months I’ve been on council, we have hired a city manager and agreed to a contract for code enforcement. We’re close on a city clerk. All the other positions are still open. I think we probably need to create some new positions that are specifically in charge of marketing and our website, but there will be some challenges in finding the money to pay for them in our budget. This is going to be a longer process than if the city had been running on all cylinders when I was elected. In this competitive job market, we do not have the luxury of demanding that key staff live in Doraville – particularly if we want to get the best people possible.

You and I may not agree on what issues are most important to focus on first, or what the best tactics for moving the city forward are – but I think we do agree that we want to see Doraville be a better run city that is more accessible to its residents. The voters elected me to use my judgement on the best ways to move us in that direction, and I assure you that I am working hard to do that.