2020 Budget – Results & Final Thoughts

Last night, city council held its final vote on the millage rate and 2020 budget. There were several votes for each of the component parts. Here’s run-down of how the council voted on each, and my specific reasoning for my own votes.

Millage Rate

First was the vote to hold the millage rate at 10 mills. This was effectively a tax increase of less than 1%. I did not feel that we could lower it without having a negative impact on many of the key functions the city performs for its residents, so I voted in favor of this.

The council majority agreed with me and voted to support keeping the millage rate at 10 mills, with only Councilman Naser voting “no.”

Sanitation Fee

The second vote was on a proposal to raise the sanitation fee from $200 to $300. I’ve heard some complaints about this, but there are a few points that really guided me:

  • By far, sanitation is one of the top issues that people complain to me about. During its last RFP, the city went with the lowest cost provider – I feel like we have been getting service that reflects that bottom of the barrel approach. I want to see an improvement in service.
  • While no agency is perfect, I have mostly heard good things from people who receive trash service from Dekalb County. I have been encouraging the city manager to consider them since last year, when it became clear that our contract with the current provider was expiring. I’m happy that she ended up going this route, and think we’re going to end up with an overall better service. Dekalb county pays its sanitation employees a living wage, so the cost of their service is higher than some of the other vendors we might consider. I’m OK with this, because I hope it will lead to better overall service for our residents.
  • The other piece of this sanitation fee increase is that it would wrap the cost of bulk-good pickups into the service. This was Councilwoman Koontz’s idea from last year – she pointed out that code enforcement receives a huge number of calls about items like mattresses or sofas that are left on the side of the road. We wanted to select a sanitation service that could wrap routine pick-up of those items into their service. Dekalb is able to provide that for us. I think this will help clean up a lot of the problems we experience with scheduling pick-ups from our current provider.

The vote to increase the sanitation fee from $200 to $300 passed with 4 votes in favor. The two no votes were Council Members  Fleming and Naser.

Compensation Plan

Like many organizations in the private sector, Doraville is struggling with recruiting and retention. The strong economy has meant that a number of people have decided to move out of the public sector and into private industry, where they can make more money. Even people who have decided to remain in government have had a lot more better paying options than Doraville; especially with all the new cities that sprang up over the last 15 years. As part of its presentation on this topic, the city manager put together a slide showing how far below industry average the city pays.

How Doraville’s pay compares to what other cities in the area offer

Many positions are 10% or more below industry average. Some of our senior administrative positions are close to 30% below average! This is a big problem.  

The previous city manager had set up a pay plan that had lockstep pay increases that required many employees to wait 5 years in between raises. This did not help us keep good employees who could go to a different city and be compensated for what they were worth without having to wait 5 years. Our current city manager came up with a plan that had 35 grades with 30 steps within each grade (so over 1000 steps!). Each year, each employee will get a lockstep increase in pay. The pay also plan has other features – like additional floating holidays and extra pay for people with special skills.

I was not a fan of this new pay plan, and feel like it’s a band aid measure at best. The biggest problem – our inability to be competitive in salary-range – is not being solved. I also think this system is overly complicated and may lead to misunderstandings between staff and future administrations (which happened when the last city manager set up the old pay plan system). Finally, I’m not a big fan of automatic pay increases, and think that high performers should be paid what they’re worth – not what a step-guide says they have to get that year.

I told the rest of the council that if we were really serious about hiring and retention, we needed to have the city manager identify which positions are critical, and resolve to pay those positions a competitive salary. If we had to cut positions or programs that are not as high of a priority, I think we should be willing to make those calls. I feel that we are splitting the baby – not wanting to give anything up, but also not paying people they are worth. The end result could be that we struggle to find enough people and struggle to do anything well.

In the end, the measure passed 4 to 2 with myself and Councilwoman Hillard voting “no.”

Fee Schedule:

The one budget-related vote that was unanimous was the new fee schedule. For the last year, staff has been looking at changes to make to our fee schedule to bring it more in line with what other cities charge. I don’t think this had been looked at since 2012, so it was in need of updating. I think there’s still some room for improvement, and hope we can make a few one-off changes. The new schedule passed unanimously.  

