Metro Atlanta is fracturing along invisible walls surrounding its young suburban cities.
Inside these city borders, there are often more police dedicated to neighborhood patrols, wealthier households, more businesses and lower taxes.
Those on the outside are left with the opposite: fewer cops in higher-crime areas, lower family incomes, less development and more expensive government.
The Atlanta region is in the middle of a wave of cities forming, with each incorporation further dividing the area by class and race, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
It’s metro Atlanta’s tale of new cities:
All of the seven cities that have been created since 2005, when Sandy Springs started the local government trend, have become mostly white islands of safety and affluence. What’s remaining is heavily black, less well-off and will have to devote more resources to solve tougher crime problems.
Another six communities are pushing to become cities this year as they seek a piece of the prosperity. This legislative session, Georgia lawmakers are considering whether to grant those areas’ wishes.
The various cityhood efforts over the past decade were minimally risky; cities such as Dunwoody and Sandy Springs are anchored by some of the most desirable commercial properties in metro Atlanta. The new city initiatives are attempting to build on what’s left, with no guarantee of similar success.
The only certainty is that new cities will add another layer of local governance.
There are already 70 cities in the Atlanta-area’s 10 core counties. Adding more cities would further carve up the broader metropolitan area of 5.5 million residents, the ninth-largest in the nation.
How we got here
By drawing boundaries around their most valuable property, the upstart cities in metro Atlanta’s urban core set the table for success.
They kept tax money within their borders, enabling them to provide more government services without charging extra.
Meanwhile, less tax money was redistributed to people living outside city limits, leading to a greater separation between the region’s haves and have-nots.
But the cityhood movements underway now don’t look the same – they’re made up of territories that are late to this game of cities. They’re more racially diverse than those that came before, and half of the cities would be majority black.
They also lack as much precious commercial property whose taxes help fund municipal governments. Only two of them, LaVista Hills and South Fulton, would bankroll their own police departments. The potential cities of Greenhaven, Tucker, Sharon Springs and Stonecrest would continuing to use county police.
The formation of wealthier cities has denied unincorporated residents resources, said Kathryn Rice, who lives in the southern part of DeKalb County. She too wants safer neighborhoods, fewer potholes, freshly paved roads and better parks.
“They need to know that they’re hurting me,” Rice said. “We don’t want to be scapegoats.”
Rather than fight cityhood efforts, Rice joined them. She’s leading a movement for a nearly 300,000-resident city of Greenhaven that she hopes would attract businesses and protect the area from future negative financial consequences of other cities forming.
Greenhaven and other prospective cities would be starting from behind financially.
On county land where new cities would be built, families make less money (and contribute less taxes) than in all the other cities created in the last decade.
Median household incomes range from $60,333 in Chattahoochee Hills to $113,000 in Milton, according to 2013 census data. By comparison, median household incomes are $56,857 in Fulton County and $50,856 in DeKalb County.
In addition to income, cities have also divided people by race.
All of the recently founded cities are between 65 percent and 82 percent white, while Fulton is 47 percent white and DeKalb is 37 percent white, according to census figures.
Black residents make up as few as 10 percent of the population in Brookhaven, the lowest proportion of any of the new cities, while DeKalb County as a whole is 55 percent black.
“What’s happening in DeKalb County (with new cities) is pure race and control,” said John Evans, president of the DeKalb NAACP. “They’re saying, ‘I’m going to build a city so I can take away what I own.’”
Evans said cities are concentrating political power and economic development, with unincorporated areas receiving less as a result.
Supporters of cityhood say that’s not the case.
Michelle Penkava, an advocate for a city of Tucker, said residents are motivated by a desire to improve quality of life and economic development both in their neighborhoods and in the rest of the county.
“Through cityhood, we will ensure our community has dedicated personnel to address local concerns and promote healthy growth that will benefit not only Tucker, but all of DeKalb County,” Penkava said.
Residents’ desire to have their tax dollars spent closer to home was a driving force behind the formation of Sandy Springs for decades before it finally incorporated 10 years ago.
Sandy Springs and other newfound cities accomplished that goal, as they were able to start police departments funded by existing resources. That money had previously been spread around the county.
As a result, less money is left over for the current crop of prospective cities to profit in the same way, with most of them envisioning minimal governments without police. They would offer services such as parks, planning, zoning and code enforcement.
In Brookhaven, established in 2012, many homeowners in the 50,000-person municipality didn’t think they were getting their money’s worth out of DeKalb County police, who focused their efforts on poorer, more dangerous parts of the 713,000-person county.
Brookhaven now has 55 police officers on its force, with at least six officers patrolling the community at all times. Before cityhood, between two and four officers were assigned to beats that covered the area, said Brookhaven Police Maj. Brandon Gurley.
Brookhaven residents wanted faster response times and more attention paid to home and car break-ins, Gurley said.
“No matter how big or small, when it happens to you, it’s a huge deal,” Gurley said. “We were able to provide the police services they didn’t feel they were getting.”
The formation of Brookhaven and its neighbor Dunwoody, incorporated in 2008, created some problems for county police, said DeKalb Police Chief James Conroy.
They lost funding, a few officers transferred and the department’s north precinct in Dunwoody closed because it was too far from the unincorporated areas it’s responsible for, Conroy said. Police departments also have to work harder at sharing information when crimes occur.
“The criminals don’t care where the borders are. They’re going to cross the boundaries at a whim,” Conroy said.
Services not taken over by cities continue to be provided by county governments, including firefighters, courts, jails, libraries and sewers.
Though many of the communities seeking to become cities today wouldn’t have the same resources as their predecessors, they fear that government service levels would decline and taxes would rise if they don’t incorporate.
“Maybe the dam has broken in Atlanta,” said Paul Lewis, a political science professor at Arizona State University who has studied the development of cities. “You get into an arms race where people say, ‘Let’s incorporate now before we get swallowed up.’ It’s a real issue for the areas that get left behind for the county to service.”
One of the top reasons for cityhood provided by every community seeking it is the same: local, accountable government.
That doesn’t necessarily mean their governments will be more ethical and efficient. Many of the fledgling Atlanta-area cities have faced complaints that they steered city business to friends, accepted gifts and struck expensive development deals that contradicted the idea of small government, according to reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month.
Aspiring cities all want representatives who respond to their concerns, who live near their subdivisions, and who will take care of the critically important small stuff like sidewalks, festivals and zoning.
They also are fleeing county governments perceived to be incompetent and tainted by corruption charges against top officials, including suspended DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, former Commissioner Elaine Boyer and former Superintendent Crawford Lewis.
But local government also means more government.
Cities hire police officers, mayors, city managers, finance directors, park coordinators and many other bureaucrats. In all, at least 785 government employees have been added to fledgling cities’ payrolls over the last decade, according to their annual financial reports.
“You can say it’s more government, or you can say it’s better government,” said Mary Kay Woodworth, a leader of the effort to form a city of LaVista Hills in north-central DeKalb. “It’s local control, local representation, better use of tax dollars, accountability and focused economic development.”
Instead of having county commissioners that represent 140,000 residents or more, each of LaVista Hills’ city councilmembers would represent about 15,000 people.
Woodworth said DeKalb County has repeatedly failed to responsibly handle taxpayer money, spur economic development and deliver honest government.
On the southside of the county, the motivation for small-town government is different.
There, the potential cities of Stonecrest and Greenhaven fear they’d be stuck with higher taxes and less of a political voice if they don’t organize into municipalities themselves.
“The money is getting sucked up to the north and the county gets poorer,” said Sam Armstrong, who co-owns The Spa at Stonecrest and believes cityhood could attract other businesses. “That’s nothing but an additional incentive for cityhood. We’re not going to sit around and cry about it. It’s all about action.”
Stuck in the middle
The incentives galvanizing cityhood movements go beyond the ability to control where their tax money is spent. There are other financial benefits as well.
Cities in DeKalb don’t have to contribute as much for the county’s pension debt, saving them millions of dollars a year. They also receive millions from sales taxes. And unlike their county governments, cities can levy franchise fees on utility and cable bills, which gives them an additional way to raise money.
With so many tax advantages, it’s not surprising that almost every unincorporated part of DeKalb and Fulton counties is included in one city map or another.
But many people are protesting at the idea of being forced into a city.
Stephanie Donlan, who lives in an area coveted both by LaVista Hills and the city of Atlanta, said cityhood isn’t the answer. She worries that her taxes will go up in a city, and she doesn’t think a city would do a better job than DeKalb County.