Budget:

I was generally OK with the budget as proposed. It had some things that I liked (funding for a new economic development position, increases in pay for employees, a new trash provider), and some things that I didn’t like (the overall pay plan).

This is the second budget process I’ve participated in. I think some things got better, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. In 2020, I’m hoping that city council gets involved early with goals, and get public input much earlier than a couple of weeks before the final budget vote. I would like to see a council that is willing to make some harder decisions about paying our employees what they are worth (and cutting back in some areas as necessary) – or at least willing to have more substantive conversations about that.

For the most part, this was a budget that I generally supported, and I voted accordingly. The final tally was 4 to 2, with Council Members Fleming and Naser voting against.  

Doraville’s 2020 Budget – First Pass

On Wednesday, May 29th, the city manager will be hosting a public meeting at the library about Doraville’s budget for 2020. The budget was only posted tonight (May 28th), so there is not a lot of time to review it, but I encourage you to take a look and show up with questions and suggestions.

Download the Proposed 2020 Budget Here

I have a few initial thoughts/questions:

  • I’d like to see job descriptions for any new positions (“Program Managers” in the Parks & Rec department, “Assistant Community Development Director” in Community Development, etc
  • I understand that the city’s phone and IT infrastructure is badly out of date and needs to be replaced (or at least needs a long-term replacement plan). That said, I would like the city to consider bidding out any services that they think will be increasing significantly over the next year (like IT).
  • Metrics – A number of “performance measurements” are listed, but we aren’t given any details about them or how they’ve changed over time. I would like to see these actual measurements and understand if they’re actually being tracked and providing meaningful guidance to the departments. If they are meaningful, that should help us better understand where we should be directing our city’s resources. One big one would be to get the number of police calls/incidents per month/year and see how those have changed over time.

I think that this budget also includes changes to the city’s pay plan. The city manager gave us a preview of what she was thinking of at the May 6th council work session. In my opinion, her plan was too complicated. I’d prefer to see underpaid people brought closer to whatever the median pay for their position is without a lot of gimmicks. I think trying to give pay bumps for extra skills or education will be hard to manage over time – it may also hurt some people unintentionally. Finally, I think giving people additional vacation days when they apparently cannot take all their existing PTO does not make sense

Some other noteworthy items – there is a full list of all the staff and their positions, which I’m not sure if I’d seen anywhere before:

List of City Employees and their Titles (Current & Proposed)

There is also a proposal to update the city’s fee structure to bring it in line with what other cities do. I am generally supportive of this, but would like to know how these would be changing from our current fee structure:

I am still trying to work through this document and process everything. I welcome comments at joseph.geierman@doravillega.us. I also encourage you to come to the public forum that the city manager is holding at the library at 6:30pm on the evening of May 29th. While I wish it had been better publicized, I am very happy that she is opening this process up more to the public.

Induced Demand: GDOT’s Misguided I-285 Top-End Plan

Update (5/1/2019)

GDOT has announced public meetings in affected to “inform” the public about these plans. One meeting is currently scheduled for Doraville on Tuesday, May 14 from 12 – 2pm. I encourage anyone who cares about this issue to attend. If you can’t attend the Doraville meeting because of work, there are some meetings in other cities that were scheduled at better times. I created a Facebook invite that has all the information about the Doraville meeting and the dates/times of the meetings here.

Also – Integral group recently did a presentation to the ATL Transportation Board about mobility at the Assembly site. There was a little bit of information about how the toll lanes will affect that development (mostly it seems neutral to positive). I thought the most interesting piece of the presentation was the map posted above.
You can see the full presentation here.


Original Post (4/27/2019):

For several years, I’ve been hearing about the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) plan to build express toll lanes across I-285. Originally called “Revive 285,” they are now calling it the “I-285 Top-End” project. The GDOT website explains that it will add “two new elevated, barrier-separated express lanes in each direction on I-285, alongside the existing general purpose lanes.” These new lanes will be part of the Georgia Express Lanes system, and the goal is to “provide drivers more reliable trip times” – presumably by taking some traffic off the general purpose lanes of the freeway. The Reporter newspapers published an article with pretty good information about what the lanes may look like earlier this year.

An illustration of what the I-285 Top End project may look like

In Doraville and other cities affected by the new express lanes, acres upon acres of productive land will be paved over (and taken off the tax roles). It will also create more noise, traffic and pollution in our neighborhoods. Because of that, I’ve been impatiently waiting to find out more detailed information. Some news has has dripped out here and there – as far back as 2017, the AJC published an article that stated the mayors of Doraville, Brookhaven, Dunwoody & Chamblee wanted to make sure that a mass transit component was included in the final project plan – but it’s only been in the last few months that we have really started to understand the scope.

Last week, the mayor of Brookhaven held a town hall meeting where he announced that at least 300 properties along the I-285 corridor would be taken from their owners through eminent domain – including some that are in residential neighborhoods. A few days later, the Reporter Newspapers ran an article with the news that 5 acres of Assembly in Doraville had been taken by GDOT eighteen months ago – and that a massive interchange will be built in the city. This is on top of any other properties Doraville will see taken by the department of transit to make room for the new lanes.

I don’t know how wide a swath the Top End project will cut through our city, but I do have a reasonable guess about the areas that will be affected. I’ve highlighted those areas in the satellite view of 285 and the Buford Highway Corridor below:

Potential impact of the Top End 285 Project

I am going to be up front and say that I am skeptical about this entire plan. While adding additional lanes may temporarily relieve traffic congestion, adding more supply will ultimately just encourage more people to get on the road – this is a rule of economics called “induced demand” and has been documented since the 60s. The video below has a good explanation of the concept:

Doraville has already been scarred by big-idea projects like this one. The original construction of I-285 back in the 70s split the city in half, and the MARTA station that was built in the late-80s and early-90s demolished our historic downtown. We’re still recovering from these previous traumas – and now GDOT has come saying, “We are going to take more.”

I do not fault Mayor Pittman for negotiating with GDOT to minimize the impact to Doraville – and using this as an opportunity to connect some of the disparate pieces of our city. The city has limited negotiating power with an agency like GDOT, and any concessions she was able to get from them are appreciated.

That does not mean that I think this freeway extension is a good thing.

Over and over, I have asked various elected officials – in Doraville and other cities – whether this project is a done deal and if they think anything can be done to stop it. Everyone has said, “there’s nothing we can do – the managed lanes will be built whether we agree with the project or not, so we need to make the best deal possible for each of our cities. One official made the point that this project is not going to be funded by the legislature (the contractor will be paid back from revenue that comes from the tolls) – this means that GDOT is not accountable to any elected body (or to the people) – and that means (as far as GDOT is concerned) that public opinion does not matter.

At the end of the day, I want to be vocal about my opposition to this project, and encourage others who feel the same way to speak up. Maybe if enough voices come together, the governor and other state officials will ask GDOT to pause and consider whether this is really the project we need to solve our transportation problems.

That Vision Thing

A while back, there was an article about Chamblee, and the development success they’ve had over the past decade. In the article Chamblee Mayor, Eric Clarkson, describes their achievement this way:

“We attribute it, pretty simply, to having a vision and keeping to that vision, parcel by parcel, block by block, year after year. It was hard to do during the recession.”

Doraville also has a vision – it’s the comprehensive plan that went through a long public vetting process, and was approved by the council in 2016. Along with preserving our existing single-family neighborhoods, it plans for building out a town center where our civic buildings are today; for mixed-use development along Buford Highway and Peachtree Industrial; and for a transition toward general office uses (or “office hubs“) in areas along freeways and busy roads that are currently primarily warehouses and wholesale businesses.

The plan is outlined in broad strokes in the map below:

As we try to bring the comprehensive plan to life, the council has recently been working on updating its zoning for Office Hubs (also known as Office Institutional/Office Warehouse zoning or “O-I” and “O-W”) . The plan states that “Office hubs will serve as integrated centers of office uses that transition between higher intensity uses and existing neighborhoods. These businesses and incubator areas will be centers of innovation, leveraging the city’s diversity to attract unique business.”

The plan lists several strategies for bringing the office hubs to life. The first of those is to make sure our ordinances (including zoning) allow the kind of employment opportunities we hope to see there. Another strategy is to make sure that our zoning encourages light industrial buildings to be converted to flex, loft-style office spaces.