“Every day, I’m in the city or I’m out of the city. It’s driving me bonkers,” said Donlan. “I want to be unincorporated. I want to be left alone.”
An anti-cityhood group, DeKalb Strong, recently formed to argue for strengthening the county instead of slicing it up.
“Dividing up into these little fiefdoms isn’t healthy,” said Marjorie Snook, the president of DeKalb Strong. “Separating into enclaves makes it much more difficult for us to work together to improve the county that will still provide a majority of services.”
The march toward cityhood may be inevitable in the long run. Even if some of this year’s cityhood initiatives fail, they’ll be back in the future.
And many existing cities, especially Atlanta, are looking to expand before they’re surrounded on all sides by other municipalities, permanently locking them in place.
At community meetings across town, residents gather to question and debate whether cityhood is right for them.
Supporters of each side tell residents in fliers and buttons proclamations like, “2late 2wait,” “Time out. Let’s think” and “Unincorporated DeKalb is a viable option.”
“Having a city isn’t going to be the golden ticket to making everything better,” said Dawn Forman, president of the Laurel Ridge Shamrock Civic Association in the LaVista Hills area. “I don’t think any of us are saying DeKalb County is OK the way it is. We all want to see an end to the corruption. Cities are another layer of government, and there could be corruption there too.”
Wealth in cities
City residents make more money than their neighbors living in unincorporated areas. People with higher incomes generally live in more expensive residences and pay higher property taxes, and cities use that tax money for local government services.
Median household income 2009-2013:
Chattahoochee Hills, $60,333
Johns Creek, $109,224
Sandy Springs, $63,134
Fulton County, $56,857
DeKalb County, $50,856
Peachtree Corners, $62,362
Gwinnett County, $60,445
United States, $53,046
Source: U.S. Census
Race in cities and counties
Chattahoochee Hills, 82% white, 20% black
Johns Creek, 65% white, 12% black
Milton, 75% white, 14% black
Sandy Springs, 71% white, 22% black
Fulton County: 47% white, 45% black
Brookhaven, 76% white, 10% black
Dunwoody, 72% white, 12% black
DeKalb County: 37% white, 55% black
Peachtree Corners, 60% white, 24% black
Gwinnett County: 55% white, 26% black
Georgia: 62% white, 32% black
United States: 76% white, 14% black
Source: U.S. Census
Note: Figures may exceed 100% because people can claim more than one race.
Financial impact of proposed cities
Cities take over a slate of government services when they form. Big cities like Atlanta provide many services, while minimalist cities like Peachtree Corners only take on limited services: planning and zoning, code enforcement, trash pickup and road maintenance. Government functions not covered by cities are provided by counties or the state of Georgia.
When cities take over services, they relieve their counties of both tax revenue and expenses. More affluent areas contribute more tax money to the county than they receive for services, meaning their incorporation would have a negative financial effect on the county.
Annual projected impact on DeKalb County of four proposed cities:
LaVista Hills: -$13,605,649
Source: DeKalb County Analysis Tool developed by Alfie Meek, director of the Innovation, Strategy and Impact team with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute
Metro Atlanta’s newest wave of cities have been able to hold down property tax rates because their tax base is more valuable.
Combined city and county millage rates (excluding schools) in selected areas in 2014:
Brookhaven: 16.365 mills
Dunwoody: 16.31 mills
Unincorporated DeKalb: 21.21 mills
Chattahoochee Hills, 23.01 mills
Johns Creek, 16.67 mills
Milton, 16.78 mills
Sandy Springs, 16.78 mills
Unincorporated Fulton County: 24.52 mills
Source: City, county and state financial records
How we got the story
Cityhood has consequences both for people living within city borders and those in unincorporated areas. As many as six cities will be considered by the Georgia General Assembly this year, and AJC reporter Mark Niesse dug into the data to find out what impact they might have.
Niesse spent weeks poring over U.S. Census data, tax rates, annual budgets of cities and counties and financial reports. He analyzed FBI crime data and gathered yearly population estimates. He attended public meetings where hundreds of residents gathered to discuss whether they want to join a cityhood movement.
The AJC will vigorously cover the possibility of new cities as it’s debated by communities and state lawmakers in the coming weeks and beyond.