One of the concerns people have when there is a zoning change is that existing businesses may be adversely affected. The truth is that these businesses are already protected, because when you change the zoning in an area, existing businesses are called “non-conforming uses” and are “grandfathered” into the new fabric of the city. When those businesses leave, however, any new ones that come in to replace them will have to meet the new codes – and conform more closely with the city’s master plan.

The proposed new Office Hub (O-I/O-W) zoning makes some important changes to how these areas can be used. Notably, it would require a minimum percentage of space be used for office use, as well as prohibit businesses operating there from having more than 4 fleet vehicles parked in the lot. The minimum percentage of office space (25%) is meant to start nudging the use in this area away from wholesale and towards more of the innovative business we want to see. The restriction on fleet vehicles is to discourage dispatch operators from using these office hubs as parking lots for their pest control, carpet cleaning, or other vehicles.

It’s time for us to value what we have in Doraville! We’ve got the best location in Metro Atlanta. It’s time for us to wake up and realize that land this valuable should not be used to store fleet vehicles.

The zoning changes will move us away from using our land like this:

And instead to start encouraging more developments that attract the innovative entrepreneurs of the future like this one:


I’ve heard some concerns about changing the status quo, but believe this is exactly what our city needs if we are going to bring our plan to life. In the end, I think the proposed changes will raise the value of the properties in our office hubs, while bringing Doraville closer to its vision for its future. To that end, I hope the majority of the council takes Mayor Clarkson’s advice and has the courage to stick with our comprehensive plan when it is time to vote.

Planned Intersection Improvement – Wheeler/Chestnut

Two important infrastructure projects in the Northwoods neighborhood are being bid for contract right now. The first is the addition of the ADA ramp to Brook Park, which I’ve written about before. The second is an improvement to the intersection at Chestnut and Wheeler.

Currently, the intersection of Chestnut and Wheeler is very dangerous. There’s not a clear delineation where one street starts and the other ends. In situations where there is a lot of traffic, it can be confusing for drivers coming from both streets. Here’s what it looks like from Google Streetview:

Intersection of Chestnut & Wheeler – November 2018

The change would force traffic going coming from Buford Highway on Chestnut to either turn into a left or right curve. Traffic coming from Dekalb Tech Parkway on Chestnut would turn into a clearly marked turn lane onto Wheeler. Vehicles going from Wheeler to Chestnut would have a stop sign (whether heading towards Dekalb Tech Parkway and Buford Highway).

I think this will make the intersection safer for vehicle traffic. What do you think about this improvement? Let me know at joseph.geierman@doravillega.us

Update on Forming a Planning Commission Subcommittee to Evaluate Northwoods Zoning Protections

Northwoods has been my home since 2001. I originally came here because I wanted to live in a ranch-style house inside the perimeter. Over the years, I have fallen in love with the neighborhood and its people – which is what ultimately inspired me to volunteer for public service.

I’m excited about the development prospects that are coming to Doraville – but also concerned about what they could mean for my neighborhood and its character. I do not want Northwoods (or Doraville, for that matter) to lose the traits that make it special. In particular, I worry about re-development that could lead to many of our historic homes being torn down and replaced by McMansions that don’t really fit the neighborhood’s character.

After I brought this issue up in a community forum last Fall (getting lots of good feedback from residents of the neighborhood), I was able to get the council to agree that this is something we should work on. I brought the subject up again in a joint work session with the Planning Commission, and at their last meeting, Commission Chairman, Andy Yeoman, agreed to set up a committee to review whether there are zoning strategies that the city could use to protect Northwoods’ character.

Commissioner Yeoman cannot set up a committee without the council’s authorization, because this project would require the work of some city staff. The council is going to be asked if they will support the creation of a committee at its April 8th work session. The consensus of the other members will determine whether we get to have a real public process made up of members of the community or not. I think a community-led process is important, and hope the rest of the council ends up agreeing with me.

You can email the mayor and other council members by clicking on their names: Donna Pittman, Pam Fleming, Joseph Geierman, Shannon Hillard, Stephe Koontz, MD Naser, Robert Patrick.

Planning Commission Chair Forming Committee to Evaluate a Potential Northwoods Overlay District

At the March 20th Planning Commission meeting, that body’s chairman, Andy Yeoman, created a committee to investigate the potential boundaries and scope of a proposed Northwoods zoning overlay district. This ties back to the town hall meeting I hosted in September, where many residents of Northwoods came together to learn about different strategies for preserving the character of the neighborhood and protecting its property values.

At the city’s November 5th council work session, I presented the concept of an overlay zone to the other council members. They agreed that this was a topic worth exploring, but wanted to make sure it was a process that had plenty of public input. In my subsequent conversations with the city manager and community development director, they indicated that the next step would be to take this to the planning commission for consideration. This was also discussed in the joint work session with the Planning Commission that council held on February 4th.

After that work session, I had follow up meetings with both the Chairman Yeoman, as well as some leaders from NANA, the Northwoods Area Neighborhood Association. They thought that forming a planning commission committee which included ex-officio members who live in various parts of Northwoods would be a great start. This committee could do research, get public feedback, and give some recommendations for the Planning Commission and then the City Council to vote on.

Here is the statement that Chairman Yeoman read announcing this committee:

On September 11, 2018, the Northwoods Area Neighborhood Association held a community meeting to discuss strategies that people in Northwoods could pursue to protect their investments in their homes and preserve the character of the neighborhood.

Over 20 neighbors attended and many more watched a video of the meeting that also featured the Dekalb County Historic Preservation Commissioner and representatives from the Atlanta Regional Commission.

On November 5, 2018, the council discussed a potential overlay district on a work session agenda and there was consensus among the elected officials to move this forward.

Pursuant to the Planning Commission charter I will be forming a committee to work within the framework of the Planning Commission to continue moving this item forward.

The charge of the committee will be as follows:

The committee will form in April with interested planning commission members along with ex-officio members of the public that live in the potential area.

The committee will hold a meeting with broad members of the community to rank concerns in order of importance and hopefully build consensus as well as define potential borders if this is a going concern.

The committee will hold a second meeting with City staff to establish a clear framework and reduce any ambiguity. The committee will resolve any issues at this point between the city staff and the neighborhood.

The committee will then give staff time to work on any requested product and reconvene to review the final work product that would eventually be forward to the full Planning Commission and City council.

If anyone is interested in being a part of this process I encourage them to reach out to me. As I finalize the committee assignment In the next week and coordinate schedules I will announce the first public meeting.

If you are interested in participating, you should reach out directly to him at andy.yeoman@doravillega.us. I appreciate him being so engaged and am hopeful that this community input process will result in the best outcome for the Northwoods neighborhood and for Doraville. You can watch the discussion about this in the last few minutes of the video from the meeting.

Design for Brook Park Improvements

Shortly after I was sworn into office, I began looking at the city’s plan for our parks – particularly in Northwoods, which had not seen any significant investment in its parks for several years. I was happy to see that there was a $30,000 budget item for Autumn Park – meant to build a walking path and for stream improvements there.

While I was glad that there was some money allocated to the neighborhood’s parks, I did not think this was the best use of that money. I believe the stream improvements in Autumn Park are necessary – particularly removal of invasive species. That said, this amount of money would not have fixed the problems there. The issue is that state environmental regulations prevent us from removing ivy on the banks of streams without doing something else to prevent erosion. This does need to be fixed, but it needs a better funding source before we try to tackle it piecemeal. I wrote about this issue about a year ago – also indicating that I thought the money would probably be spent better in Brook Park.

In April, Councilman Naser and I went to NANA’s Spring meeting, and asked residents for feedback on what they’d like to see in our parks. The consensus was to focus primarily on Brook Park, and to make improvements in its accessibility. In particular:

  • The general consensus was that we should focus on building an ADA accessible path to the pavilion, clear out some of the trees (especially the ones that produce pine straw) around the pavilion (replacing them with hardwoods elsewhere) , add tables, and generally spruce up the pavilion. If we could extend the path to the playground, that would also be nice for people with strollers.
  • People were vocal that they did not want a path around Autumn Park, or trees planted on its perimeter.

You can watch a full video of the meeting here.

Once we had this meeting, I met with city staff to determine what we could do for $30,000. I then had to lobby the other council members to fund this project (even though $30,000 had been budgeted toward Northwoods parks initially, that money has to be reallocated each year in the budgeting process).

While I know that residents have not seen much movement from the outside, any time the council has discussed budgeting or funding projects, I have made sure this one is not forgotten, and is close to the top of the list. It’s important to me that we do this after going through the process of getting neighborhood consensus, and not something I’m willing to let drop.

I am happy to say that my persistence, combined with the hard work of city staff, has paid off! We now have a preliminary design, which you can see here:

Proposed Brook Park Improvements

I think this plan would accomplish everything that residents said they wanted to see done with this money – and is actually even more comprehensive than I initially thought we’d be able to do for $30,000. Here are some notes to consider when reviewing it:

  • The ADA trail will start by the dog-poop station and loop around by the pavilion and then end at the playground. It will be a hard surface suitable for wheel chairs. Some trees will have to be removed to make room for it.
  • They are proposing to add 5 additional grills, along with 9 picnic tables that will be placed along the path as well as by the playground.
  • They are proposing putting in a retaining wall along the path, as well as some stairs leading directly to the playground area
  • They are proposing a soft-surface (unpaved) path on the far side of the park that would also connect to the playground area and pavilion.

I do think the plan above provides most of what Northwoods residents asked for. That said, there is still time to give feedback about any other changes that you’d like to see. If there’s something missing, or you have a suggestion for some other change, please email me at joseph.geierman@doravillega.us and I will ask our Public Works Director to look into it.

Doraville Considers Taking a Position on State Legislation

Doraville’s city council will be considering several resolutions at its work session and special called council meeting tonight – each one in support or opposition to bills that are moving through the state legislature. These are:

  • A resolution to oppose House Bill 302 / Senate Bill 172, which prevents cities from requiring builders meet certain design standards. I am against this legislation, because I think that what works in South Georgia may not be appropriate in Doraville, and I would not want to see our city lose a tool that could enforce better design.
  • A resolution to oppose House Bill 242, which would prevent local governments from regulating massage therapy businesses. I oppose this House Bill, because I think our city should have the right to control the number of massage businesses that operate in the city.
  • A resolution to support Senate Resolution 66 – Georgia’s ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. I wholeheartedly support efforts to get Georgia to ratify the ERA, and am excited that this has seen some movement in 2019.
  • A resolution to support House Bill 346, prohibiting landlord retaliation when tenants complain about living conditions. I’ll write more about my support of this below.

Overall, I’m happy that our city is taking some stands and trying to be a part of the legislative process – particularly on issues that directly affect us.

Last month, I asked our council to support a resolution asking the state legislature to change the law that prohibits cities from keeping track of rental properties. The other members of council were cautious about stepping out too far without support from other cities. They did agree to let our legal department write a resolution that we could share with other cities to see if we can get broader support for and pass as a group. You can see the resolution the city’s legal team drafted here, and I will be sharing it with officials from other cities in the weeks and months to come.

I was happy to see that the House is working on a bill that allows people who live in rental houses to complain about unsafe or unsanitary conditions without fear of reprisal (HB 346). I think this could be a first step towards eliminating unsafe boarding houses by holding landlords accountable for the property they own. I also hope that this could be the first in a series of legislative actions aimed at regulating how Georgia’s rental market works, and possibly an entry point to introducing a means for municipal regulation of single family home rentals in the near future. That’s why I’m happy to support this legislation, and am glad to support the resolution in favor of it at the council meeting.

SPLOST Update

Over the last several months, city council has been working to finalize the first set of infrastructure projects to spend its SPLOST funds on. Doraville can only spend these funds as they come in, so prioritization is important.

The council came to a consensus on these issues at its retreat in February, and we will be voting on them in a special meeting on March 4. I believe we all agreed that the city should focus on completing projects that had been started in the past and never finished (notably Oakcliff Road); projects that had been long-promised (demolishing derelict buildings owned by the city; making improvements in Brook Park); and focusing on needed safety improvements (upgrades to police systems, and fixing the cross walk at Buford Highway and Park Ave).

I have put the list of projects that council will be voting on into the spreadsheet below (it can also be accessed here). I ordered it based on completion/delivery date, which is what I’m most focused on (next to the cost).

I think this is a good list of projects that touches every neighborhood in our city. I’m hopeful we’ll see progress on many of them by the Summer. You can read the full city council packet here.